“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.
From my childhood, I have always known that there are some words or phrases that you just do not say. I have vivid memories of my mother enforcing a rule in our home about a particular swear word that my brothers were simply not allowed to utter. It involved a squared off meter stick and a good solid whack on a boney part of the body. (For you who are concerned here, my brothers were not being abused as they were well big enough and old enough that this correction was a sting, not a beating.)
Oddly, the particular phrase that could not be uttered in my parents’ home was not the one that tends to most get the hackles of Christians up. It was not a misuse of the word “God” that had my mom up in arms, but rather a dropping of a particular verbal bomb that mom simply would not tolerate from the guys.
But for many Christians I know, nothing is much more offensive than a swear word that involves using the word “God.” These believers understand this form of swearing as a violation of the third commandment, a dangerous thing to do indeed.
While I would agree that swearing with “God” in the phraseology is a sure cheapening of the understanding of who God is and what he is about, I would not say that cussing is the first way in which we should understand the prohibition given us in Exodus 20:7. While that may indeed be a way to take God’s name in vain, it is not the deepest or most primary way to do so.
Remember that this passage occurs at the point when the Hebrews were leaving Egypt and on their way to the promised land. God, in giving this command to the people. Told them not to play games with him or his name. It would not be acceptable for an Israelite to say that they were a follower of God while in truth not believing in him whatsoever. God made it very plain to the Hebrews that to wear his name meant something, and he would not be happy with a man who claimed to know him but who really didn’t. So, you see, this is far different than a simple swear word.
To do something in vain is to do it in a way that is empty, meaningless, or useless. Let me illustrate in a way that my Old Testament prof once illustrated for me. I have a friend, Lonnie, who has for years been a Chicago Cubs fan (poor, misguided soul). However, one day, as we went together to a ballgame, he wore an Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals jersey. What Lonnie did was to take the name of the Cardinals in vain. He wore the shirt, making a proclamation, but in a way that had no truth to it, no meaning to it.
When it came to going to the ballgame with Lonnie, it was funny to see him wearing the birds on the bat of the Cardinals, but putting on a name in an empty or meaningless—vain—way is not at all a laughing matter when the name of God is at stake. How do we put on or “take” the name of God? We claim to be followers of God. WE claim to be God’s children. In modern day, we claim to be Christian. That is how we put on and wear the name of God.
Here, then, is how many people today take the name of the Lord their God in vain. Today, there are people who live around us. Perhaps they are family members or neighbors, perhaps old friends or schoolmates. When we talk with them, they tell us that they are Christians, or at least they tell us they are Christians if we ask them. But, if they do not truly have a relationship with Jesus, if their lives do not match their testimony, they are taking the name of God in vain, in an empty, meaningless, useless way.
Without trying to come off as judgmental, I will share another couple of stories that I fairly vividly recall. While in New Orleans, I met a man who told me that he was a believer. He told me that he loved Jesus, and prayed all the time. However, this man was not the essence of sobriety. A few moments later, this man admitted that he was often drunk, occasionally smoked marijuana, and slept around on his wife. What had he done for the name of God that he had first “worn” as he told us that he was a Christian. This poor, drunken man I met in the French Quarter had taken the name of the Lord in vain.
But it’s not just men like this who have taken God’s name in vain. I remember being at a restaurant with a group of seminary students. The meal was a little slow in coming, and one among our group was a total jerk to the waitress. This, of course, was after she had seen us pray for our meal and talk theology. Without question, at that moment, my fellow Bible scholar was wearing the name of God in a very hollow way.
What about the religious charlatans on many TV programs. These guys are a great example of what it means to take God’s name in vain. They use the name of Jesus to make money for themselves and to increase their own fame. They use Christianity as a tool.
I can think back over my own life, especially at times when I was feeling sorry for myself over this or that issue, and I behaved in ways that truly did not honor God in any way. Often, to my chagrin, these instances would happen in front of friends or family members who know me to be the token Christian of the group. So, there I was, wearing the name of God, but acting like an idiot. Yep, that’s in vain too.
My goal here is not to cause a major debate on what is or is not taking God’s name in vain, but rather, it is to challenge all who would call themselves Christians to carry God’s name around with them in a way that is authentic. If you are going to claim Christ, live in such a way that proves your claims true. IF you’re not going to live as a believer, don’t pretend to be a believer. God is not pleased when his name is thrown around in a way that has no meaning, and we do not want to be guilty of that sin.