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-The Vain Name

What is the real meaning of “taking the name of the Lord your God in vain?” Are we guilty with some of our everyday language, or is there more to it than that?

The Vain Name

Gregory Koukl

What is the real meaning of “taking the name of the Lord your God in vain?” Are we guilty with some of our everyday language, or is there more to it than that?

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I have a letter from a listener that I’d like to read to you, and it may embody a thought or objection that you’ve had before as you’ve listened to this show.

“Dear Mr. Koukl,

On your evening program of May 27 I heard you use the term ‘by God’ twice. Now I don’t know how you feel about it, but I cringe whenever I hear people using the Lord’s name in a loose and meaningless way. I believe this is a violation of the third commandment. This is one sin for which there is no temptation and no provocation. It is without excuse. Since you obviously love God and are an associate pastor, I was really surprised to hear you speak this way.”

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The commandment is in Exodus 20:7 and says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.”

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It’s a very kind letter and I appreciate the gentle way of raising this question and I appreciate the spirit in which it was written.I have done some thinking about this because, on occasion, I do say things like “my god” or “by god” or just “god” like that. There are times when I think it’s a meaningful ejaculation. I don’t think that this is necessarily using the Lord’s name in vain in an empty fashion because I’m trying to make a point. Sometimes the phrase “my god” expresses surprise and you might even think that’s using it literally as an appeal to God. But frankly, I’m not thinking about God when I say that so maybe that’s using the Lord’s name in vain.

I did a little bit of study on this. And I guess it depends what it is you understand the commandment to mean. The commandment is in Exodus 20:7 and says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” A couple of observations here. It seems like rather severe judgment on someone who simply says “my god.” The commandment says that God will not leave him unpunished. It could be that this is God’s viewpoint and He is restricting those kinds of statements.

I got out my Evangelical Commentary of the Bible and took a look at what it had to say about his. Under this particular commandment I read this, “This relates to invoking God’s name in an oath and then not fulfilling this vow. It’s clear that God expects Israel to use His name in oaths provided the people faithfully execute what has been promised.” Then it makes a reference to Jeremiah 4:2 where it says, “And you will swear, ‘As the Lord lives,’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness; then the nations will bless themselves in Him, and in Him they will glory.” Apparently the point that is being made here, and I’ve heard this before from a number of different sources, is that what this commandment is really about is making an oath and then keeping the oath. In other words, making a pledge in God’s name and then keeping it. If you swear by God and then break the oath then you’re defaming God’s name in some fashion. So it doesn’t seem from what is said in the Evangelical Commentary of the Bible that this is talking about simply using God’s name frivolously, i.e. “my god” or “oh god.”

Now I did take a moment to call Mike Horton who is a friend of mine. Many of you know him as a writer of quite a few books, and the latest one was on the Ten Commandments. I asked Mike about this commandment and he made the observation that in Luke 11:22 Jesus says that we should pray, “Lord, hallowed be Your name.” In other words, we’re praying that God’s name be held in respect, holding it as sacred, not devaluing the coinage, so to speak. So he suggested that what’s in view here is that we avoid anything that trivializes the name of God, anything that makes God’s name a sign of disrespect. And that could certainly apply to my use of “by god.”

But what about if I said “Dear god” or “Oh my god?” A lot of people say that. Well, the phrase “god” is just shortened version of “dear god” or “oh my god,” so I wonder why do people get offended when you say “god” instead of saying “dear god.” It’s the same thing except for the word “dear” is in there and maybe, because it’s kind of loving, that word makes the phrase okay in people’s minds. But it strikes me as the same thing.

If taking God’s name in vain means this then we’re in big trouble. How is that different from the dozens of phrases that we use that use God’s name? Things like god-less, god-mother or god-son. What about god-forsaken, god-send, god-fearing, god-speed, God help us, God have mercy? All of those are ways that we use the same word “god,” and it seems to me that if saying “oh god” or “my god” or just “god” in some kind of ejaculation is using God’s name in vain then why aren’t all of these other things using God’s name in vain.

