Sometimes I utter the name “Jesus” and I don’t know what I mean.
Amid the dry heaves, the soul-suck, the pressing world-weight, and exposed nerve endings, only one word enters my mind. Just one name passes my lips. Am I praying or cursing? The double yellow lines fade with time, assuming the asphalt’s color.
I want to reassure myself, erase any possible stain of blasphemy. But before settling into self-talk about “what God can handle” or comparing myself to Job or the Psalmists, a familiar twinge returns.
I am 14 again, and very little is well with my soul. Shifting about the pew, staring through the sanctuary carpet, I worry over every “Oh my God.” Whether voiced aloud or, more often, confined to my inner monologue, those three little words arrest. Is this the unforgivable sin? If I think them 70 times 7, will I drift to the edge of forgiveness?
Blinking myself beyond the fugue of memories, I dwell on a name dear to me. Brooke. My beloved’s name sounds like a major chord to my ears; it tastes right on my lips. Her name exceeds the sum of six letters, freighted with the surprisingly lightweight of 20 years’ worth of arguments, laughter, and the mercy of kisses.
Fighting to recover her name would mean demonstrating its glory. How it is anything but empty, anything but vain.
I imagine someone taking her name in vain, spitting it out like a swear. Plosive sounds absent grace, vowels twisted past their purpose.
My temperature might rise in such a moment, my reflexes engaged to explain the twisted syntax, the beauty that should surround its sound. Fighting to recover her name would mean demonstrating its glory. How it is anything but empty, anything but vain.
Before taking up the cause, more reckoning is necessary. I would need to sit with my own sins. Surely I take my wife’s name in vain whenever I invoke it in anger or couch it in derision.
But every transgression committed against her stains her name. My selfishness and slights, my daydream infidelities and casual coldness—all conspire to rob the name Brooke of its fullness.
Some Christians understand this dynamic. A few careless utterances of the word “Jesus,” they protest, shrink back in light of all we’ve done in his name. Wars he never asked us to wage. People we prematurely damned. All the men who propose love, sex or marriage to their spiritual sisters, crediting him like they’re Paul chasing a vision to Macedonia.
Righteousness attends this approach, but the conversation often lacks real gravity. Christians understand that all our good and godliness fulfill the two great commandments: to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. All the law and prophets hang here.
May we have eyes to see how life runs in reverse. Perhaps every commandment we break ultimately violates the third law Moses relayed in Exodus.
Our idolatry demotes God, degrading his name. We covet and slander his sufficiency. We bear false witness with one hand upon his word. Adultery muffles the way his name sounds across the span of a marriage. Murder, whether with our hands or harbored in our hearts, chokes the life from someone made in his image, awakened to enjoy him and glorify his name.
Sinning against one another, we sin against him. In this, we strip away and suppress sweet and holy elements of the life he created.
Sinning against one another, we sin against him. In this, we strip away and suppress sweet and holy elements of the life he created. We make all he did—in his good pleasure, for the sake of his own name—look and sound like pure vanity.
We might keep from misusing the Lord’s name by watching our mouths. But we build our lives around his name by soberly appreciating the countless ways we take it in vain. Seared by this recognition, we step toward recovering the majesty of that name.
The name of God should be a shelter and a song. When invoked, it calms the soul and quickens our anticipation of eternity. His name preaches freedom all by itself. It unshackles and it binds; it reorients the cosmos and creates family from two strangers. It holds no less power whispered by a back-pew sinner as when it shouts in thunder’s echo.
These realities bring me back to myself.
What do I mean by “Jesus” when I repeat his name with labored breath, with the stink of desperation in my pores? I really don’t know. My soul could stand a check.
But maybe if that name alone comes to me when life is at its most acute, I am dangerously close to something Isaiah and his coal-burnt lips understood. Every other name rings hollow in comparison. All other names become vain when his arises.