For goodness’ sake, let’s learn to reverence the name of God

A sign in Virginia Beach prohibiting the use of profanity (Ben Schumin/CC BY-SA 3.0)

While our culture insists that we monitor our pronouns, there is no such diktat for the most important name of them all

The first time I heard the Holy Name uttered this week was as I stood in a packed bus during my morning commute into Glasgow’s city centre. Like on any other urban transport system, passengers distracted themselves (and others) with wireless headphones, tablets and the day’s edition of The Metro.

“God!” exclaimed one woman.

“Jesus Christ!” replied her traveling companion.

The pair tutted in tandem at an especially egregious news story, before returning to their respective copies of the morning’s printed edition. Certainly, it is a fine and venerable thing to call on the name of Our Lord before we begin the day. Indeed, many of us do so, but rarely for the right reasons.

This is of course a time in which the language police are becoming ever more censorious and illiberal with respect to prose, parley and their appropriate applications – with one exception. The manner in which we utter Our Lord’s name can often be unbecoming, the context inappropriate and the intention impure.

While the prevailing cultural narrative encourages – insists even – that we invest more and more effort in monitoring our pronouns, epithets and nomenclature, there is no such diktat with respect to the most important name of them all. We use God’s name as everything from an expression of surprise to a curse word. In so doing, we betray our own lack of reverence for that which is above and our lack of knowledge of that which was sent for us.

We are commanded: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” That misuse of the Holy Name should be written before seemingly more flagrant offences might strike the contemporary commuter as counter-intuitive. Nevertheless, there is a coherent order to God’s law which we would do well to heed. The less our appreciation for our Creator and his name, the more inclined to other evils we become.

The reverence with which we use God’s name is indicative of our person and of our societies. Tellingly, in his Spiritual Exercises St Ignatius of Loyola instructs us: “Do not swear whether by the Creator, or any creature, except truthfully, of necessity, and with reverence.” Given the frequency and flippancy with which we invoke God’s name, we have seemingly forgotten what it is to be in awe of Him who gave his life that we might live.

It can often surprise us that many of those who take the Lord’s name in vain have little spiritual, or even emotional, investment in Jesus Christ. During the week, we hear His name in films, television series, comedy shows, office spaces, bars and restaurants far more often than we do in church buildings or our homes. Might this perhaps be explained in part by our own negligence in reverencing His Holy Name? Mirroring a culture in which cursing is currency and profanity is equated with personality, we ourselves can behave like choristers in an unholy litany in which we demean that which is holy and esteem that which is base.

There is an irony in the fact that the dominant culture can be so puritanical with many a word, but so unrestrained in how it uses the Lord’s name. There are many ways in which it can be difficult to draw lines in the sand as Christians in secular spaces of work and leisure, but these spaces would all benefit by an increased sense of awe for God’s name, beginning with the manner and frequency with which those of us who attach such great significance to his name choose to utter it.

The commandments begin with an insistence on reverence for God, his uniqueness and his name. Only once proper order and awe are established for these categories can we hope to live and encourage saintliness. As St John Henry Newman wrote, “To holy people the very name of Jesus is a name to feed upon, a name to transport. His name can raise the dead and transfigure and beautify the living.” Our culture is in desperate need of wonder over vapidity. There is no better place to begin than with God and his name.

In paying special attention to this oft-forgotten commandment, we set the course for the rest of our Christian lives and an example to our irreligious contemporaries – even morning commuters looking at the day’s newspaper.

Ruairidh MacLennan is a journalist based in Glasgow