Avoiding Vain Speech- using care when speaking for God

Growing up, my parents back porch was a sort of sanctuary. One of dad’s younger brothers, Uncle Dave often came to visit, Uncle David, 15 years younger than dad, was a successful businessman with newer, nicer cars, finer clothing, and more sophisticated tastes than his older brother. My parent’s home offered warmth and love that Uncle Dave craved. He came often.


One night we spun some humorous after-dinner tales, a few with unimaginable endings. Tickled and feeling free Uncle Dave punctuated his review with a curse word as if back in the Frat House. Not pleased with his cursing, Mom expressed her displeasure. Uncle Dave laughed off my Mother’s kind rebuke and repeated the aforementioned word 7 times in a row teasing mom.


Mother laughed along as she gathered up the dinner dishes. She returned with coffee asking who wanted ice-cream on their blackberry cobbler.   Mom chuckled as she slipped a bar of soap into her pocket. The back porch was lit by a few citronella candles and the porch light. As Mom served Uncle Dave he said “Jo this looks delicious,” from behind his head, mom deftly struck- sliding the soap into his wide open mouth and cupping her fingers over his mouth. With hot coffee in one hand and pie in the other Uncle Dave was rendered defenseless. Mom began what we would have described as a victory dance if we had not been Baptists.   Laughter erupted from my vanquished Uncle Dave, who offered a soapy apology and waved his white napkin in surrender.


There was an expectation of holiness of speech in our home. Mom held a gracious expectation enforced with love. She expected creative speech calling cursing “inarticulate”. Mom held a firm rule to challenge a person’s ideas not the person. Ugly speech brought a corrective word. When I let a curse word fly, Mom grabbed the peroxide, not to wash out my mouth but to cleanse my bleeding hand.


What expectations or intentions do we hold for our speech?


Hear the third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave one unpunished who takes God’s name in vain.” (Deuteronomy 5:11)


What is vain speech? I grew up thinking there was only one way to break the third commandment. That was with a certain expression that met a genuine gasp and perhaps a bar soap. Our Jewish cousins have a more extensive understanding of what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain, as does our Jesus. Our Hebrew cousins will not say the name God or write it. They do not want to bear false witness in regards to God, by becoming too causal, everyday, or familiar with the Ruler of All. That may seem odd to us who speak of having a friend in Jesus, but there is a deep reverence in pausing. They do not want to assign words to God that might distort or misrepresent our unimaginable, immortal, invisible, all-powerful, almighty, mysterious God. Consider that silent discipline to ponder and worship without a word.


In 1978, I was buying a little bag of donuts in between Little League games at a minute mart in Lexington, Kentucky when in walked coach Joe B Hall – the coach of the 1978 national champion Kentucky Wildcats. He smiled at me and said something kind. With my eyes wild with astonishment and my jaw dropped in awe, I uttered a breathless “Coach Hall.” “Son would you like an autograph?” I nodded my head and the now laughing clerk handed him a pen.   “What’s your name son?” “Paul” – that would be all I said for the next five minutes. He patted me on my head handed me the autograph and headed out with a jolly “go big blue.” If I was to have supper with the President, Prince Charles, and Beyoncé it would not match the wonder of that moment.


Do we hold a sense of awe at God’s grandeur? Are we a little wonder-struck at the God of the universe? Are our words about God suitable for worship and praise? Do we slow down our speech enough to realize we are speaking about our unimaginable, immortal, invisible, all-powerful, all-loving, almighty, mysterious God?


Our Jewish cousins offer a few boundaries to keep us from misusing the name and things of God (Rabbis Rachel s. Mikva and Nancy Fuchs-Kriemer from “Broken Tablets”):


Invoke God’s name only when speaking to God and about God.

Do not use God’s name to guarantee your words.

Do not use God’s name to achieve personal objectives.

Do not discredit God by advertising yourself as Godly but proving untrustworthy.

Be extremely cautious when claiming to know God’s will or speaking for God, such claims equate our partial human knowledge with the Almighty’s infinite imagination


First- Invoke God’s name only when speaking to God and about God. Any speech invoking the Holy name should be “set apart speech”- addressing and honoring God. God is exalted and not mixed with everyday idle talk. Now when speaking to God- speak freely and honestly. The Psalms are filled with laments, cries and outbursts to God. Pour out your heart -God already knows our hearts. Have a little family squabble with God – a lover’s spat. However, in general conversation, treat the name of God with reverence, beauty, awe, and love. Do we casually toss around the names of people we deeply love interjecting their names into causal conversations?


Second- Do not use God’s name to guarantee your words. Don’t swear. The Essenes said, “trust not those whose words need to be insured with an oath or swearing.” Why add a guarantee if your words are good in the first place? It trivializes God, when we use God’s name to strengthen our promise with an oath


Third- Do not utilize God’s name to achieve personal objectives. Our two rabbis used the example of invoking the name of God or one’s faith in order to get elected to an office. In 1983 they called this deplorable. Is it not incredibly vain to crow that you are the one who speaks for God, the one who comes in the name of the Lord? Perhaps such Godly boasts should be backed up with a few miracles. My father hired a lot of guys to work in a factory. Dad was extremely devout, generous, and dedicated to serving Christ but when someone began speaking of their faith in a job interview dad said, “watch out” or “grab your wallet.” People who will use faith as tool to get a job will do just about anything to get what they want.


