In the Commandments Moses brought down from Mount Sinai God established non-negotiable ground rules for us to follow. The first two made clear that (a) He’s the only God there is and (b) worshiping any manmade replica of Him is pointless. In law #3 He demanded utmost respect: “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). Since we know neither sticks nor stones can break God’s bones we must realize the slanderous words we carelessly utter do hurt and offend Him. In 1697 a 19-year old theology student in Scotland was publicly executed for the crime of taking God’s name in vain. Pretty extreme, I’ll admit. But my, how times have changed. “Blasphemy” has now joined words like “manners” and “obscenity” in the recycle bin of once commonly-used idioms. These days God’s name gets thrown around like a beach ball. However, it’s not a new practice by a long shot. Psalm 74:18 states, “Remember how the enemy has mocked you, O LORD, how foolish people have reviled your name.” Adam & Eve probably cursed as they exited Eden and we’ve been doing it ever since because there’s no sin easier to commit.
When studying the Ten Commandments it’s vital we stay mindful of certain principles of interpretation. One’s that, because they’re spiritual laws, authentic obedience originates in our hearts. Alistair Begg wrote, “Outward conformity must be the product of inward affection.” Also notice each commandment has a positive and negative aspect. In other words, when God enacts a law designating something sinful He also implies no one’s going to coerce us into upholding that law. Our free will is always a given. However, God’s laws don’t have loopholes. He clearly states sin’s not only taboo in what we do but in the thoughts we entertain, as well. And there’s the rub. God holds us accountable for what we allow to float through our minds. Thus we don’t even have to speak to be guilty of cursing God.
He’s instructed us in no uncertain terms we’re to use His name only with reverence and awe. We may ask, “Why, since He’s God and all, would He even care?” It’s because God’s name isn’t simply a title, it’s a description of His character. His name represents His exclusive sovereignty as well as His overwhelming magnificence. Plus He’s the only hope mere mortals have. Solomon wrote, “The name of the LORD is like a strong tower; the righteous person runs to it and is set safely on high” (Proverbs 18:10). It’s my opinion we should deem it a sublime privilege to even address God personally for “Who has ascended into heaven, and then descended? Who has gathered up the winds in his fists? Who has bound up the waters in his cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name? – if you know!” (Proverbs 30:4). The majesty of God is far beyond our ability to comprehend yet He’s so kind He lets us draw near to Him. Bruce Milne wrote, “The only way to knowledge of God is for God freely to place Himself within the range of our perception, and renew our fallen understanding.”
With this commandment God declares His name sacred and expects those who worship Him to regard it as such. It isn’t a complex concept to digest. We won’t tolerate someone bad-mouthing nor making fun of a loved one, will we? By the same token we should never put up with somebody, much less ourselves, taking God’s name in vain. Jesus suggested we begin our prayers with “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” (Matthew 6:9). When we address Him thusly we show God the respect He not only demands but so richly deserves. John Calvin wrote, “We should be zealous and careful to honor His name with godly reverence.” The more we study the Holy Word the better we’re able to grasp the significance of His name and all it implies. The Bible declares the name of God precious and unique. But while Christians know observing law #3 further distinguishes them as adopted sons and daughters of the great I AM, secular society sees no need for it. Now, I’m not implying the majority of Christ’s followers flawlessly obey this commandment. In fact, I present myself as a prime example of one who fails to “watch his mouth” often. In the 16th century Calvin wrote, “Although many pretend to be Christians, nevertheless they have never been known to be such, nor to worship God, nor pay Him homage, nor render Him that service which is properly His. For how does the name of God fare?” We who’ve been saved by the blood of Jesus blemish our faith when we even so much as mutter under our breath an oath that includes God’s name in any way. Cursing without thinking is a hard habit to break and I find myself having to pray and ask my Heavenly Father to forgive me for it daily.
