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The challenge of the third commandment

The Ten Commandments

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” That is the King James Version of the third commandment (Exodus 20:7). Like most of us, I was taught that it meant there is certain language you can’t use – swear words being chief among them. And as a kid, we all knew what those forbidden words were (and the excitement we felt when we learned a new one).

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has demonstrated to me that limiting the third commandment to a proscription against the use of certain words domesticates the breadth and challenge of the third commandment. It is meant to go much deeper.

The third commandment prohibits us from using God to satisfy our own ends or purposes. The third commandment forbids us from using God as a tool to promote our agenda or program. “God is on my side” is one of the most insidious breaches of the third commandment. God may indeed work out of love and commitment for us; but the commandments insist that God can never be employed by us.

Alan Roxburgh makes a similar case about scripture in Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood. He indicates that we have tended to read scripture through a particular lens: how can I be better and more faithful? or how can the church be more inviting and vital? Those are important questions, but they tend to domesticate the scripture, and then we have missed out on the scripture’s power to enable us to read the world in a different way.

The world is a confusing, often dangerous, place. God is working in that world. Scripture opens us up to how God is working in that world – and how we might join God in that important work.

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