I grew up with youth pastors preaching about how we should not say “jeez!” or “gosh!” because we were really saying “Jesus Christ!” and “God!” and thereby implicitly taking the Lord’s name in vain. As much as I wanted to honor God, that just seemed frivolous. There are so many things wrong with the world, so many terrible sins that we can commit against God and against each other, that uttering a minced exclamation seemed like a trivial concern. Even if we didn’t go to such scrupulous ends, the point of this commandment — of not taking the Lord’s name in vain — bothered me for its seeming pettiness. It almost seemed to paint the image of an insecure, petty-minded God.
However, the third commandment regarding the Lord’s name is not just about cussing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a commentary on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount on not taking oaths, and it notes that the text points out the connection between invoking God as a witness and telling lies. In a sense, you invoke God because your truthfulness is questionable without an oath. Just leave God out of it, Jesus says, and learn to speak truthfully. More specifically, Jesus says that this kind of lying is from the evil one, which is quite sobering to hear (Matthew 5:37).
Clinical psychologist and Buddhist teacher John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to describe the tendency to avoid relational, emotional, and psychological issues by the (ab)use of spirituality and religion. Unfortunately, Christians are not immune to such phenomena, and one of our tools of this spiritual bypassing is Christian jargon. Spiritual language is very susceptible to abuse and reality distortion.
The abuse of Christian language can occur in communal and societal contexts. The privileged and powerful can use spiritual language about patience, forgiveness, love, and the afterlife to continue and even further their rule over the oppressed. Of course, this was Karl Marx’s point about religion being an opiate of the masses. Whether it is Black theologian James Cone critiquing the usage of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation by white Christians complicit in white supremacy, or South American theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez calling out the Roman Catholic Church for cozying up to oppressive military regimes by insinuating that their governance was instituted by God, misuse of spiritual language covers all manners of evil.
In our society, we can observe how the issues of racism and sexism are narrowly talked about in Christianese: as all of us are sinners in need of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is with little regard to justice and deep structural changes, placing more burden on the oppressed and abused. However, this kind of spiritual talk common in our churches short circuits God’s true intent with superficial and complicit “reconciliation”. I often hear from many Christians who are troubled about the anger of those concerned with social justice. From their perspective, the anger disqualifies this concern as a legitimate Christian practice, because being a Christian is about being kind and loving. In a sense, only what is “nice” can be faithful Christian practice from this perspective.
In my own life, as someone well-socialized in Korean American evangelical church culture from an early age, I have seen, heard, and learned how to fluently speak just about anything using “Christianese”, the spiritualized jargon commonly heard in many church and Christian circles. Instead of allowing God’s presence to sanctify our whole lives, this kind of jargon reduces our lives to fit into our understanding of spiritual maturity. Dynamic encounter with the living God boils down to simplistic principles and platitudes. It’s the qualitative difference between a profound and gratuitous revelation of God’s goodness that might come after a long agonizing struggle with haunting doubt, and the flippant mindless chanting of “God is good all the time; all the time God is good.” When you have not gone through that long maturing journey of faith, such a peppy chant can only breed escapist denial and cover up. God indeed is good all the time, but that truth is too precious to throw around like a cheap toy.
In relationships, Christianese cultivates untruthfulness and a denial of difficult truths about our lives and our true selves, which cannot be wrapped up prettily by spirituality. Spiritual language offers the possibility of putting a good spin on our depression, failure, hatred, anger — all the ugliness that resides with the lives of real people, real Christians — as work of the enemy, God’s great calling, hidden blessing, God knows best, etc. Of course, the enemy or God might actually be working, but our words only have credibility if our real ugliness is a possibility that we might own as well. Avoiding the painful reality, the spiritualized gloss provides a way out of confronting ourselves.
In studying family systems, I realized how the language of grace aligns so well with enabling. Lacking courage, we can fail to confront “a perpetuator” with tough love and discipline toward life and maturity, and instead “forgive” and enable them to continue in their destructive pattern. Disrupting patterns of enabling most often result in confrontation and accusations of being ungracious, which is the cost of loving well.
Providentially, this same spiritual obfuscation is not the pattern of biblical language, which is earthy, rough, and does not allow for this kind of over-spiritualized bullshit. In the Psalms, our school of prayer, there is no room for Christianese pretentions and spiritualized euphemisms. Through the Psalms, I have learned to accept the fact that I sometimes have enemies and furthermore, I really do hate them even though I should not. The book of Job, in its mysterious ways, has taught me that even the times when I complain and fight with God because life makes no sense are all still a part of the journey of faith. Whereas spiritual lies smooth over the mess of life, the Bible owns the mess and points to a God in the midst of it all.
Over the years, I have learned that acknowledgement of an enemy is sometimes the most accurate and healthy assessment of my situation with a supervisor, a colleague, a student, an elder, or another individual expressing deep animosity and oppression against me personally for whatever reason. In fact, this honest confession usually marks the beginning of a genuine process toward inviting God into this area of my life.
Of course, I am not trying to make enemies. Labeling someone as your “enemy” is tricky and can simply be an expression of my sinfulness, immaturity, or plain pigheadedness. There are many occasions where people we disagree with are well-meaning with good intentions and the issue is a difference in approach or perspective. And even if they are not well-meaning, it is generally a good practice to err on the side of empathy and to try to see the whole person with their particular history and experiences as worthy of respect. This is crucial if we are to hope to reconcile differences and move toward grace and acceptance. And yet, Jesus commands us to love our enemies, not to suppress our real experiences of having enemies. The Bible talks about enemies, and we can also acknowledge that we actually have people who we experience as enemies, who just bring so much pain, befuddlement, and misery.
One of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther is, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” Its shorter version of “sin boldly” is popular and understandably quite baffling. Luther’s point was that the Christian life is about us accepting and owning the fact that we are sinners, that our lives are a mess, and that we will be sinned against.
Authentic healing and reconciliation can begin only when we take off the Band-Aids used to cover up the true extent of our wounds, and show ourselves to our Healer God. Spiritual lies often serve as these Band-Aids — the less we use them, the healthier we can be as we seek healing. It is true that a major surgery might be required and that healing and recovery might still mean carrying bumps and bruises for a long time. But that is the path of wholeness and the journey of faith.