The second commandment is perhaps the most misunderstood of all the commandments. How do I take God’s name in vain?

The common idea is that we break this commandment when we “curse and swear”, that is when we use foul language, expletives, four letter words, and say the words “God” or “Christ” when angry or careless. I remember, as a child, telling the priest in confession: “I cursed and swore, I used bad language.” Today, as a confessor, I still hear this. People confess that they curse and swear. However, the way most of us conceive of cursing and swearing is not the way we break the second commandment. How do we violate the prohibition against using God’s name in vain?

To curse and to swear does violate the second commandment, but, cursing and swearing are not generally what I do when I slice my golf ball the wrong way or hit my finger accidentally with a hammer. The words I often utter at those times might well be an offense or a sin against charity, but they are not what is forbidden by the second commandment. This is not cursing and swearing in the real sense.

What is forbidden by the second commandment? A number of things:

At an obvious level, this commandment forbids us to take false oaths, lie under oath, and make trivial oaths. We break the second commandment when we perjure ourselves, and when we make light of the sacred ritual of taking an oath. But the commandment reaches much further into life than that. What it ultimately asks is that we respect God’s holiness, that we give God space enough to be God.

The first way we do this is through irreverence. All sin, ultimately, is irreverence, lack of respect. This, however, must be carefully understood. There is a healthy irreverence, that of the court jester who smashes pomp and grandiosity. But there is also an irreverence that violates. As William Buckley puts it: “The commandment which enjoins us not to take in vain the name of the Lord is unrelated to a carefree expletive when you stub your toe, or lose money on the stock market, or lose three straight sets at tennis. It is commandingly august as an injunction against an inversion of those few qualities that distinguish us from the beasts, and there is no period, not even the Fasching in Munich or the Carnival in Rio, or Monty Python, when we are relieved of the obligation to experience sorrow at our inhumanity to each other, let alone our inhumanity to God.” (Montreal Gazette, Sept. 22, 1979). I break the second commandment, I disrespect the name of God, when I am inhuman, gross, offensive, coarse, crude, when I violate the proper propriety of things.

I also disrespect the name of God when I curse another person. This too should be properly understood. What is a curse? How do I curse another? Cursing, like swearing, is, in the end, not so much a question of language as it is a question of attitude. I curse others when, in whatever way, I kill life, enthusiasm, and delight in them. To take just one example, a primal one: Imagine a little child in a high chair, just after dinner. The child, full of life and energy (and sugar) spontaneously fills with delight and begins to shout joyously and throw food about the room. I, the depressed adult, irritated by all this joy, holler at the child: “Shut up!” I have just cursed that child. I have just taken the name of the Lord in vain, irrespective of whether or not I actually used God’s name in my tantrum. I have just violated the proper order, as God set it up. I have just cursed, disrespected the name of God. I have also broken another commandment, the fifth one: I’ve just killed.

Finally, I disrespect the name of God when I refuse to accept the normal tension and inconsummation within life and, instead, demand, in whatever way, that God and others give me what I want, on my terms, right now. I disrespect the name of God through impatience. When I am impatient, when I demand that things go my way and lash out in frustration when they do not, when I will not give others and God the time and space they need to unfold according to their dictates, then it is not the angry words I say, the expletives, that are the problem, it is the impatience that is. I curse and swear, not so much with the words I say, but in the demand I make that life unfold on my terms and on my timetable.

I take the name of God in vain, I curse and swear, when, through crudity, anger, or impatience, I am inhuman to others and to God.