The ‘Taking The Lord’s Name In Vain’ Sermon That Has Yet To Be Preached

Despite my being a Christian, I managed to be seen as a heretic. Or at least, that is how it sometimes felt. When I came to the United States nearly over a decade ago, I noticed the number of distinctions between the way Americans and Nigerians practice Christianity. It became more and more apparent, especially with the swift reprimand I would get from saying a certain phrase.

“Oh my God,” I’d exclaim.

“Mary, don’t say that! Say ‘oh my gosh’ instead,” some friends would retort, occasionally with a gentle smack on the arm.

And so, I quickly learned that saying “oh my God” meant that you are taking the Lord’s name in vain. At least, that is what it means in America. In Nigeria, “gosh” does not exist.

Christian or non-Christian alike, it is a common thing for Nigerians to say “oh my God” in the face of an intense emotional experience. For the non-Christian, it is simply a saying. For the devout Christian, it is more personal, a way in which to exclaim that what they just heard or witnessed was so incredibly intense that they cannot help but exclaim their God’s name. It makes sense, really; since God is viewed in their eyes as the pinnacle of all that is good, He would be the name to call on in the face of a very negative experience that is beyond them or beyond what they can handle.

Deep down, this is what I knew to be true though I did not have all of the words to verbalize it. But I was told by American Christians, especially those of the conservative variety, that saying “God” was likening His name to a curse word. For the sake of blending into conservative American Christian culture, I made sure to say “gosh” in front of those who said “gosh” and said whatever word came first when I was in the company of those I felt the most comfortable. But as I have been able to find the words to verbalize my thoughts on the matter, I realize that maybe the American critique of what counts as the Lord’s name is superficial.

Taking the Lord's name in vain

Let’s take, for instance, the guy who told me that God told him that I was to marry him when it was clear that his main motive was to sleep with me. Or those times that Christians condescendingly tell someone “I’ll pray for you” or “May God have mercy on you.” Or when God’s name is used as a convenient break up line and nothing more. Wouldn’t these motives make it clear that God’s name is being taken in vain?

Please understand that this post is not written to win some argument. This is just me trying to get to the heart of the matter. This is me trying to make sense of the different cultures I am immersed in that are opposite in many ways. When it comes to the cross-cultural interpretations of many things, they will differ and religion is no exception. But the motives and intent of an individual cannot be disputed when they are brought to the light. And in the event I do not know the motives of an individual, I won’t lose sleep. Rather, I will make sure my own motives are in check and live my life that are best reflective of the values and beliefs I profess.

What are your thoughts on the “taking the Lord’s name in vain” topic? Do you say “God” or “gosh” or does it not really matter to you? Let me know your thoughts.

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  • I’ve experienced the other side of the coin in being a Christian Westerner that moved to Africa! I found that a lot of the clothing I would wear in the U.S. wasn’t really considered appropriate by Christians in the areas I was in, and there were things about Christians there that were disconcerting to me. However, we love each other because we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ, so we made accommodations for each other. I wore skirts to church and in public. I danced when the offering was taken. I changed how I expressed my Christianity (within scriptural boundaries) to properly communicate it to the people around me, and it changed me as a person, too.
    I’m a pastor in an intercultural church now, and we encounter issues like this fairly often. I think the key is to assume the best of each other and talk it through. If there’s a way you can easily avoid offending someone and not forfeit your own convictions, do it! We all have to give and take, and holding tightly to our “right” to do what we want really doesn’t always help. But it’s worth it! I feel like our church is so much richer because of all the worldviews and expressions of Christianity that are included. It’s worth having to work through things every once in a while!

  • There definitely is a richness that comes with international spaces like your church (btw SUPER cool that you’re the pastor there). But I think it is also good to consider the power dynamic differences that exist with me coming to America and you going to Africa. I believe that any Westerner that moves to Africa (or any place where they are the minority) adheres to whatever that country calls for so that the perpetuation of erasure that often happens when Westerners are present within their spaces does not happen. In America, a country that has romanticized the immigrant experience for a couple of centuries, several immigrants often become frustrated with how condescending Americans can be towards immigrants who wish to share their viewpoints or cultural practices that are in line with their backgrounds (“you’re in America; speak English,” etc). That does not make for a foreign girl who is confident about her background. For many years, I wished I was nothing but American because of this and there are several immigrant children of color who felt/feel the same. But it’s interesting how the university experience can help shape your confidence and what makes you unique. As such, I am very confident in sharing my experiences that are a result of my cultural identity though I am still sorting my identity out–I don’t think it will ever end lol. Thanks for commenting, Emileigh!