Fourth- Do not discredit God by advertising yourself as Godly, but proving untrustworthy. If you set yourself up as God’s representative, then whenever you sin, you reflect poorly upon God. Better to let others name you as saint than to claim the title as your own. Do not become a walking billboard misrepresenting God.


Five- Be extremely cautious when claiming to know God’s will or speaking for God, such claims equate our partial human knowledge with the Almighty’s infinite imagination. When you say “this is God’s will,” or “God told me,” it is like you are saying “this is scripture folks.”


In 1823, Reverend Dr. Richard Furman wrote to the governor of South Carolina defending slavery as part of God’s unchanging divine law. His defense of slavery became the touchstone of many sermons and sowed much suffering into the world.   “The holding of slaves is justifiable by the doctrine and example contained in Holy writ; and is therefore consistent with Christian uprightness…. A master has a scriptural right to govern his slaves so as to keep it in subjection… claims to freedom as a right… would be unjust. It is the positive duty of servants to reverence their master, to be obedient, industrious, faithful to him, and careful of his interests; and without being so, they can (not) be the faithful servants of God,http://eweb.furman.edu/~benson/docs/rcd-fmn1.htm. What manifold evil was unleashed upon the world by Furman’s alleged speaking for God? Why did Furman fail to speak of God calling out against oppression “Go down Moses”?


It is dangerous to speak for God, perhaps it’s better to open the Bible and let the Word of God speak for itself. If you do speak for God, speak humbly with deep love for God and neighbor.

There is a danger, when we think we speak for God, that we forget that we are flawed, imperfect, unknowing people. Paul taught, “prophecy will come to an end. But love will last forever! Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete!”(1 Corinthians 13:8-9). It is a dangerous to say “God said” or “the Bible clearly teaches.” People twist and turn the Bible to fit all sorts of agendas.  Humbly quote Scripture. Say “I think” and “perhaps this is.” Be careful not to blaspheme or speak vainly of the things of God. Be careful not to use the words of God to achieve your objectives. When worked up, it is easy to confuse your thoughts for God’s thoughts – to grab a few verses here and there and put together a theology, and then call this man-made theology God’s.


Our Jewish cousins remember the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God.” To speak for God is incredibly vain! Have some humility. The great apostle Paul writes “After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you…. if the Lord permits” (1 Corinthians 16:5-7 NIV). Or consider “I plan to do so. I hope to see you …so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will,” (Romans 15:24, 32). There is humility there.   Or consider Paul’s answering the questions of the church at Corinth- “Now for the matters you wrote about: …To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord)… About ……. : I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy,” (1 Corinthians 7:1, 12, 25). Paul has a humility about speaking for God. Do not misrepresent God – remember 1 Timothy 3:6 “Without any doubt, the mystery of our faith is great.”


Avoiding accidental blasphemy is not the only part of sacred speech. Let us strive for a holiness of heart and mouth. Consider the words of Jesus:


“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. How can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good person brings good things out of the good stored up inside them, and an evil person brings evil things out of the evil stored up in them. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:33-37)


Do we strive for sacredness in our speech? With runaway individualism, our society desperately needs to recapture a sense of owning and keeping our words. Are we so focused on our rights that we forget that our words carry within them a responsibility to the larger community? We have forgotten that everything we say is said before God in this grand cathedral God created. Jesus warns that our words are windows into our souls, showing the core values we hold. Our words spill love or hate- blessings or curses. Our words can bring forth living water to nourishes or belch out an evil stench that poisons those who hear.


Ever blunt James thunders “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” (James 1:26)


Lastly, let us consider the tone to our speech.


Paul tells Timothy, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters… The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” (1 Timothy 5:1-2, 17)


“Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen… Avoid Godless chatter. Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” (2 Timothy 2:14, 16, 23-26)


Have you ever known somebody who is right about all kinds of things but just completely aggravating to be around? Does anyone here not know “that person”?   That person is not Christ-like, even if they know the bible backwards and forwards! People were drawn to Jesus- Jesus was winsome – sinful folks loved Jesus because love radiated from Jesus. Being argumentative, unkind, and quarrelsome is sinful. Shouting people down and verbally bullying appears sinful. How can I say I love my neighbor, my spouse, my child, or my friend if I won’t let them get a word in edgewise? Tone matters.


Do we speak with a sense of wonder, humility and awe?

Do we remember we speak about our unimaginable, unseen, immortal, invisible, all-powerful, all-loving, almighty, mysterious God?

Do we preach and speak as those “who only know in part”?

Do we draw up evil or good and water our world with blessings or curses?

Do we avoid Godless chatter and unsolvable, intractable, theological debates?

Is our tone the loving redemptive voice of our Lord Jesus Christ?


Wherever we stand in this world- we stand in the grand cathedral of God. God hears our every word. Let us be humble knowing we will give an account of the words and tone that we use. Let us be a little wonderstruck whenever we speak of God. Let us be ever so cautious when we speak for God. Let us remember that “we know in part”- the complete is yet to come.  And may we speak every word as if our Crucified Lord of Love- Jesus the Christ stands beside us listening. Let us draw up the Living Water that resides in our hearts by the grace of God and water our families, our friends, our neighbors, and even our enemies. May our words drip with the faith, hope, and love that will never fail. Amen.

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