Bible reference – Exodus 20:7
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.KJV
What I thought this meant: Don’t say “Jesus Christ!” or “Jiminy Cricket!” or any other derivatives or curses.
What I think this really means: Do not be a slave to your emotions. Choose your words carefully. Be thoughtful.
In my life, taking the Lord’s name in vain has always been equated with cursing. As a lapsing Christian, I always thought, “Am I really going to hell for letting a few “Jesus!”-es slip out? Is crying, “Goddammit!” when a you step on a nail seriously on par with murdering people? It seemed especially egregious as the Third Commandment. It just seemed like a reinforcement of the wrong-priority theme, as well as the petty-insecure-God theme.
Upon reflection, there may be something deeper. When do we curse? Usually in emotional distress. Perhaps this Commandment is pointing to holding one’s tongue, even when all your thoughts and feelings are bent to an explosive (and usually destructive) release. If you can control your words, you can control your behavior. If you can control your behavior, then you can be civil. And maintaining civility, especially in times of distress, separates us from beasts. It showcases our evolution. If I were God, this would definitely be a lesson I would want to put out there.
This verse also notably has a second portion that I often neglected in Sunday school:
for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain.
This introduces judgment, as well as accountability. Speaking (and presumably acting) in vain invites the potential of guilt. What you say is important, because you will be judged by those words. If you are having an intense negotiation, maybe you think your opponent is a dirty cheater, but if you scream, “DIRTY CHEATER!” while flicking aggressive finger guns during the negotiation, will there be consequences? I suspect so.
You cannot be held guiltless when you have spoken, which leads me to believe that you can think all kinds of curses and terrible things as long as you do not act on them. Stay in control.
“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me”.Batman, Batman Begins
Even further, it implies that we are free to think what we want and God will not judge you. And by implication, others should not either. We can explore dark thoughts, as long as we don’t act on them. This echoes one of my favorite aspects of Jesus Christ. Did he only hang out with the holy and (self-)righteous? Actually, he was well known to spend time with the lowest of the low: among them, tax collectors and prostitutes. This philosophy is epitomized in this verse:
“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”Jesus Christ, Matthew 25:40, KJV
Being good does not mean the absence or ignorance of bad. Being good does not mean self-denial or an imaginary sense of purity. This interpretation gives room for doubt and invites exploration and scrutiny. It invites us to learn everything there is to learn… and then to act, which is frankly the opposite of how I was raised by churches.
Does this pass the Ricky Gervais Test? Absolutely! Try getting through life with the emotional intelligence of a 5-year-old. See how far that gets you. Society can only exist if people can be civil, which means we cannot act like animals and bully each other because we had a bad day or because we are hungry. Even in the narrower interpretation of just being careful of what you say, that notion would definitely manifest in a civilization.
Does it make sense at #3? If we are looking at it in terms of major building blocks, it makes sense here. Concepts of freedom of thought and emotional intelligence are pretty big and foundational. It goes far beyond an exasperated “Jeez Louise”.
If anything, this introduces the importance of communication, of dialogue. Our words matter. How we communicate matters. The way we act and conduct ourselves matters. Does this mean we need to edit ourselves? Does this mean to censor our speech? Of course not. We will likely hear words that we don’t agree with, or that offend us… but we overcome that with emotional maturity. We process it in our mind, or we curse up a storm, with all the deliciously colorful words we can conjure in our head, but in our behavior, we rise above.
That seems to be a worthy Third Commandment.