What Does It Really Mean To Take The Lord’s Name In Vain?

I was recently driving down the road when I saw a semi-truck with this slogan embroidered across the trailer: “Jesus is Lord, not a swear word.” I understood immediately that the truck driver was referring to the third of the 10 Commandments, where we’re instructed against taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Growing up, I often heard well meaning Christians quote Exodus 20:7 when encouraging others to refrain from using salty language––especially when it comes to phrases like OMG and GD. And to be sure, using God’s name as a curse word is something Christians should avoid out of respect to the one who bears that name. 

But is that the heart of what God is warning us against in the third commandment? I’m not so sure. In fact, Christians may take the Lord’s name in vain far more often than they realize. 

In looking at the original Hebrew of Exodus 20:7, the word translated as “vain” is often used to speak about something meaningless, false, empty, or deceitful. And the command isn’t so much about what we do with God’s name as it is what we do in God’s name.

Because the fact of the matter is that if you’re a Christian, you bear the name of Jesus Christ. Whatever you do, you do it in his name. When others see your attitudes and actions, they ascribe them to your faith. They ascribe them to Jesus. 

Bearing this in mind, following the third commandment is much more expansive than merely editing your vocabulary. It’s an outright way of life.

When you think of it that way, it really raises the stakes. And, unfortunately, we don’t always get it right.

Here are 3 ways Christians take the Lord’s name in vain, often without realizing it.

1. When we ascribe words to God that he did not say

If we are going to speak on God’s behalf, we need to be incredibly careful that we don’t take our own opinions and assumptions and ascribe them to God. 

A recent tweet revealed how Christians tend to twist bible verses to serve their own purposes. The video is of a woman speaking at a Texas State Senate meeting, urging for greater election security. To bolster her argument, she quotes 2 Peter.

“Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall:” (2 Peter 1:10, KJV)

When Peter wrote those words, American elections were the furthest thing from his mind. The person who tweeted this video, who is also an avowed atheist, was perplexed that he had to “come to the bible’s defense against a Christian.”

Peter’s point in this passage is that when we begin to exhibit the qualities of Jesus, it serves as assurance that we truly belong to Jesus. To twist the words of the bible and to ascribe them to the cause of voter restrictions that disproportionately affect voters of color is nothing short of head spinning. 

This would be concerning even if it were difficult to find such bizarre bible interpretations in prominent places. But the scary thing is that it’s actually incredibly easy to find. From coffee mugs and t-shirts to Instagram and Facebook posts, the practice of taking bible verses out of context to suit our preconceived ideas is rampant.

When we shoehorn the bible into our personal agenda, rather than sitting under its authority and allowing it to transform our lives, we take the Lord’s name in vain. 

When we shoehorn the bible into our personal agenda, rather than sitting under its authority and allowing it to transform our lives, we take the Lord's name in vain. Click To Tweet

2. When we build Christian platforms that become self-serving and self-preserving

I don’t think there’s any church or Christian organization that was created simply to become an end unto itself. The vast majority are started in response to a genuine need and the founders’ vision to step into the fray with the goodness of Jesus. 

It’s the churches and organizations that do that well that tend to grow large. But growth is a double edged sword. Oftentimes, pastors and Christian leaders become slaves to the success of the monstrosity they’ve built (or inherited). 

At a certain point, if a church or Christian organization isn’t incredibly careful, the mission changes. Instead of focusing on spreading the love of Jesus, that mission is replaced with the mission to grow influence and expand reach––or at least not to fall apart and decline.

When growth and/or survival become the focus of a church or mission-driven organization, it causes them to take actions that are self-serving and self-preserving, even when those actions are incongruent with the very purpose for which they exist. 

For example, many churches and Christian organizations have failed to take sexual abuse allegations against members of their leadership seriously, and some have even been involved in covering them up.

Whenever movements for justice come into our midst, our knee jerk reaction tends toward preserving the status quo at all costs. If we fail to resist that temptation, and in fact embrace it, then we become guilty of taking the Lord’s name in vain. We misrepresent his mission and his heart for the hurting

At a certain point, if a church or Christian organization isn't careful, the mission changes. It becomes less about sharing the love of Jesus and more about expanding influence––or at least not declining. Click To Tweet

3. When we self-identify as Christians but don’t act like Christ.

For Christians, our entire lives are meant to be a representation of our namesake. So if you self-identify as a follower of Jesus, then you need to guard your steps to ensure that you are actually following him. 

To view your walk with Jesus with anything less than the utmost seriousness puts you in jeopardy of taking his name in vain. 

Unfortunately, many of us think that if we successfully avoid cheating on our spouses, go to church on Sundays, serve occasionally, and don’t drink too much, then we’ve done just that. But if we fail to get a handle on our anger, judgmentalism, envy, selfishness, tendency to gossip, or our unwillingness to show hospitality toward those who are different from us, we have stopped far short. 

Yet this is what we often see. Churches tear each other apart over issues of polity and man made traditions. We shout at a world we were called to love and instead treat it with disdain. We use the spiritual discipline of prayer as an opportunity to talk about others behind their backs. 

All the while, we imagine that we’re so much better than others because our church attendance is immaculate and we’re even enrolled in 3 different home bible studies. 

To continue on this way would be to take the Lord’s name in vain. 

To view your walk with Jesus with anything less than the utmost seriousness puts you in jeopardy of taking the Lord's name in vain. Click To Tweet

You can take the Lord’s name in vain without even opening your mouth.

As I said before, refusing to take the Lord’s name in vain is a lifestyle choice. It consumes every part of who you are. That seems daunting. 

But allow me to circle back to the first chapter of 2 Peter. In it, the apostle tells Christians that we have not only taken on the name of Jesus, but we have also become partakers of his very nature through the indwelling Holy Spirit.

And because of that power that lives within us, we should strive to become what we have already been declared to be. 

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8)

Notice that Peter tells us that these qualities are already ours, but that our experience of them is ever increasing. And as that process of ongoing growth continues, we become more sure of our calling and election. We experience a greater sense of congruence with who we are and what we think, feel, and do. 

In so doing, we learn how to bring honor to the name of Jesus rather than bearing it in vain.

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