This post is part 7 in a 7 part series of reflections as I turn 25 years old. I’m convinced that to be human is to struggle and to struggle with God. This series serves to honor the difficult questions. I don’t know if everyone has questions their mind continually turns over while they walk the dog, shower, drive to work, but these are mine. I’m hopeful that in 25 more years I’ll have more compelling, more faithful answers to them than I do now – or that I’ll have moved on to more interesting things altogether. Either way.
you’re using my name in vain, for your power and for your personal gain, for your advantage, for your wealth, and for your fame,
your public prayers i abhor in my ears they have become a strain, because you ignore the poor in their fears and the exiled in their pain because you adore and you defend the lustful pride, the bribes, and the lies of the arrogant,
you’ve joined that tribe and aligned your brand with the unkind in the land it’s not me you represent you’re using my name in vain for your rights and privilege, you trade prophetic witness for economy and prosperity, (Using My Name – Remedy Drive)
When I was about fifteen years old, I was sitting in church on Sunday morning at Foothills Fellowship, and someone was sharing from their seat about what they learned in Sunday school. And I remember him sharing this idea about what the third commandment meant, that thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
He said maybe it wasn’t so much about not saying “Oh my God!” as an expression, which is what I always thought the commandment was forbidding, and more about attaching God’s name to things where it did not belong. My mind was blown; it still is.
Perhaps someday I’ll figure out why this is, but (murdering aside) I’ve got a stomach for witnessing most of the commandments listed in Exodus 20 being broken. But number three, using the Lord’s name in vain, it really feels different. This reality does not always lend itself to working at a Christian university.
On the enrollment side of the university, we have a weekly Zoom meeting to go over updates, discuss current issues, and hear from leadership. Each week, we formally begin with a prayer from an employee. I’m usually very uncomfortable here. The prayers often implore God to grant us special blessing in our bid to enroll students and “build the kingdom.” And here is where I think we violate, weekly, the third commandment. The implied narrative, which is sometimes explicitly stated, is that our institution’s growth, increase, and financial success is somehow God’s will. So then it’s a short step to asking God to bless us so we can serve him, grow bigger, and “build the kingdom.” I’m just not convinced the “kingdom” I get paid to advance has much at all to do with the kingdom of heaven.
I’m not writing here to bag on the company I work for. And it’s not that I expect a really robust theology from the admissions department. What I do wonder is what is an appropriate response and level of participation in these kinds of systems. More directly, to what extent can I be complicit and still be faithful? Bluntly, how much can my conscious take? In some ways I’d be more comfortable working at a secular institution where spirituality was an authentic, personal expression rather than a corporate agenda dressed up in pseudo-spiritual language. It’s a bit ironic I think: many Christians of generations prior fought so hard to keep Christianity firmly ensconced in the public sphere, wanted nothing more than to have prayers spoken in corporate meetings. Here I am, and it makes me sick to my stomach.
Truthfully, I think the proclamation of the gospel and the breaking in of the kingdom of heaven is pretty much the last thing any corporation with dollars in mind wants. I have to laugh a bit when I see the ways these two agendas, the gospel and money, are tragically melded together. I hear phrases like “doing business God’s way” and “conscious capitalism” and “faith and free markets.” The catch phrases of the gospel are more along the lines of “sell everything and give it to the poor” and “the person in last place will get the best deal” and “favored are the needy” and “lend money without interest” and “give to people who you know won’t repay you.” The executives get a bit less “kingdom focused” when you put it that way.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1)
If we really put people and flourishing at the fore, maybe we wouldn’t build museums on campuses to businessmen and pay for huge lettering announcing that their millions were made “doing business God’s way.” Maybe we wouldn’t be hellbent on making more money every quarter and getting more consumers on board with our brand. In my opinion, if that’s what you’re after, that it totally fine – it’s normal. No shame in that. I do wish you’d leave “the gospel” out of it. And stop couching your visions of corporate gain in Jesus’ words. Stop assuming God wants you to get bigger. For God’s sake, stop violating the third commandment.
Until then, I will probably keep wincing during the corporation prayers and keep laughing when folks wax poetic about how much God is blessing us. And some folks think it’s irreverent to laugh a bit when people are praying, or to chuckle when executives talk about God’s will. But I think it’s the posture of God. When the biggest corporations in the country, education or otherwise, bow their digitally represented eyes, thank God for his blessing, and then continue to relentlessly chase money and growth – I’m pretty sure he’s laughing too.
I have to wonder though why I have such an aversion to this violating of the third commandment. Why don’t I feel the need to write articles about how stealing or committing adultery or not honoring parents? I’m reading a book called In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts in which Gabor Maté brilliantly delves into addiction and the mind of the addict. One of the points he makes is that our disdain of things we see in others is rooted in recognition of those things in ourselves.
“When I am sharply judgmental of another person, it’s because I sense or see reflected in them some aspect of myself that I don’t want to acknowledge.” – Gabor Maté (In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, p. 266)
Maté goes on, “If, for example, I resent some person close to me as ‘controlling,’ it may be owing to my own inability to assert myself. Or I may react against another person because he or she has a trait that I myself have – and dislike – but don’t wish to acknowledge…Moral judgements, however, are never about the obvious: they always speak to the underlying similarities between the judge and the condemned.”
I used to dream of being a major league baseball player. I had a sort of unspoken deal with God that if he let me make it as a pitcher, I would use the platform to…whatever Christians with big platforms think they’re doing. So I wonder if my hypersensitivity to people using God’s name in connection with their own brands and commercial agendas has something to do with recognizing that tendency in myself. Or maybe I see people throwing God’s name around willy nilly, and it reminds me of how awkward I feel when spiritual conversations are raised, and so I try to avoid them for fear of seeming like a sham. It’s tough for me to reckon; I’m super annoyed when people attach God’s name where it doesn’t belong (for instance, claiming the USA is a Christian nation), but I also am not very good at leading authentic conversations around faith and spirituality in healthy ways myself. So maybe I selfishly just want everyone to avoid them.
I would like to leave the reader with two things. One is part of a short, funny poem I wrote in December of 2019. And the second is a song about using God’s name in vain that my friend Brock sent to me – it’s become one of my favorites.
And Yahweh’s laughing out so hard, he’s busting out his sides,
Doubled over his holy throne, I think he’s starting to cry,
Then an angel came up curiously, and said Father what’s so funny,
He said, I don’t know who he’s thanking, me or the god of money,
Yeah, I don’t know who these prayers are for, me or the god of money,