It’s a dilemma. I’m talking with a non-Christian acquaintance, a neighbour whom I chat with from time to time. We’re not talking about anything in particular – the weather, how the children are doing, whether man-made climate change is a reality, what we make of the election result.
He knows that I’m a minister of some sort (priest? vicar?) and I guess that makes him a bit wary of me. After all, the media present all Christians as being a bit odd, and Christian leaders as being the worst of all. Some of us are fanatical and bigoted, others are self-righteous and hypocritical, others are vague idealists who know nothing about the real world. I want him to realise that actually I live in the same world as he does, that at one level we’ve a lot in common, that if I express an opinion on something it will be because I’ve actually thought about it. And I hope that as time goes by, he will come to think of me as a friend. I hope he’ll come to trust me. And I hope that one day I’ll have the opportunity to talk to him about things that really matter. I want to tell him about his need for Jesus Christ without his prejudices getting in the way.
So we talk. But as we chat, I’m struggling. Because half a dozen times in the course of our conversation he’ll throw in the name of Jesus Christ. I’m telling him about an accident I’ve had. It’s not enough for him to say ‘That must have been painful!’ He has to preface it with a reference to Christ. He can’t comment on the football match he watched last night without invoking God’s name. And finally, he’ll glance at his watch and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be late: I’d better run!’
And I’m torn. Why? Because one of God’s laws says plainly, ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain’. Or as the NIV has it, ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name’ (Exodus 20:7).
Now I’m well aware that that commandment was not given first and foremost to forbid thoughtless exclamations. When we look at other passages it becomes clear that the first application of the commandment is to situations where people make solemn promises in God’s name (Yahweh, the Lord) with no intention of keeping them. They’re making use of God’s name to win someone’s confidence, uncaring that God himself will hold them to account if the promise is broken.
But surely the third commandment has wider application. It forbids any careless or manipulative talking about God. It forbids me to sing hymns about God without thinking about the words I’m singing. It forbids me to tell other people that something is God’s will when it’s simply what I want. And it forbids me to use God’s name simply to vent my frustration or to make what I’m saying sound more forceful.
God will hold people to account who misuse his name – and that includes all the times they use it to express surprise, or annoyance, or frustration, or delight. It angers him and it grieves me when they do so. God is real and supremely important. His name is holy and I want people to treat it as holy. When people speak about God, I want them to do it with reverence and love. When I hear them misusing his name, I feel the same way as I would if they were talking contemptuously about my wife or my dearest friend.
I’d be much less troubled if my friend used language that was simply obscene and ugly. I don’t need to give you examples. You all know the coarse words that people use to punctuate their conversations today: the words that would once have been barred from TV or radio but which are taken for granted now. I don’t like hearing those words scattered around – I find them offensive – but they don’t bother me in the way I’m bothered when I hear God’s name used so irreverently.
So, should I have interrupted the conversation at the first OMG? Should I have said to my neighbour, ‘Are you aware that you’re breaking one of the Ten Commandments?’ Should I have warned him that the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name?
If I had, would that only have confirmed his opinion that ‘vicars’ are always namby-pamby, holier-than-thou characters, fussing over trifles? Possibly. Would he have avoided me next time he saw me coming? Quite likely. And would he have understood what I was getting at, anyway? Probably not. But should that have stopped me from doing so?
It’s not a one-off dilemma. We face it again and again. If we want to make friends of non-Christians, there’s hardly one we meet who doesn’t from time to time misuse the Lord’s name. People who would be shocked if someone used an obscene word in front of them, use the Lord’s name casually and never imagine that anyone could be offended by it – let alone that God himself could hold them to account. So, whether it’s the girl on the till at the supermarket, or the receptionist at the doctor’s, or the coach at the children’s swimming classes, we face it again and again.
More tragically still, I’m finding that such misuse of God’s name is more and more common among believing Christians. I can remember how stunned I was when first I heard an evangelical Christian using the word ‘God’ as an exclamation mark. Since then, I’ve had to react to that situation many times.
So how should we react when we hear God’s name being dishonoured in that way? I’m going to suggest five guidelines.
(1) I must never get used to the misuse of God’s name.
The sad fact is that we can get used to almost anything. The first time you see a news report about starving children in a famine region, you’re shocked to the core of your being. By the time you’ve seen scores of such reports, you may find yourself unmoved. The first time you see an advertising poster portraying perverse sexual behaviour, you’re sickened. By the time you’ve seen a hundred, you may just accept it as being part of life today. And in the same way, just because it’s so frequent and so constant, we may stop being saddened and disturbed by the misuse of God’s name. In fact, we may even find our own mouths shaping the same exclamations that once shocked us on the lips of the godless.
