“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)
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…" (the famous King James Version)
I still remember the comic routine from my teen years when a prominent comedian joked that after hearing his dad yell out “Jesus Christ!” over and over again for years, he started to think that was his brother’s given name.
Let’s talk about the way we use God’s name today.
The Ten Commandments still come up from time to time, but they are self-explanatory for the most part. It’s clear that we’re not supposed to steal things, or lie, or murder, or go after someone else’s spouse. And Jesus both simplified and encompassed all the commandments when he said that the greatest commandment is to love God with everything you’ve got, and to love your neighbor like yourself (see Matthew 22). When we do that, it covers everything. This is very true. Yet the heart of the commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai still have profound value for revealing God’s heart, if we explore them.
When I was a kid, I thought that the third commandment, the one about swearing, meant I should never say “Oh my God” or “Jesus Christ!” in place of a curse word. Now I’ll admit, I’m still not a fan of those phrases, but it wasn’t until a Hebrew class in college that I started to understand what this was really getting at, and why it’s much more important than simply avoiding a few specific words.
Misusing God’s name isn't about words. It’s about character. In Hebrew, to take one’s name is to take on/bear their character. Much like an ambassador of a country takes the name of their native land and represents its ideals to another land, Christians do the same to the world. We have taken the name of Christ as a part of our identity. In the New Testament, Peter writes that all those who bear the name of Christ are priests… representatives called to proclaim and represent God’s goodness. So taking a name is not about a phrase, but an identity. When we break it down, this commandment is about misrepresenting God’s character with our lives. Literally, this is the command:
Do not carry the reputation of God falsely.
Do not bear God’s name without integrity.
There’s no denying that we are in a season of seeing the misuse of God’s name and the misrepresentation of God’s character. This week the president of the largest Christian college in the country was ousted because of a breaking sex scandal and a host of other major controversies ranging from personal cruelty to racist attitudes to misuse of finances (these came as no surprise to many of us.) He hid behind the Christian label and intentionally did a lot of evil while talking about faith and Christian values all the time. He was bearing the reputation of God falsely.
We’re in campaign season again (are we ever not?) where we are seeing pseudo-Christian language by politicians suggesting that God’s Kingdom is synonymous with America. Friends, it’s not. God's kingdom is bigger, broader, more beautiful, and more peaceable than any country, including ours. When people try to claim that the Bible suggests America is more special than other countries, or link national allegiance and national interests with allegiance to Christ, they are bearing the name of God falsely.
But it’s easy to throw stones. Let’s explore where this touches our own internal lives.
Every time we Christians come across as hateful, uncaring, or arrogant… we are taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Every time we Christians use the Bible to reinforce our own agenda instead of the other way around, we bear the reputation of God falsely.
Every time we Christians act in our own interest while ignoring the fact that many are suffering around us, we are being dishonest about God’s character.
This is the truth, but it need not send us into despair. We’re all hypocrites on some level. My pastor growing up once said that what we should aspire to be, at least, is humble hypocrites. We can be humble about where we haven’t represented Jesus well… and in admitting this, ironically, we actually bear Jesus’ name with integrity once again. It’s not about perfection. It’s about truly doing our best to humbly represent God’s character in our world (for examples of that character, see Galatians 5:22).
Right now, it’s not hard to take the Lord's name in vain and misrepresent Jesus because we’re so upset or so tired or so entrenched in our ideological camp. But the voice of Jesus invites us back to integrity. The voice of Jesus invites us to humble repentance. The voice of Jesus invites us into grace and forgiveness and a Spirit-led life that offers people a glimpse of our infinitely beautiful God.
Friends, let’s together, everyday, commit to hold onto our discipleship. We have such incredible opportunities every day. People are noticing. We can be a breath of life, or another reason for folks to become cynical toward God’s love. Let’s test our words, priorities, and actions against the servant Christ, and keep them aligned. Let’s keep our eyes and heart on Jesus, and know that when we do, bearing his name can actually feel easy and light (Mt. 11:28-30).
Jesus, give me wisdom and maturity to bear your character with integrity today.