By the way, I didn’t learn profanity from my parents. I don’t get to blame them. No, I started cussing as a teen in order to fit in and “be cool.” Over the decades foul language thoroughly infiltrated my vocabulary. It’s not something I’m proud of, I’ll tell you that. For the most part I don’t curse in public anymore but if I’m alone and get irritated at bad drivers or corrupt politicians spewing rhetoric on TV I’m capable of verbally assailing them like a drunken sailor. It’s something I constantly have to work on because I know God doesn’t approve. I’m definitely a “work in progress” in that area.
Revering God’s name is imperative if we’re to grow and mature as Christians because everything in the universe was made by Him, including us. If we stay aware we’ll see His fingerprints every place we look whether it’s on a tiny flower or an enormous, snow-capped mountain range. Paul wrote of God, “For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). In other words, even an illiterate aborigine gets exposed to God’s grandeur simply by gazing into the night sky. The vastness of the cosmos that surrounds our planet is proof positive of His existence. It stands to reason the name of the universe’s Creator deserves every individual’s unreserved, sincere admiration. But God didn’t stop with flowers and mountains. He revealed even more of Himself in His Word. Calvin wrote, “When we turn to the Holy Scripture we find there an image by means of which God more particularly reveals Himself to us than He does in the sky or on the earth. Neither the sun nor the moon, albeit they give clarity to the world – reveal the majesty of God as much as the law, the prophets and the gospel.”
The Bible also tells us definitively that Jesus Christ, the Living Word, was God in the flesh. In John 17:6 we find Jesus in the presence of His disciples praying aloud to His Father, “…Glorify me at your side with the glory I had with you before the world was created. I have revealed your name to the men you gave me out of the world.” Begg wrote, “Jesus is declaring that by His words and His life and His character the fullness of the Godhead has lived in bodily form.” Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The point I’m making is we should treat Jesus’ name with the same respect we’re instructed to treat God’s. But just try to sit through a movie or even a network show without hearing at least one character exclaiming “Jesus Christ!” It’s nearly impossible. The PC scriptwriters are careful to always refer to religious figures like Mohammad in an inoffensive, dignified way but evidently our Lord is fair game. I wince every time I hear my Savior’s name denigrated so callously.
Face it; the Baby Boomer generation dropped the ball. It’s no wonder so many Millennials and GenX-ers are apathetic toward God. To them He’s a has-been; a relic from a distant age. God, if He exists at all, is now whatever a person needs Him to be. They’ve molded Him into the best image they have of themselves. Thus He’s wonderfully generous, helpful, loving and never intolerant. He doesn’t impose His moral standards on anybody. He’s certainly not jealous and any ol’ religion (or none at all) will do just fine because everyone ends up in heaven, anyway. I’m not exaggerating. As far as I can tell, my two adult offspring actually hold this general view but they’d rather not discuss it with me because I’m so incurably “Bible-biased.” Many of their peers have grown up believing God’s some sort of cosmic principle akin to “The Force” in Star Wars. Begg wrote, “When man conceives of God in these ways, it’s not surprising he has no concern whatsoever about the misuse of God’s name.” Ashamedly, it’s my generation that failed to heed Moses’ instructions to the Israelites. “…The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You must love the LORD your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength. These words I am commanding you today must be kept in mind, and you must teach them to your children and speak of them as you sit in your house, as you walk along the road, as you lie down, and as you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7). My kids don’t know the Living God because I didn’t do any of that. Now I must rely on and pray for the Holy Spirit to somehow get them to see the light.
Obviously a course (and curse) correction is in order. It’s up to the body of Christ to lay out the fundamentals before the sadly mistaken and uninformed masses explaining why our God is holy so His name will be honored instead of abused. First, it must be stressed that God is plural. He’s tri-personal consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He’s not three Gods; He’s one God in three persons. Is that difficult for our intellect to fully savvy? Yes. But that’s where trust in God’s Word comes into play because we’re not omniscient beings. Far from it. For example, we don’t know exactly what gravity is but we trust it’ll keep our feet on the ground. Second, God is powerful. The Trinity concept tells us who God is while His power tells us how He exists eternally. Everything had a beginning except for the great I AM. All life and energy comes from Him. He’s not restricted by anything. He’s His own law. He’s independent of time. He needs nothing. In contrast, everything needs Him. Third, God is perfect. That means He’s the source of all goodness and simultaneously the source of all justice. Exodus 34:5-7 tells of Moses’ encounter with God: “The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the LORD by name. The LORD passed by before him and proclaimed: ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished.’” God is perfect in every way. Fourth, God is praiseworthy. This is the positive side of the third commandment. If we treat His name with reverential love we’ll be more willing to trust him to accept our confessions, our prayers and our worship. We must understand that only through praising God can we discover true fulfillment. Faith is the key. Some may balk at that, asking “What’s faith?” Paul supplies the succinct answer in Hebrews 11:1-3, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see. For by it the people of old received God’s commendation. By faith we understand that the worlds were set in order at God’s command, so that the visible has its origin in the invisible.”