Here’s one that bothers me more than any of the others. And I think that if what I do is using God’s name in vain, in violation of the third commandment then this one definitely is. How about “God bless you”? If you want an example of a vain and empty use of God’s name, here it is. I’m sure people are wondering how I could criticize the use of “God bless you” as if it’s on par with “oh god” or even “goddamn it.” My response is this. What is it that most Christians mean when they say God bless you? I’ll tell you. This is the Christian way of saying “Have a nice day.” They mean “Goodbye.”

How many of you who use this phrase consciously invoke a blessing whenever you say this? When someone sneezes and you say “God bless you” or when somebody leaves and you say “God bless you” are you really consciously invoking a blessing? I don’t think most people are doing that. And frankly, even when I used to say this I wasn’t thinking of invoking a blessing.

And anyway, why do we say “God bless you”? Remember, “God, bless you.” It’s like saying, “Fred, drive you to the store.” That means Fred’s driving himself. So when we say “God bless you” we’re saying “God, bless your own self.” But we don’t want the blessing to go to God; supposedly, we want it to go to the person we’re talking to.

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More often than not ” God bless you ” is just the Christian’s way of saying ” Goodbye. Have a nice day .” There seems to me to be very little difference between the vanity of that phrase and the vanity of saying ” by god ” except that ” by god ” is not part of the Christian lingo and ” God bless you ” is.

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Did you ever notice how sometimes we say weird things like that? The other day a friend was riding with me in the car and we were trying to find a place for gas, but the gas stations all had long lines, and so she said, “Waiting room only.” And I thought, “What was that ? Waiting room only.” I guess she meant the auto equivalent to “standing room only” but cars don’t stand, they wait in line. But when you say “waiting room only” for cars it doesn’t mean the same thing as “standing room only for people.” Does it? “Standing room only” means there’s only room left for those who will stand? So “waiting room only” means there’s only room left for those who wait . But there wasn’t any room left for those who wait; there wasn’t any waiting room at all. Everything was full. So she said “waiting room only” but she really meant ” no waiting room only.” Weird. Why do we talk like that? We do the same thing when we say “God bless you.”So we say “God bless you” when we really mean “God bless them.” But we can’t say “God bless them” when we’re actually talking to them, because then we sound schizoid. Like place your hand on someone’s head, raise your eyes to heaven and say, “God bless him.” Like Thomas supposedly did in John 20. He said, “My Lord, and my God.” He’s not talking to Jesus, he’s talking to God up in heaven. That’s weird. Nobody talks that way. So we should say, “God, bless him or her ” if we really wanted to bless someone. But then we’re not talking to them, we’re talking to God.

I guess the best alternative is to say, “I pray that God will give you a special happiness today” (which is what “blessing” means, a happiness). But what would happen if we went around saying, “I pray that God will give you a special happiness today?” People would think we’re looney-tunes. People don’t talk like that. People would think you’re trying to be like Mother Theresa, or something. In other words, people don’t pronounce blessings, not real ones, on other people. It’s weird.

That’s why we simply say things like “God bless you” because we don’t we sound looney when we do. Why don’t we sound looney? Because we don’t mean it. We’re not really invoking a blessing. We’re not saying anything at all. We’re making nice Christian noise….and we’re using God’s name in a vain and empty fashion. That’s the way it seems to me.

More often than not “God bless you” is just the Christian’s way of saying “Goodbye. Have a nice day.” There seems to me to be very little difference between the vanity of that phrase and the vanity of saying “by god” except that “by god” is not part of the Christian lingo and “God bless you” is.

Here’s another way I think we use the Lord’s name in vain all the time that I think is much worse than saying “Oh god.” We say, “The Lord told me….” Did you ever think about that? It used to be that the prophets of the Old Testament had to stake their lives on their confidence that they had heard from God. Now we throw that phrase around like it was a Christian charm. “God told me.”

It seems to me that if saying “by god” is wrong, and I’ll have to work through this some more because it may be, then it sure is just as vain and empty as saying “God bless you” because we’re not invoking a blessing. We’re using God’s name in an empty and vain way. Or when many of us say “God told me” we don’t really mean it that same way. We’re just tossing this phrase around because it’s part of the Christian lingo, and isn’t that an offensive way to use God’s name in an empty and meaningless way?

At least that’s the way it seems to me. And if you don’t agree, well…”I pray that God will give you a special happiness today.”

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