Words, habits and resolutions

How many of you, in a fit of anger, in the moment you dropped some heavy thing on your foot, mistook your thumb for a nail, watched a souffle collapse, or any one of a number of things that exasperated, exhausted, miffed, frustrated, irritated, annoyed, incensed or _______ (please fill in your descriptive state of mind) you – have taken the Lord’s name in vain? I suspect that the percentage is quite high. Perhaps approaching 99%?As children we’re taught that cursing, even when we’re in pain, is inappropriate, betrays a limited vocabulary or is somehow low class in that ambiguous way many cultural lessons suggest. Cursing is simply vulgar, socially unacceptable language you don’t use in polite conversation. Yet some offer that it has its purposes.

In his book “The Stuff of Thought,” Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and a professor at Harvard, listed a few functions of swearing. There’s emphatic swearing, for instance, which is meant to highlight a point, and dysphemistic swearing, which is meant to make a point provocatively. Cursing can also offer catharsis. A study co-authored by Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University, found that swearing can increase your ability to withstand pain. So when you stub your toe and howl an expletive, it might help you tolerate the pain better. Counter studies to both the above show that the same effects can be achieved without the use of cursing.

In social settings, swearing can serve as a connector. Every generation has its own slang, which includes profanity. When you use that language, it’s almost like a password that gives you access to people hip to it, so thinks the cognitive scientist Dr. Benjamin Bergen of UCSD . This can work even if you avoid swearing. As Dr. Bergen explained, people with religious beliefs often avoid swearing and may use other phrases, like “shut the front door,” to replace profanity. This signals who you are socially, he said. I think there is something to his study, but again, there are lots of ways to signal social belonging. In Kenya a typical greeting on the street might be “Tumsifu Yesu Kristu” – “Let us praise Jesus Christ.” That certainly made clear your social belonging.

Interesting as that all might be (and truthfully I find it kinda’ fascinating as I have always been intrigued by words and their meaning) – I think Christian people are called to be people whose lives and words point to God in an evangelical kind of way. It really is a full time job and too often we are “off the clock.” Alas, the failing of our humanity.

Nonetheless, I think the use of the Lord’s name in vain is poor witness, crude, unbecoming, and thoughtless. Perhaps especially the latter: thoughtless. While there are less and less social mores that discourage its use, it largely remains thoughtless – lacking intention or purpose – reduced to one expletive among many. I am pretty sure when used the one speaking is not asking God to set the eternal destiny of the person, thing, or situation to one of perdition and everlasting damnation. One is merely exercising a habit, albeit a poor one, that is ingrained in your life. Maybe its time to bring this habit to prayer:

O Divine Wisdom, the eternal Word of the Father. I humbly ask you, by your grace, to purge my lips from all wicked and unprofitable words, that my mouth may never open but to your praise and honor, and to the benefit of others. Amen.

There’s a prayer to include with a New Year’s resolution.

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