blogging the 10 commandments: #3

nameinvainI am blogging through the 10 commandments. Sometimes things become so familiar that we can’t truly see them anymore. I am finding them richer and more grace oriented than I remembered. They come alive when you remember God’s passion for creating the Kingdom of Shalom- peace, life, and love- on earth. The post on the first two commandments is here.

So here is number 3:

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.
Exodus 20:7

What does it mean to take the Lord’s name in vain? According to Webster, the word vain means “empty; devoid of real value; useless; worthless, fruitless and futile.” On one level we understand that to not take the Lord’s name in vain means no “OMG’s”. We do use empty expressions of God’s name frequently. We even throw God’s name around as if it were a curse. Jesus! It feels powerful, I suppose, as curse words often do. I sometimes imagine the long-suffering, bodily resurrected and present Jesus saying, “I am right here. No need to shout.” Now that would make cool reality TV.

Do we have any idea of WHOM we speak? Once again, the name of God used in this commandment is YHWH (Yahweh), which is the personal name of God that is referenced when you see the capitalized word LORD in the text. It was considered by the ancient Hebrews to be too sacred to speak. I need to meditate on that a bit more. I wonder if this was because any word to name or describe God cannot ever be big enough and therefore once we utter it, we have reduced God down into what our finite minds can hold. St. Augustine said that once we have explained God, we have lost God. Peter Rollins says that any talk that we have of God is not truly about God. It is about our understanding of God. It is about finite, one-dimensional snapshots of God, and the images we have constructed from them. A study of the word for vain, שָׁוְא in Hebrew associates it with the idea of idols – something worthless for ascertaining the truth. To reduce God in this way must be the ultimate act of vanity (both in the sense of emptiness, but also in conceit) because we create a false image of Him.

In our attempts to grasp an understanding of God lies the inherent danger that we will create a system of religion and ethics that is built around the smaller God that we’ve captured. When we do so, we begin to speak in ways that demand supremacy and “being right” and that create divides and exclusions and distortions of the faith in His name. Love is thwarted. (It’s funny how this smaller God resembles ourselves.) When this happens we violate both of the greatest commandments given to us by Jesus (that sum up all of the 10) which are: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love others as you love yourself.” When we take God’s name in vain, we lose God and thus, each other. It kills the community of Shalom. It’s fruitless, empty, futile.

Even as we confess our utter poverty in trying to understand God, Jesus brought a name and face to us as the God-man, God in flesh. He came to show us what God was truly like: No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” (John 1:18) Even so, I realize that we do continue to try to reduce Him or fit Him into our mold (Soldier Jesus, Boyfriend Jesus, Santa Jesus, Holier than Thou Jesus, Congeniality Jesus, etc.) but we have a Person who has shown us the heart of God and how God moves in this world. Like the first two commandments, I think the third is calling us back to sit with Him and gaze upon His Face. Sitting with Jesus, we silence our many words so that instead of grasping and comprehending, we are grasped. Instead of holding and possessing, we are held. Instead of “changing” God, God changes us. Sitting there with Jesus, we learn that “that which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we cannot stop speaking.”* There we find our heart’s desire instead of own vain attempts at explanations of Him.  After all, “one does not read love letters while in the embrace of the Beloved.”* Then, we love “because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

Here’s more thoughts on what taking God’s name in vain might mean (Feel free to add your own!):

  • Presuming to speak for God in ways that divides and diminishes others
  • Televangelists who insist that God promises that if you send money to them your life will change for the better (We have had too many vulnerable people deceived by this.)
  • Asserting absolute rights over another in the name of God
  • Presuming ownership of God in the belief that God does not or cannot inhabit the lives of people outside our faith circles
  • Presuming to live self-sufficiently, as if our lives do not effect the whole
  • Using God to justify a religious spirit that profits or dominates, or simply must have the last word
  • Withholding respect from others as the Imago Dei
  • Presenting the Evangel as one who is not good news for all
  • Forgetting grace

*These quotes are from “It’s Really All About God” by Samir Selmanovic
(It is also so difficult to write of God when we don’t have a pronoun that can transcend gender!)

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Showing 4 comments
  • Skip

    Agaiiiin Ellen, well done. One of the thoughts I’ve had rolling arond for a few years re/ taking the Name in vain: Could it have to do with taking “on” the Name in vain. Such as “christian” when your life doesn’t look like Jesus? Or O.T. the children/people of “God.?” Peace.

    • ellenharoutunian

      Skip, good points. Often we do like the idea of being “people of God” or other special labels but have used them poorly.

  • James

    This is one of my favorite subjects. I think it is important to realize that there would be a better word to use if the sense of this had to do with “speaking” the name. I think the better sense is to think of “take” as in “carry.” As image bearers of God, we “carry” the Name in the way we live our lives every second of ever minute of every day. When we live our lives in a empty, meaningless ways we certainly do take God’s name in vain.

    carry the Name well!


    • ellenharoutunian

      James, I have always loved your signature line” Carry (or bear) the name well! It says it all. 🙂

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