But the question remains: How do believers who adore God avoid taking His name in vain? There are practical methods. One is to deliberately turn away from the ways of the world and “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Romans 12:2). In other words, think. The indwelling Holy Spirit has provided you with an entirely new outlook concerning your relationship with God. Take advantage of that perspective. Let it replenish your soul. Look, obedience is a “heart thing.” Let go and let the Holy Spirit enable you. Begg wrote, “God is not interested in our ability to maintain an external, legal observance of His Law by means of self-effort. He perceives our thoughts from afar and His Word judges the thoughts and attitudes of our heart.” One of the best tools God made available to us 24/7 is prayer. Through prayer we invite God to grab our hand and lead us through life. It’s hard to justify dissing someone whom we know hears every word we say. And if we pray for God to help us control what we speak He’ll gladly oblige. Feel free to ask Him to assist you in being more conscientious about not trashing His name. He will. But the most effective way to avoid misusing God’s name is to strive to consistently “walk the walk.” Be conscious of your responsibility as a believer. Adopt one of the ancient prophet’s adages: “Though all the nations follow their respective gods, we will follow the LORD our God forever” (Micah 4:5). Make it your mission to humbly walk in your Savior’s footsteps. “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the LORD really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before your God” (Micah 6:8).
As stated earlier, I don’t believe there’s a commandment easier for me to break than the third one because I can be so careless. I’m liable to attach God’s name to a bad word out of exasperation in the blink of an eye. I’m guilty of saying “I swear to God” even when I’m intentionally being sarcastic. Why do I do that when I know God clearly stated, “You must not swear falsely in my name, so that you do not profane the name of God. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:12)? Why do I toy with blasphemy by being fast and loose with the name of my Heavenly Father? What I’m talking about is my habit of saying things like “Good Lord,” “Jesus help me,” “Lord Mercy!” or the much-overused expression, “Oh my God!” Rarely do I realize I’m doing a disservice to the One who saved me from suffering the penalty of my sins. When I pause and hold myself accountable my flippancy astounds me. (I often wonder why we Christians don’t take Satan’s name in vain, instead. I reckon it’s best not to mention that jerk at all.) I think perhaps the worst thing I can do regarding the third commandment is to “go through the motions.” How many times have I bowed my head in church when a prayer’s being said while my mind wanders off miles down the road? Isaiah 29:13 reads, “The sovereign master says, ‘These people say they are loyal to me; they say wonderful things about me, but they are not really loyal to me. Their worship consists of nothing but man-made ritual.” Ouch. Begg wrote, “The sin of hypocrisy is crouching at our door. It desires to have us in its grasp. We must, in God’s strength, master it.”
I have lots to work on, my friends. As I said, I’m under reconstruction. One of our mottos at Celebrate Recovery meetings is “No Perfect People Allowed.” Needless to say, I fit right in. But, because Christ lives in me, I can honestly say that although I’m not where I want to be, I’m a long, long way from where I used to be. If any of my readers for any reason view me as a beacon of righteousness I didn’t mean to mislead you because I ain’t. I readily identify with Paul’s confession in 1 Timothy 1:15; “…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – and I am the worst of them!” I’m a sinner who’d be lost forevermore if it wasn’t for Jesus. He’s so unimaginably gracious He forgives me every time my tongue slips. How great is our God!