We need to take to heart the warning we find in Psalm 1. That psalm warns us that if we walk with people who don’t know God, listening to their counsel, the next step will be that we take our stand with people who live in open sin. And the final step will be that we sit down, relaxed and comfortable, with people who openly mock God and his ways. That warning applies as much to this matter as to every other matter. Every time I’m listening to people who misuse God’s name, I’m being conditioned to think of it more lightly myself. And I may finish up in open blasphemy.
Thankfully, alongside that warning, the psalmist tells us how we are to safeguard ourselves. The only safeguard against such stage-by-stage spiritual ruin is to meditate on the law of the Lord, day and night. I must absorb God’s outlook, God’s values, from God’s Word. Only then will I share God’s reactions to the misuse of his name.
I believe it’s right that I spend time with unbelievers, talking with them, befriending them, hopefully influencing them. But I’m only safe doing that if I’m soaking myself day by day, night by night, in the Scriptures. As I read God’s Word and meditate upon it, God reminds me of how great and glorious he is. I’m shown again that his name is to be honoured and loved. I’m moved to pray, ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name’ – ‘may your name always be treated as supremely holy’. And when next I hear his name being misused, it will grieve and trouble me as much as it did when first I heard such words. In fact, as the years go by, my sadness at the misuse of God’s name should grow not decline.
(2) I must never voluntarily expose myself to the misuse of God’s name.
Whether I want to or not, I have little choice about whether I hear God’s name misused day by day. I’m going to hear it misused on the bus, in the supermarket queue, in conversations with my neighbours. Unless I become a hermit living in the desert, I cannot avoid it. But to a great extent I can avoid TV and radio programmes, films, podcasts, plays, which take God’s name lightly.
Yes, I accept that in any media production it may happen. You may be listening to the one o’clock news on the radio; there’s an interview with a politician and in the first sentence he’s misused the name of our Saviour. You were listening to the news with a good and worthy motive; you couldn’t have predicted that it would include that careless dishonour done to the one we worship. You can only pray now that God will forgive that politician and the news editors who chose to use that quote, and that he won’t let it tarnish your mind.
But with many other programmes it’s not like that. You know that if you watch that TV soap opera, or if you listen to that radio comedy, you’ll be hearing God’s name trampled on again and again. Do you really need to watch or listen? Can we really expose ourselves to a diet of blasphemy, just for the sake of being entertained? Have we nothing better to do with our time? Blessed is he who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly … but in God’s law he meditates day and night. Let’s learn to use the off switch.
(3) I must never fail to warn a fellow-believer who misuses God’s name.
I started by talking about the dilemma we face when an unbeliever misuses God’s name. But then I said that some believers too have picked up the same habit. Now, it may be hard to decide when we should warn an unbeliever (we’ll come to that later) but in the case of a believer, surely we should not hesitate. I would think it my duty to warn a fellow-believer who was openly breaking any of the other Ten Commandments. Why should this one be different?
Of course, it’s important that I speak the truth with love (Ephesians 4:15). I must be sure that my motive is right. I’m not out to humiliate my brother and make him feel condemned. I’m not trying to present myself as a model of godliness as if I never sin with my lips. I need to feel a real sympathy for the believer to whom I’m speaking. Maybe he was brought up in a home where God’s name was constantly blasphemed. Maybe this is a habit that was engrained into him from childhood. Maybe no one has ever taken him to God’s Word and shown him how important it is to show reverence for God’s name. Before I speak, I need to remind myself of how many of my old habits still cling to me. I’m simply speaking to him as one sinner to another.
But I must still speak. Because it’s the name of our God and Saviour that’s being dishonoured – by one of his own children. He may be completely unaware of what he’s doing. He may not understand why it’s so serious. But for the Lord’s sake and for his own sake, I must speak.
(4) I must speak out when an unbeliever misuses God’s name at a time or in a place where I am responsible.
Let me explain what I mean. There are situations where I have the right and the responsibility to decide what is appropriate behaviour. The number one place where that is true is my own home. If a decorator or a builder is working in my home, I have the right to tell him whether or not he can have the radio on. I have the right to tell him whether he can wear a T-shirt with an obscene slogan on. And I have the right to tell him whether the words he’s using are acceptable or not. Much more so if it’s my children or my visitors who are speaking.
