Is it sinful to watch sin on a screen? This is a huge discussion, ignited by a very specific question from a young man, a regular podcast listener. “Hello, Pastor John. I live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My question is about the sin of taking God’s name in vain — of saying ‘OMG,’ but really saying it. Interpreting and applying the third commandment brought a lot of conflict to my childhood with my father.
“He and I both agreed it is always sinful for each of us to take the Lord’s name in vain. Where we disagreed, and still do, is whether or not the taking of the Lord’s name in vain disqualifies a movie, television show, music track, or any other entertainment from the diet of a Christian. This would of course have major ramifications. As a teen I often said my father was being legalistic here on his wide application of the third commandment to media. I have said the display of this sin was not an endorsement of it by the viewer. This remains a sore spot in our relationship today. So, my question is, Do you think it is sinful to consume media that happens to include God’s name being taken in vain?”
This train left the station sixty years ago, and it’s roaring down the track about 250 miles an hour. And I don’t mean simply the obvious fact that movies and TV shows long ago forsook the God of the Ten Commandments and the God of the New Testament — who didn’t just say, “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain” (Exodus 20:7), but also said, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4). And he said, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). The standard is way, way higher than “don’t take the name of the Lord in vain.” Here’s Colossians 3:8: “Put away . . . obscene talk from your mouth.”
“If the desire for God’s word is rising because of your regular enjoyment of sin-soaked movies, then carry on.”
So, that train left the station. I’m not just talking about the train of forsaking such a God at the station; I’m talking about the fact that Christians are on the train. Most Christians today are on the train. Every screen, it seems, is now playing in every corner of every car, and everybody’s watching. Everybody’s watching. Why? Because they’re on the train.
That’s what you do on the train. We have computers, we have TVs, we have cable, we have big flat-screens on the wall. That’s what they’re for. What else can you do? You’re on the train.
So, I don’t have any illusion that what I say here will have much effect on the train and what you do on the train. My modest hope is that a few people might be moved to consider being crazy and countercultural enough to think that a great life of joy and fruitfulness is possible without being on the train.
You Are What You Enjoy
Of course, the short answer to the question is that it is not a sin to hear God’s name taken in vain. God hears it a billion times a day and sees every sin committed on the planet, the most outrageous, gross, unjust, wicked, defiled — he sees them all. And God never sins in seeing them. Jesus heard the Lord’s name taken in vain; they called him a demon (Mark 3:22). That’s not the issue. That’s just not the issue.
The enjoyment of being entertained by sin is the issue. I’ll say it again: the enjoyment of being entertained by sin is the issue. Whether it’s the sin of taking the Lord’s name in vain; or the sin of cocky, self-exalting arrogance, which seems to permeate everything; or the sin of lust and fornication and adultery and indecency and immodesty, which is virtually ubiquitous; or the sin of distortions of womanhood and manhood; or the sins of disrespecting parents; or the sins of drunkenness; or the sins of desiring to be rich, which Paul said we ought not to do; or the sins of dishonesty; or the sins of slandering with stereotypes; or the sins of simply, profoundly, ubiquitously ignoring and thus not glorifying or thanking God — whatever the sins, the issue is, What does it say about our souls that we enjoy being entertained by them?
If you say, “Well, I’m not being entertained by them. I’m not enjoying being entertained by the sins of the story. They grieve me. I’m being entertained by other aspects of truth or excellence in the story, and the way the story is presented,” I would say, “Well, I’m certainly glad about that.” And then I would say, “You are an amazing person, with capacities for purity and holiness far greater than mine. If you can over and over again be entertained in your relaxed, amused, pleased state by the enacting of sins that are not treated as sins — they’re glorified, they’re not treated as sins in the shows, but as acceptable and often preferable to righteousness — while not being defiled or shaped by those sins, you are an amazing person. I could wish for such holiness.”
Long for Holiness
But for most of us, it’s just not going to work like that. When we are tired and want to unwind from a good day’s work, we settle in with some series or movie that we hope will be minimally offensive or crass or obscene, and then we’re drawn into a suspenseful or interesting plot. And then scene after scene portrays a God-ignoring, man-exalting, sin-condoning, sex-distorting, marriage-weakening, maleness-mocking, femaleness-trivializing, righteousness-ridiculing, arrogance-admiring worldview. We ordinary, struggling saints, who long for purity of heart and holiness and all the fruits of the Holy Spirit, simply won’t be able not to be entertained by sin and shaped in our minds and hearts by that very entertaining worldview.
“The enjoyment of being entertained by sin is the issue.”
So, God bless you. If you are growing in holiness and purity of heart in mind, in manner, in mouth; and if you are being helped to love God and feel an urgency for the salvation of the lost; and if you are being taken deeper into prayer and into loving service to your church; and if you are being made more bold and more strong to stand against the destructive tides of our culture; and if the desire for God’s word is rising with greater passion because of your regular enjoyment of sin-soaked movies — because you are not entertained by that — then carry on.
But try to understand that, for some of us, who know the difference between the pursuit of grace-based holiness and legalism — in other words, your dad may not just be operating out of legalism — we find that approach to entertainment and zeal for God a path that doesn’t work for us.
Our zeal for God and the gospel and gospel-holiness just doesn’t grow that way. Maybe my answer to the question has been frustrating. I understand that. Because what our friend asked was “Is it sinful to consume media where God’s name is taken in vain?” And my answer has been “Take heed that you not be consumed.”