Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.Exodus 20:7 – KJV
The other day I was reading again in Paul Tillich’s collection of sermons entitled “The Eternal Now” and ran across a sermon titled, “The Divine Name.” Tillich used the verse from Exodus above, but he went a different direction with the sermon that I though he would, but it got me to thinking about the use of God’s name.
If you grew up in a typical evangelical home, you probably were ingrained with a decent fear of cursing, especially the grand-daddy of all curses: taking God’s name in vain. This includes words like “G**d****t” and phrases like “Oh My God!”
Tony Campolo, a Baptist minister and evangelist who spoke regularly during the 90’s and early 2000’s used to start off some of his talks with the following:
“I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”Christianity Today, January 2003
Campolo knew that our tendency, as humans, is to deconstruct things down to simple black and white concepts so that we can easily “keep the faith.” If we have a clear cut behavior that defines what constitutes a failure, then we can quickly determine who is defying God’s commandments, and who is not. Reducing God’s commandments down to simple things allows us to avoid really examining our lives to understand our deepest motivations for our behaviors.
Both the NRSV and the NIV translate this commandment in Exodus with slightly different wording:
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.Exodus 20:7 – NRSV
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 – NIV
“Wrongful use” and “misuse” speak more to what this commandment is all about. It’s not just about uttering the “unutterable name.”
It’s not quite as prevalent today, but the idea of someone’s name used to mean the entire core of someone’s being. Someone’s reputation. It dealt with who they were, and not just how they were adressed in public. If you were to dirty someone’s name, you were most likely gossiping about them, or spreading lies. And if a person was not well respected, their name was “mud.”
This commandment is not about uttering phrases like “G**d****t!” It is about invoking the reputation, the very essence of God for our own purposes, or for purposes that do not further God’s will on this earth.
You can probably think of the name of any number of politicians who invoke faith as a means of swaying voters who like to vote for someone who “shares my faith.” And, you can probably think of multiple politicians who throw out God and faith in seemingly incongruous situations, merely to manipulate voters into supporting them.
Or perhaps you’ve run across televangelists or other religious figures who simply know that the power of God is ready and willing to cure you of whatever ails you, provided you are willing to send in that small donation to show that you have a seed of faith, because that seed of faith is what God needs to see into order to see your earnest desire.
Now, it’s easy to understand how people like this might be invoking the divine for their own gain, but it’s not always as easy to spot in our own lives, in more mundane settings.
I once met a guy who handed me his business card, on which was emblazoned a Christian fish symbol in the upper right hand corner. I asked him where he went to church, and started a conversation because of this symbol on his card. As it turns out, he shared with me that the only reason he had that symbol on his card is because it seems to build trust with people very quickly, and that the only reason he went to church was because it was good for developing business contacts – he attended one of the largest churches in the area. He didn’t go to church primarily because he believed in God and wanted to grow in his faith, but because he believed he could get new contracts and new business by spending time at church. That fish symbol on a business card is not, by itself, inherently bad, but the way this guy was using it, was, at its core, an abuse of the divine name.
Taking God’s name in vain is not just about uttering the unutterable. God is the beginning and the end of our faith, the essence of our belief, and so invoking God in any part of our lives in order to benefit ourselves is a misuse – a wrongful use – of God’s name. A person’s name is their reputation, their very essence, and if we understand that, then we can see why God would not hold someone guiltless if they misrepresent the divine name for their own gain.
In our own lives, maybe we know that someone is in the middle of making a difficult decision, and we have a stake in that decision. Perhaps we insert ourselves into their decision making process by invoking the name of God when we let them know that “God has put it on my heart to tell you ______.”
Again, just like with the fish symbol on a business card, this is not inherently bad. Because God could very well have placed something on your heart for someone, but the point is that we need to examine our own motivations before we invoke God’s name because that is when we get into the murky depths of misusing it. And if we continue to go down this path, then we step into the depths of manipulation and the appropriation of divine power.
While we may like to bring sin down to the level of black and white, right and wrong, and bring this commandment down to something as simple as yelling out “G**d****t!” when we stub our toe, we just can’t let ourselves make things that easy. Our every action needs to be assessed and re-assessed to see if we are, in fact, invoking and misappropriating the divine name for our own use. Because if we do, “God will not hold us guiltless.”
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.