It’s not only a right; I have a responsibility to set the standards to be upheld in my home. Likewise, a teacher has both right and responsibility to enforce right behaviour in her classroom. The supervisor in an office has the right and responsibility to warn her subordinates if their behaviour falls short of what the company requires.
In any situation where God has given me such responsibility, I must exercise it faithfully. I mustn’t stand by and allow behaviour or speech which is an assault on his honour. If I do, God will not only hold the wrongdoer guilty, but he will hold me responsible for the words and deeds which I’ve allowed and condoned. Eli, the high priest who served at Shiloh, failed to restrain his sons who were guilty of great wickedness. The Lord’s response? ‘On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them…’ (1 Samuel 3:12-13, ESV).
(5) I must remember whenever I’m speaking with unbelievers that it’s my goal to lead them to repentance and faith in Christ.
Let’s go back to the story with which I started this article. (The man I described isn’t really one individual – he’s a composite of many.) What is my goal as I’m chatting with him? It’s to build a friendship within which I’ll be able to share the gospel with him. So the question has to be, ‘If I challenge him now over the matter of his use of God’s name, will that bring me closer to that goal, or not?’
Now that’s a matter of personal judgement. It may be that I know the man I’m talking to is in a hurry. If I challenge him over the matter, I’m not going to have time to explain why his use of God’s name is so wrong, or why it hurts me so much. So he may be left with a false impression – that this is just an arbitrary rule that Christians have invented. In which case, I’ve done more harm than good. I’ve left him with a misconception of what the Christian faith is all about. If that’s going to be the outcome, maybe this isn’t the time to say anything. Even if he’s more careful when he next speaks to me, what’s been gained? He’s just trying to respect my feelings – but he’s no nearer to understanding why he should fear and honour God. So I must leave the matter for now and pray for an opportunity to speak without fear of misunderstanding.
Of course I might just throw in a comment which could pave the way for a future conversation. As we’re parting company, I may say, ‘You know – something odd. I’m supposed to be a minister, and I’ve not mentioned God once in this conversation. You’ve actually mentioned him five times in five minutes! One of these days, when we’ve got a bit longer to talk, I’ll explain to you why I never talk about God the way you do!’ Who knows? That might lodge in his mind. He almost certainly won’t have been conscious at all of the fact that he was using God’s name. It may come as a shock to him to realise how often he does!
So there may be times when it’s wise to hold back from speaking. But there will be other times when you know that you simply must speak out clearly. We read about Paul that when he visited Athens, ‘his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace with those who happened to be there…’ (Acts 17:16-17, ESV). It seems that Paul hadn’t intended to start preaching the gospel in Athens – but when he saw how God was dishonoured, he knew he couldn’t stay silent. There will be times when if you really care about God’s honour, you’ll know that you have to challenge those who misuse his name.
John Stott’s book Our Guilty Silence (Hodder, 1967) is a stirring call to Christians to uphold God’s honour by bold witness to unbelievers. He tells the story of one encounter:
‘In order to write these pages, I have come away to a remote corner of Pembrokeshire. I travelled by sleeper and found I was sharing the two-berth cabin with a young land agent. He was occupying the top bunk. In the morning, while preparing to wash, he accidentally dropped the contents of his sponge bag on to the floor and vented his annoyance by taking the name of Christ in vain. I said nothing. Indeed, I was sorely tempted to remain silent. The usual plausible excuses came crowding into my head – “it’s none of your business, you’ve no responsibility for him, he’ll only laugh at you”. But the previous evening I had preached in church from Ephesians 4:26, 27: “Be angry but do not sin”. I had spoken about righteous indignation and the façade of sweet reasonableness which often conceals our moral cowardice and compromise.
‘An inner struggle followed, as I argued with myself and prayed, and not until ten or fifteen minutes later did I find the courage to speak. Although his immediate reaction was unfavourable, I was soon able to witness to the Christ he had blasphemed and to give him an evangelistic booklet’.
Next time I see my neighbour walking towards me, perhaps the first thing I need to pray is, ‘Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Help me to honour your name, and help me to show my friend why he should honour it too. Give me the opportunity to speak and give me the courage to do it’. If we approach every conversation with that prayer on our lips, the Lord surely will not leave us without opportunities to speak up for him. And who knows how he will use our witness?
Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk