You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11 [ESV])
The call of the first two commandments to worship God alone and not make images of Him includes, but does not solely address, bowing down to idols in worship. So, too, the third commandment includes, but does not solely address, people using the phrases, “Oh my God” or “I swear to God” for emphasis or when we react to something we see or hear. Not only are we to only worship God and to do so only in the manner He commands, our thoughts and statements about God must always be truthful and thoughtful – reflecting the truth of His Word and the holiness of His character. As I reflected on this commandment and looked at the thoughts of others on it (including Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 99-102 , Westminster Larger Catechism Q & A 111-114, and Westminster Shorter Catechism Q & A 54-56), I noted some particular ways we may break this commandment and ways we can keep it that I want to pass along.
Four Ways to Break This Commandment
The explanations in the Catechisms noted above give many specific ways we can violate this command. Rather than going through the lists in those Reformed confessions, I sought to give some common (but perhaps not often recognized) ways that people today break this commandment.
#1. Speaking about or to God without thinking about His nature
A common way of breaking this commandment is when we speak about or to God without really thinking about His nature and who He is. This might be the flippant use of the name of God by shouting His name when we are surprised and shocked — not speaking to Him, but rather as an exclamation. When we do, it does not honor His name. God’s name should not be used as an exclamation like “Oh boy” (or as my grandma used to say “Oh my stars!”), but needs to be revered as the God of the universe who created you. How would you like to have someone randomly shout your name when something happens? We can also speak to or about God without even thinking about His nature when we “go through the motions” of worship. Do you ever say a prayer without really thinking about who God is? Do you ever sing songs or speak about His Word without pondering who you are talking about? When we do, we are using His name in “vain” — we are emptying it of its infinite value and worth.
#2. Speaking about/for God without Scripture basis
Another common way we misuse God’s name is when we make false claims for Him, when we use the name of God for our own agenda. This can be explicit false teaching, twisting His Word, or labeling things as “from the Lord” that do not come from Him. It can also include speaking out of ignorance, believing that God said something, when in fact, He did not. Another common way this plays itself out is when we do something and then try to justify our actions by saying, “God made me do it.” When I was in college, I heard the advice never to break up with a girlfriend/boyfriend by saying, “God told me to break up with you.” The speaker explained that this is a cowardly act, pinning the blame on God. However, now I think it means that you are actually taking the Lord’s name in vain, invoking His name to justify what you think is right. Hopefully these words come from good intentions — that you actually prayed to God, and as you sought to follow Him, ending this relationship seemed to be a logical step to do. It’s important to differentiate between how you sought a decision and who is the one who ultimately led you to the decision. This can happen in the church, too. We may say that God told us how to engage in a particular issue, or by saying that our way is the only Christian way to view something, when in fact, the Bible doesn’t speak directly about it. It may be a “good and necessary” consequence of what we read in Scripture, but if God does not say it directly in His Word, be careful of claiming He does and be wary of those who make such claims.
#3. Speaking about God without love for Him
Perhaps the most direct way of violating this commandment is through blasphemy – speaking ill of God and then spreading such an attitude to others with your will. To dislike or despise God is taking His name in vain, as it does not recognize the goodness of His character.
#4. Speaking about/for God without reflecting it in our lives
While blasphemy happens when we speak against God, we see in Scripture that God says people “blaspheme His name” through their actions, too (Romans 2:24; Isaiah 52:5; Ezekiel 20:27; 36:20; 2 Samuel 12:14). When we claim to be a follower of God but do not follow His Word with our lives, we do not glorify God but instead blaspheme His name. One of the biggest objections to the Christian faith is the hypocrisy of His followers, as our actions put His name into disrepute and cause people to question whether He is real and whether He is really God. When we claim to belong to God but do not reflect it in our lives, we take His name in vain.
Ways to Keep This Commandment
The 10 Commandments are given not just to tell us not what to do, but to direct us about how we should live them out. While this command is a prohibition – do not take the Lord’s name in vain – there is an implied command that tells us that we should honor and revere God’s name. This involves confessing truths about God and praising Him, both in acts of worship and in everyday conversation. Attending worship, reading His Word, praying to Him, and actions such as those are ways that we honor His name. We also keep this commandment by teaching others to do so. This means that parents and influencers should both discourage the flippant use of God’s name and should confront such misuse of His name among those who proclaim to know God. Since we live in a world in which not everyone recognizes God, we should not be surprised that people around us will misuse God’s name and not treat it with respect, but we should be bothered by it. At times, we may need to leave or disengage from situations in which people are actively blaspheming and misusing God’s name, both because it will influence us negatively, and because we can be unwittingly promoting it as an bystander (see Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 99). We should also prayerfully consider how we might use the fact that people continue to invoke God (even falsely) as a way to point to the true God (see what Paul does in Acts 17:16-31).
It’s a Big Deal Because He Is Not Just Kind of a Big Deal — He Is the Biggest Deal!
Something I had not really pondered about this commandment until reflecting on it for this post was the reason that is attached to it – “for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” People often ask why it is such a big deal if someone occasionally uses God’s name as an exclamation. It is a big deal because God is a big deal and He says it is a big deal! There is guilt (and thus a need for punishment) upon those who do not treat His name right; we see this in the Old Testament as people who violate God’s name are put to death (see Leviticus 19:12; 24:16). When you give someone something precious and they treat it as ordinary, we get upset. God’s name is something special – it is not just a few letters, but a designation of a holy and gracious being. How we treat His name and speak about Him is reflective of what we think about Him. Rather than using His name in vain – treating it as empty and worthless – may we treasure it and cherish it. This does not mean being afraid of even saying His name, but rather saying it often and with great reverence and awe as His name is worthy of all praise and honor.
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