Q: Is the expression “Oh my God” taking the name of God in vain?
— From J
A: What constitutes a violation of the third (Jewish) or second (Christian) commandment is not at all clear. The main intent of the commandment is to avoid magic and supernatural curses, not merely to avoid swearing. Ancient magic, not the magic of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, involved using the name of a god in order to cast a spell on someone. That is what the commandment prohibits. The point of biblical religion and the biblical view of God is that God cannot be manipulated magically by people. God’s will is inscrutable and unchangeable by human intervention. That is why God’s name cannot be pronounced, and when Moses asks God to tell him God’s name, God deflects the request by saying, “My name is, I am what I am.” (Exodus 3:14)
So, there is nothing disrespectful in your use of the expression, “Oh my God” (or OMG). It is an expression of amazement, not a curse. However, the word “God” followed by the word “damn” is another matter. It is a spiritual problem on several levels, and it is a violation of the commandment not to take God’s name in vain. If you unpack it, the word “G-damn” is asking God to curse someone or something. The first is a sin, the second silly. The basic spiritual caution is to not use God to pollute our language with demeaning thoughts.
Because God’s name cannot be pronounced, there is a problem of what to say when one is reading the Bible in Hebrew. The actual name of God is composed of four Hebrew letters that correspond roughly to the four English letters, YHWH. Whenever that name is written in the Bible, Adonai, which means “My Lord,” is substituted.
Christians who are not repelled by pronouncing the name of God have tried to manufacture a name out of those four consonants by adding vowels. producing the name Yahweh or Jehovah. Orthodox Jews do not do this and many will say “Ha-shem,” which in Hebrew means “The Name.” When they refer to God in writing, they will use that name or G-d instead of God.
I have no problem using the word God and writing the name God without a hyphen since the word God is not actually God’s name. It is an English word derived from the German word “Gott.” What matters to me most is that the word of God is used to uplift our language and our lives.
Q: A couple of months after my dad died, my mom needed her hip replaced. My brother flew down to Florida for the surgery and then I flew down, rented a car and stayed at her house for the rehab. The next morning, I realized that my tennis bracelet that I’d worn for 20 years was missing. I tore the house, the garage and the car apart. Then I called the airline, the car service, the rehab facility and the car dealer. No sign of my bracelet. I was heartsick. That night before I fell asleep I asked my dad to help me find my bracelet. At some point in the middle of the night I opened an eye. I just knew Dad was there. Suddenly I heard and felt my bracelet fall onto the bed. I said “Thanks, Dad,” and fell back asleep. Sure enough the next morning there was my bracelet on top of the blankets. Think what you want, but that’s what happened to me.
— From T
A: OK, I believe you. I am now going to bed and dreaming of a new set of golf clubs.