God Language and Emotional Maturity Part 2: There’s a Commandment for That!

by | Nov 24, 2020 | Faith, Uncategorized | 21 comments

Using the Lord's Name in Vain: How God Language Can Lead to Emotional Immaturity
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We’ve been talking a lot on the blog about emotional maturity and its importance. And part of that is the whole “God language” issue.

It’s Joanna on the blog today! Joanna is my intrepid stats person and co-author of The Great Sex Rescue, who is busy helping me analyze the results to our MEN’S sex & marriage survey we’re conducting right now (Are you a married guy? Take it right here!). A transplant from Pittsburgh, she lived in my neck of the woods in Ontario until COVID hit and erased her husband’s job. They recently moved up to the Canadian Arctic (yes, really) where her husband is a lawyer for the government of Nunavut.

Joanna was taken by my first article on God language and emotional maturity, and we’ve been FaceTiming this back and forth, and she asked to write down a few of her thoughts today.

In English history, King Henry VIII was desperate for a son and heir to the throne. His dynasty was pretty tenuous from a legitimacy perspective, and the prospect of an heir to ensure the succession was of the utmost importance to him. After 20 years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon and with zero sons living past infancy, Henry decided to divorce her… but he needed justification. He ended up finding a random verse in Leviticus that he felt proved that his marriage was cursed and illegitimate. The pope didn’t agree and so Henry split from papal authority and started the church of England.

Henry VIII was a brutal, monstrous man. When he used Leviticus to “justify” his divorce, he was also breaking the third commandment. He took God’s name in vain.

Now, if you’re anything like me, the way we were taught about the third commandment is that it’s pretty much the easiest of the 10 to keep.

Don’t say OMG and you’re good, right? That’s what “taking God’s name in vain” means.

Except that’s totally and completely wrong.

According to the fabulous Bible Story Handbook by Dr. John Walton, taking God’s name in vain actually means “don’t abuse God’s name for your own benefit.” He adds that “we violate this commandment when we … present our thoughts as the Word of God.”

That hits close to home. And it’s definitely something I need to be on guard against.

God language often gets used in Christian circles to shut down conversation, prevent criticism, avoid emotional involvement, avoid difficult conversations, and generally manipulate people.

And all of those ways are taking God’s name in vain.

I think this has always “been a thing” as it were. That’s literally why there’s a commandment for that. Wouldn’t be there if it weren’t an issue!

But how does this manifest particularly in today’s day and age? Here’s what I realized recently:

My two-year-old is entirely obsessed with The Sound of Music. It’s adorable and I’m happy to have Julie Andrews on repeat in our little apartment. Anyway, I hadn’t listened to the music in awhile when I first put it on for her and I was, frankly, terrifically surprised when I relistened to “Climb Every Mountain.” I expected it to be song that would really speak to me, about doing what it takes to do the right thing. But it wasn’t. Instead, Mother Abbess tells Maria to “climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow til you find your dream.”

And then she describes the dream and what it will take *Maria* to achieve. But she doesn’t talk about duty or family or making a better world. Or any of it. It’s just “follow your dream.”

Watch most Disney movies and you’ll get the same plot. Following “your dreams” is the highest value.

In today’s parlance, Henry VIII had a dream to have a son and he followed it. Disney films don’t include the idea of collateral damage, but Henry clearly inflicted plenty. And collateral damage is a pretty much guaranteed byproduct of unfettered ambition.

Now, of course, having goals and dreams is a great thing! I certainly have them and they’ve helped get me to where I am today in my life. But there’s a difference between having goals and holding them with open hands, allowing providence and life to shape them and an all out, tight-fisted sprint towards “my dream.” And, if I’m honest, the “climb every mountain” chorus sounds a lot more like the latter.

Jesus didn’t call us to go out and “do big things” on his behalf. He called us to be faithful.

And he called us to follow HIM not our dreams. And one thing I’ve noticed about a lot of folks who overuse God language is that they specifically use it to make their “dreams come true.”

I want to be a race car driver or a pop star? “God is calling me to that” shuts down conversation and lets me follow my dreams, no matter how foolish, selfish, or silly they might be.

