This question relates to your sermon on the Third Commandment, which was preached on 5 December 1999, in which you said that if we are not thinking of God when we say “goodbye” to someone, we could be breaking the Third Commandment. Is it really wrong to say “goodbye” casually to a friend? Although the phrase originally meant “God bless ye,” it has lost its significance and hardly anyone today knows its original meaning.

First, I must apologise for a mistake I made. The Oxford Library of Words and Phrases (Revised Edition) indicates that “goodbye” evolved from “God be wy you,” “God buy’ye,” “God b’uy,” and “Godbuy,” all of which are contraction of the phrase “God be with you or ye.” Apparently, “God” was replaced with “good” in the 16th Century to be in line with “good day” and “good night,” which were already in use in the 13th and 14th centuries respectively. If this is right, then “goodbye” does not mean “God bless ye” or “God be with you” after all, and therefore it may be wrong to say that intoning “goodbye” thoughtlessly would be a breaking of the Third Commandment—whether or not the significance of the phrase is known. Goodbye, together with good-morning and good-night, may simply be taken as greetings of common courtesy which has no religious significance at all.

You may notice that I have not wholeheartedly retracted what I said. The reason for my hesitation is twofold.

Firstly, the Lord teaches us that “every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgement” (Mt 12:36). The word translated “idle” is the Greek argos, which can also be translated “useless,” “barren,” or “unproductive.” In other words, we are accountable even for the things, which we say, which do not have much significance to us. This means that we ought to avoid speaking things of no value. We ought not to be satisfied that we are uttering something out of cultural norm and common courtesy. We ought rather always to let our speech be “with grace, seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6).

Secondly, and closely related to the first point is that if you think carefully, you will realise that “goodbye,” “good day,” “good night,” etc., are actually formulas of blessings or prayers. This will become very clear when we consider the fact that when we say “good night” to someone, we are ‘wishing’ the person a good night. If we say that we are not ‘wishing’ anything, then our courteous words would in fact be thoughtless and meaningless. Imagine what you will say if your friend turns around to you and asks, “why do you say good night?” I am fairly sure that you will say something to the effect of “I hope you will have a good night’s rest, etc.” Now, if you wish something and it is not a prayer to God, then it is either superfluous or superstitious—which is in-deed a breaking of the Third Commandment! Here’s something we can learn from the Scripture as a pattern for our lives: our verbal greetings should as far as possible have weight and value. In Ruth 2:4, we see a godly example of Christian greeting when Boaz greeted his reapers with: “The LORD be with you,” and they responded: “The LORD bless thee.” Similarly, in the New Testament, the Lord’s most common greetings was “Peace be unto you” (Lk 24:36; Jn 20:19; etc.), which contrast sharply with the much less meaningful “hello.” The Apostles’ greetings, when intoned (we’ll talk about the holy kiss or kiss of charity in another issue), were similarly prayers. This can be seen in the salutations at the beginning and end of their epistles (e.g., 1 Cor 1:3; 16:23–24; 1 Pet 1:2; 5:14). Indeed, it is probably because the common salutation of those days took the form of blessing or prayer that the Apostle John warns against bidding a heretic “God speed” (2 Jn 10–11). It should be noted that the phrase “bid… God speed” is really only one word in the Greek, namely, chairein, which simply means “to greet” (cf. Jas 1:1). In other words, the Apostle John actually forbids us to greet heretics. Read either way, the Apostle John’s admonition ought to cause us to be more mindful when we greet someone. If John had in mind that a greeting involves prayer or blessing, then we should learn not to give idle greetings. If John did not have in mind that a greeting involves a prayer or blessing, then all the more whenever we greet, whether we do so out of cultural norms or courtesy, we ought to be purposeful.

May I conclude by saying that, though we thus speak, we must not become legalistic and condemn others for their manner of greetings. I personally do not think it is a great wickedness to use words such as “hello” or “goodbye” or “bye bye,” but I think it would do well for us to be more meaningful in our greetings. Old habits, such as these, die hard and we may be accounted queer if we greet in any other way than the cultural norm, but it would certainly be better if we could learn to greet more purposefully. For one thing, it would be more meaningful to say to a fellow believer, “May God bless you,” or simply “God bless,” rather than an empty “good bye.”