What does it mean to take the Lord’s name in vain?
You have probably heard that taking God’s name in vain is a sin. And if you grew up in Christian circles that meant saying Oh my goodness rather than Oh my god and not using God’s name as a curse word when you stubbed your toe.
The problem is we’ve oversimplified the 3rd commandment to not using the Lord’s name as a swear word. This oversimplification doesn’t capture the breadth of what using God’s name in vain means. We need to go back to the Bible and see what it actually says and look at some examples of taking God’s name in vain.
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What The Bible Says about Using God’s Name In Vain
The primary passage that talks about not using God’s name in vain is Exodus 20:7. This is the third commandment that is given to the nation of Israel. It says, “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.”
So, what does it mean to take the name of the Lord in vain? Another way you could translate this phrase from the original language is, “You shall not take up the name of God [in vain]” or, “You shall not bear the name of God [in vain].” What this verse is saying is that God’s people are His image-bearers.
Think about it this way: when you go into a store and encounter an employee that is rude, you’ll be less likely to shop there in the future. The reverse is also true: if you encounter an excellent employee at a store, you will be more likely to shop there again. They represent the company they work for, and what they do and say tells you something about the company.
The same is true for all who follow God. We bear His image (2 Corinthians 5:20). What we do, how we treat others, and what we say tells someone something about Him. Good or bad. The challenge of this verse is to represent God well.
Think for a minute: what are you telling those around you?
The next question we should be asking about this verse is what does in vain mean?
The Hebrew word we translate as “vain” carries a meaning of empty, hollow, nothing, worthless, or to no good purpose. This doesn’t mean that we should avoid saying God’s name, as some do. Rather, that we should be careful how we use His name.
We tend to downplay the importance of names in our culture, but that wasn’t always the case. In ancient culture, your name meant something. It had value; it told others who you were. And the same is true with the name of God. His name has meaning and power. It’s holy. Therefore, we shouldn’t use it as if it’s empty, hollow, worthless, or in vain.
That’s what this commandment is getting at. We are forbidden from taking the name of God (representing Him) in a manner that is wicked, worthless, or for our own gain.
We shouldn’t use God’s name in vain because we are his ambassadors. Therefore we should represent Him well to those around us. Taking the Lord’s name in vain happens when we misrepresent him to those around us.
What Does It Mean To Take The Lord’s Name In Vain?
Above is more of the textbook answer, but I know that doesn’t really help you apply this verse practically. So I want to give you some examples of taking God’s name in vain.
3 Examples Of Taking The Lord’s Name In Vain
Most people think that not using the Lord’s name in vain just means avoiding phrases such as oh my god or using God’s name as a cuss word. But that’s an oversimplification and misses the heart of this commandment.
To be clear I’m not saying we should start using the Lord’s name as a curse word. His name is holy and has power. Rather, I think the real warning for us goes beyond simply not saying OMG.
Let’s look at some examples of taking God’s name in vain.
1. Using God’s Name For Your Own Gain
One way people use God’s name in vain is by using His name for their own benefit. An extreme example is a TV evangelist who promises God’s blessing if you just give them your money. But it’s not limited to preachers. We take the Lord’s name in vain when we take advantage of others for our own gain.
Let’s say someone defrauded dozens of people in your name. You probably wouldn’t take too kindly to that kind of abuse of your name. And neither does God.
That’s why the Bible says over and over again not to use the Lord’s name in vain. It’s not something we should gloss over. Whether it be using God’s name to get rich, to get power, or to gain control over someone, we ought to think twice.
We tend to point our fingers at others doing this, but we should also examine ourselves. I’ve seen Christians manipulate friends, family members, significant others, and co-workers in God’s name for their own gain. That’s taking God’s name in vain.
2. Using God’s Name To Justify Your Actions
Another example of taking God’s name in vain is using God’s name as a justification for our actions. Marriages have ended, business decisions have been made, and life choices set all in God’s name. Many throw God’s name out as a trump card of sorts as to why their actions are right.
Countless times I’ve heard the statement “God wants me to be happy,” but it’s really used to justify a sin they were unwilling to stop. Let me make one thing clear. If what God is telling you doesn’t line up with what is found in the Bible, it’s not God speaking, it’s you justifying.
We take the Lord’s name in vain when we use it to justify our actions for selfish, or sinful, reasons.
Ironically that thing we are trying to hide from and justify is the thing God wants from us so that He can heal us. But instead, we hide and attempt to justify our actions with God’s name.
Again, this example is one that we should take and examine our own lives with. Where does it show up for you?
3. Cursing The Name Of God
Taking God’s name in vain is more than just not saying, “OMG” or using it as a curse word. And that’s not the primary message that God is trying to communicate. He’s much more concerned with what we do IN His name and not WITH His name.
However, that doesn’t mean we should just use it however we please. We should still approach God with honor and respect. And I don’t think it’s the most honoring thing to use God’s name as a curse word. Is the worst possible sin you can commit to say GD or OMG? Probably not. But it’s still a good idea to show a little respect and reverence for the holy name of God.
Not using God’s name in vain is a sign of reverence and respect for our creator. Reflect on that, how is that playing out in your life?
If you are a Christian, what you do and say represents Him. We should each take a moment to evaluate our lives and ask ourselves if we are representing God well. Are you using God’s name for our own gain? Are you using his name to justify actions? Are you using God’s name with respect?
Think about those questions, pray about them, and see what God can do in your life.
Swearing and taking God’s name in vain are often tied closely together. If you are interested in learning what the Bible says about swearing, check out: Is Swearing A Sin? (what the Bible really says)
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