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Growing up in church, I was always taught not to “take the Lord’s name in vain.” When I was younger, this translated to not saying things like “oh my god!” But the older I’ve gotten, the sillier that seems. I’ve heard people invoke God to justify saying all sorts of hurtful things, so just avoiding those few phrases seems like a shallow view of that commandment. I was reading back over the Ten Commandments recently and came across that phrase again, so I was wondering: What does it actually mean to “take the Lord’s name in vain?”
Having grown up in church, I too have wrestled over this question.
We know better than to take the Lord’s name in vain. Scripture makes it clear: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:7).
God obviously cares about our words, and there’s something seriously wrong with taking the Lord’s name in vain. At face value, it makes sense not to say, “oh my god,” or to utter God’s name in other disrespectful ways. I grew up believing that’s all the third command requires, and that’s what we must do to fulfill it.
I later came to see that God lists this command among other serious infractions including idolatry, Sabbath breaking, disrespecting parents, killing, adultery, stealing, lying, coveting a neighbor’s spouse and/or possessions. And I began wondering if God has bigger concerns than occasional slips of the tongue. You are right about digging deeper. There’s a lot more going on in this passage.
I once heard a pastor say the third command is possibly the most neglected because of “the tendency we all have to dismiss its significance.” He meant that it’s easy to let this command slide when there are other more serious-sounding infractions. All the while, the Old and New Testaments show us that what comes out of our mouths is more than a matter of words; it points to the condition of our hearts:
“Each tree is recognized by its own fruit … A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:44a-45).
Words reveal our substance, the truth of who we are. They testify either of our devotion to God or of a spiritual problem. We know this because the command not to take the Lord’s name in vain follows instructions to love God wholeheartedly and not to worship idols (causing spiritual malaise).
Prior to this, God has cracked down on false prophets for speaking illegitimate words in the name of the Lord. God has also cautioned His people not to listen to false prophets including those who treat the wounds of others lightly by crying, “Peace, peace when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). The third command cautions us from proclaiming, “God told me this or that,” unless we are positive it lines up with Scripture. And words spoken in the name of the Lord never stand in the way of compassionate, practical support of those who suffer injustices.
Leviticus 19:12 says, “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.’” A seminary professor once demonstrated that the third command relates to covenant making within legal and personal situations. God opposes perjury. God wants a civil servant to keep his or her vows. God values keeping ordination vows and marriage vows. It is serious business to commit to a vow made in the name of God.
The writer of Hebrews emphasizes the importance of worshipping God with a fully engaged heart: “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). Such devotion involves meaningful intention when speaking God’s name.
Turning to James 3:11, we face a challenging question about our behaviors including our words: “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” Reading on, we are reminded that a fig tree does not bear olives, and a grapevine does not bear figs. Wisdom reminds us to draw upon Jesus—God’s living Word—while living and moving and having our being in Him.
It sends powerful messages when we identify with Jesus’ name. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). He lives in us, although—truth be told—we don’t always represent Him well. It’s never easy to hear that even our smallest actions matter. James 1:26 says this with some strong words, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” Whether or not we follow in Jesus’ footsteps has serious ramifications.
Not taking the Lord’s name in vain entails sticking with Jesus, again and again, as the Spirit helps us overcome sin and recreates our lives. Through it all, we realize our truest identity and purposes. May the aroma of Jesus permeate our words and actions drawing others to God (2 Corinthians 2:14).
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