Ultimately, it can turn dreams into gods of our own making. And it prevents us from getting wise counsel.

My husband and I are making some big decisions right now and I’ll be honest, it’s quite challenging. We don’t have the same preferences when it comes to some massive choices and that’s just plain tricky. We’re trying to navigate it as best as we can while also recognizing that we aren’t making any final decisions now. It’s just an ongoing conversation. And so, when one of us has a new thought or realization, we open up the discussion again. We often spend an hour or two talking over things while looking at our fake fire and holding our newborn. And we’re doing the things we need to do to help us make the decisions as best as we can – annoying “adult” things like dealing with banking issues. Ultimately, one of us is going to get their way and one of us isn’t. And we are both SUPER aware of the fact that the danger here is that whoever doesn’t get their way could resent the spouse who does. There are upsides and downsides to both choices and so we are trying to be faithful to the decision-making process and to each other.

As I’ve been writing this post I realized how dehumanizing it would feel to me if my husband said, “my way is the right way! God told me so!” Instead of an intimate and life-giving conversation about what our short-term and long-term goals are, I would feel shut down. Honestly, I think I’d struggle mightily with resentment because I wouldn’t have been heard.

If that’s your story, I’m so terribly sorry. And if you’re tempted to use God language to justify your own desires and get your way, remember: there’s a commandment for that.

Taking the Lord's Name in Vain: Using God Language to Be Emotionally Immature

What do you think? Have you ever thought of “using the Lord’s name in vain” in this context? How do we avoid this? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Blog Contributor & Co-Author on the upcoming The Great Sex Rescue!

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Becky

    Joanna, this is so good! I don’t recall ever hearing any interpretation of that commandment that wasn’t simply about language, but it makes so much sense. Especially if you look at Jesus’ words in the New Testament about the Commandments being about what’s in your heart rather than a list of rules for how you act. Thank you for sharing.

  2. B

    Whoa! I have never seen it that way! It makes so much more sense than the rather legalistic “don’t even say Yahweh because you might accidentally use it wrong”. I’ve heard admonishments to not “put words in God’s mouth,” but not directly in relation to this commandment.

  3. Kristen

    What about when your dreams change with time and maturity, and others freak out because of the whole God language thing? I like what you said about allowing providence and life to shape your dreams, and that’s what happened to me. However, because I’d said I wanted to be a writer since I was ten (ten!) years old, some of my family freaked out when I eventually decided many years later to go into education and basically told me I was giving up on God’s plan for my life, all because for ten or twelve years I’d said I wanted to be a writer. Of course, now that I’m in grad school and I’ve moved away and I’m much more at peace with my decisions, my family has been better able to accept my shift in dreams, but their old insistence on “this is the dream that God gave to you” caused me a lot of turmoil and sadness.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, that is so sad. I’m glad you’re in a better place away from that kind of thinking, where you can celebrate where God is leading you! I think often people don’t get it until years later and they see how God is using you.

  4. Kristen

    I think so, too. Plus, simply my becoming independent has helped them see me as a true adult, and that helps them trust my judgment a little more now, I think. And it makes the time I do talk with them much less tense and more enjoyable now. For the first Thanksgiving in years, I’m actually really glad to be with my family lol.

  5. Jane Eyre

    I’m the parent to a baby so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about here.
    If my kid is ten and wants to be a writer or an astronaut or a rock star, I would take it “seriously” in the sense of outlining a path and talking about planning, hard work, and skills to get there… with the idea that those things pay off no matter what he does. If he becomes a better writer, is amazing at math, or learns to play an instrument, the abilities and work ethic he develops will benefit him no matter what he does.
    “I don’t want to be a writer anymore; I want to be a professor.” Well, you’ve been working on your research and writing skills since you were ten, so you’re ahead of the game.
    “I don’t want to be a musician; I want to play my instrument for fun.” Looks like you have a solid extracurricular activity for college admissions.
    But getting emotionally attached to your 10 year old’s dreams?? What am I missing? Why should the kid be the one to explain that kids in elementary school don’t make adult decisions?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I know, right? I think it’s that fear that if we don’t believe it every time someone says, “I think God is telling me…” then we might never believe it ever again. And then how will we ever know if we do hear God’s voice?

