You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain . . . (Exodus 20:7)
This year marks the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism.
I was raised in the Baptist tradition, and it has only been within the past decade that I have been awakened to the Heidelberg. The fault for that, if there is any, is my own – not the Baptists’.
Keep in mind, the Heidelberg was written to be a teaching tool, a means of training the young in the basics of the faith. In the 16th century it was taught over a period of one year, the 129 questions and answers divided over 52 Sundays. Its content is basically a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.
Of particular interest to us this week is question 99: “What is God’s will for us in the third commandment?” The answer is stated as follows:
"That we neither blaspheme nor misuse the name of God by cursing, perjury, or unnecessary oaths, nor share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders. In a word, it requires that we use the holy name of God only with reverence and awe, so that we may properly confess him, pray to him, and praise him in everything we do and say."
In his fine book on the Heidelberg Catechism, The Good News We Almost Forgot, pastor Kevin DeYoung explains that in the reformed tradition the third commandment has had broad and varied applications. Cursing . . . well, we all know quite well what that is. We are hardly surprised by that cursing violates God’s will for us in our speaking. Perjury . . . again, to swear “so help me God” and then ignore God is clearly wrong. Needless oaths say too much when the simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would suffice, just as Jesus taught (Matt. 5:37).
What is striking about the answer to Q99 is the culpability of silence.
The Heidelberg teaches us that to be silent in the face of false, damaging, and debased use of words is to somehow be complicit in what is being said. This is not to mean that you obey the third commandment by becoming the self-appointed censor of everyone’s words. It does mean that at some point silence can be acceptance or even approval.
Is there a place in your life where you have been silent for too long? Maybe you need to speak a word of truth to a friend or someone in your family. Perhaps there’s something that needs to be confronted in your work place. Maybe there’s an opinion or piece of counsel that you’ve been afraid to share.
And there’s a positive side to this. Don’t hold back with your words of encouragement, a compliment for work well done, an expression of pride in your child, a phone call to someone with whom you’ve lost touch. On this Valentine’s Day don’t miss the chance to say “I love you.”
Perhaps today you will obey the third commandment not by holding your tongue, but by speaking up. Restraint is admirable, but it needs to be coupled with courage. Restraint minus courage equals fear.
Merciful God, forgive us when we’ve allowed silence to mask fear, making us complicit in words that dishonor you and your name. We need your wisdom in knowing when to refrain from words. Just as often, we need the gift of boldness in knowing when to break our silence. Grant us grace in speaking and in silence, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.