  6. Phil

    I think this is an interesting point that explains to a degree why some of these toxic christian books get published and confirmed as GOOD. I honestly have not read any of the books that have been talked about around here. I trust they are popular marriage resources endorsed by “notable” Christians. Here is what appears to be happening. Guy <—- apparently most of the bad ones are written by guys? Guy becomes a Pastor and or gets some sort of following through his work……He becomes a "notable" person – people see his life. It "looks" good. He writes a book. His thoughts are not necessarily out to be damaging…but he "thinks" his thoughts are from GOD – because…maybe his ego got stroked???? while he became a "notable" person to others and he is blinded and "thinks" well "THIS MUST BE FROM GOD". Because……look at my life…how well it is going and how great I have it it…and all the people love me….and now they are telling me I must be right and well this must be GOD and it snowballs from there…..I think the key word in my synopsis is blinded.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think that’s an excellent synopsis, Phil! Very close to what’s happening. I will say that some of the books that we looked at and found harmful that we talk about in The Great Sex Rescue were written by women, so it’s not only men who get this stuff wrong. But that’s why we tried to base ours on research of so many women (and why we’re surveying men now!). We want to not just base it on what we think but on what is actually happening in marriages.

  7. Anon

    I think that’s why it’s so important to preface ‘God is telling me’ with ‘I think’ or ‘maybe’. Because it’s acknowledging that our own desires, ambitions & emotions can get in the way of us hearing God’s voice, and sometimes, what we think is from Him is actually from ourselves!
    I also think that this keeps us humble – and maybe makes us MORE likely to hear clearly from God as a result. Certainly I’ve noticed over the years that when someone tells me ‘God has a word for you’ (no doubt, they KNOW they’ve heard from God) they are usually wrong, whereas those who say ‘I think God might have given me this for you’ are usually right…

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      The same thing has happened to me, Anon! I’ve had a few people say, “God told me this about you,” and it was always wrong (and sometimes downright abusive). But the “I think…” messages were often right.

    • Meghan

      Anon, that’s very true! I seem to have the gift of exhortation or encouragement or whatever you want to call it, and when I’m using it I tend to say exactly what a person needs to hear at the time. For example, someone will be struggling with something and I’ll spout off a sentence or two that gets to the heart of their struggle and help them start to overcome it. No “God told me this” because I often don’t even realize it’s happening until I reflect on it later! But that is exactly what’s happening – He’s using me like a conduit to reach a person’s heart.

  8. Phil

    I want to play devils advocate here in this conversation. I totally get the conversation by the way….The god told me so thing….17 years ago the concept of doing God’s will was put before me. So my question has always been this: What is God’s will? Well God’s will can be somewhat hard to decipher – so I was told this: You know what God’s will isn’t. So that is how I proceeded…..the problem is….we really do need to know what God’s will is. So in more recent times I have decided that God’s will is if I am living by his commandments. As Joanna talked about. If I am bearing the Fruit of the Spirit. I ask myself questions…like Am I living within God’s principles? Am I checking with others that YES indeed I am doing all those things…..then check mark it off – the message is from God….I have to tell you all – FOR ME – I have had direct messages from God. I have had 2 distinct times in my life where God spoke direct to me and I have had many many messages from God through out my life and some that I just needed to share with others. I have shared those 2 distinct times in my life where God spoke directly to me with folks and most people I do believe believe me….for those who don’t. YOUR LOSS. I can’t recall ever saying God told me to tell you….but I can recall saying God told me….and I want to tell you…..maybe that language is kind of like calling gelatin Jello…..because its not all Jello ya know…..so while I totally get this conversation I might say this to you. If someone says that to you….it may just be worth it to check it out….for the record as I write this I can tell you that there seems to be an occasion in my life that I can’t pull from memory at the moment where I may have been told god told me to tell you…and I COMPLETELY wrote them off! Well now…I think I wrote myself into a circle. lol.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m with you, Phil, too. I have had specific times when I do believe that God spoke to me. I think we do have to leave room open for it. But it always has to be done with humility. I want to believe in a God who speaks to us personally, yes. I need that. I want to believe that I can hear God’s voice. But I think what I’m realizing is that we usually hear His voice when it’s about comfort or leaning closer to Him; it’s not usually about revealing something major about what another person I don’t know should do with their life. We just need to be careful with that. It is a really, really messy thing to figure out!

      • Maureen

        I agree, Sheila and Phil. The Bible tells us again and again to judge prophecy. When someone comes to us with a word from the Lord (better if they preface it with, “bring this to the Lord for confirmation, but I believe He’s saying…”), WE are to judge the word. The implication is that they may get it wrong. We don’t need to judge the person. Hopefully, we are all abiding and listening to His voice the best we can; we also need to be discerning in how we receive a word from a brother or sister. So much pain and harm can be avoided if we approach both ends with love and humility.

  9. Jane Eyre

    (Comments aren’t nesting for me)
    Good point re: hearing God’s voice. I would counter that there are some things that are permanent (marriage, except in rare circumstances) and most others are temporary. Perhaps God puts music into the heart of a child who later goes off and becomes a successful hedge fund executive… and uses his wealth to buy instruments for poor children. Maybe the entire point of the love of music when young was to get a French horn into the hands of a kid thirty years later.
    Maybe someone is really passionate about helping out people in refugee camps in Africa. Maybe God wants that person there in their 20s, but not forever. Maybe God also wants that person to get married and raise children, because we can have more than one calling in life.

  10. Louise

    When my now husband and I started dating, he had recently parted ways with his long-term ex-girlfriend and was receiving ‘godly counsel’ from our pastor. Our relationship grew strong and fast and within a few months we were talking marriage. I was 27 years old, had always been single and once I met my husband i just knew he was the one I wanted to marry, we prayed about it a lot as it was moving so fast but we felt an incredible peace about it.
    Even though my husband had been meeting regularly with the pastor and sharing his personal growth, heart and love for me, the pastor laid down relationship rules that were in place for the teen/young adults in the church and said that “God told him that my husband and I shouldn’t be together and that we needed to break up”. I was so confused. I held my church authority in high regard and always followed what they said. I was an active member, respected and never once did the pastor approach me or meet with us together, just “God told me” to my husband. It was such a heartbreaking time in my life when the church I had grown up in wouldn’t even marry us. Thankfully we left and found another church with an amazing pastor who is like a loving dad and welcomed us with open arms. But I’ve always wondered if that pastor ever learnt that maybe he gets it wrong sometimes and should say “I think this what God is telling me”

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That is TERRIBLE. That is spiritual abuse. I’m so sorry, Louise. But on the other hand, you started marriage at a much healthier church, so maybe God was sparing you!

  11. Wifey

    I was in a church situation a few years ago where I saw the ‘God told me’ played out repeatedly. Having not grown up with that language in my childhood church experience I was skeptical of the concept. I am 100% positive that God can and does speak to us, primarily through His word, His word being taught (i.e a book or sermon), His word being shared (I.e a friends encouragement), through prayer and by conviction and the Holy Spirit. However, I saw that ‘God told me’ phrase being used manipulatively repeatedly. Once someone said ‘God told me’ the conversation was shut down, and the craziest thing of all- no one even held the speaker accountable for what God supposedly told them to do! I have a healthy skepticism of my own thoughts and brain- is God really leading me this way or is it just where I WANT God to be leading me? Am I really hearing the Lord’s direction via prayer or is it just my own wishes reverberating? Any time I share something the Lord has been teaching me I say don’t take my word for it- I could be totally wrong! Take what I say or how I encourage you and run to God’s word. Hold it to the standard of Scripture and ask the Lord if what I said was true. Discerning God’s leading and direction, and sharing it accurately with others is a daily prayer of mine. I have a healthy fear of leading someone astray in my good intentions.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think this pretty much sums up me, too. I definitely believe God speaks to us, but we need to hold that very carefully and seek confirmation.


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