Pop quiz: Without looking it up, do you know what the third commandment of the Ten Commandments is?
It can be found in Exodus 20:7, and it reads as follows: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”
Taking the Lord’s name in vain. I haven’t heard a sermon on that topic in quite some time. It’s one of those commandments that we rarely talk about anymore. As a child, I was instructed to never use the Lord’s name in vain under threat of severe punishment, but ever since the age of six, I haven’t heard much about it.
And it shows. Recently I have noticed an increasing number of people using the phrase “Oh my God!” in casual conversation. In fact, people I really look up to, ministers and leaders, have gotten in the habit of using it. Perhaps because of the way I was raised, it still jars me every time someone says it. I would almost rather hear someone curse than speak of God in that context. It truly shocks me every time.
Now compared to some sins, this may seem like a minor one, so why am I making such a big deal about it? Well the first reason is that I hate hearing it, and I want people to stop saying it around me because it really bothers me, so I figured this would be an effective platform. 🙂 But more importantly, it displays a blatant disregard for the holiness of God. This verse is placed amidst a passage in which God is instructing us to defend His character–we are not to cast our pearls before swine by worshiping idols, and we are to keep the Sabbath holy in order to reflect the nature of God’s work, and the holiness with which He blessed the Sabbath. That is the context of this commandment about the Lord’s name.
Because the second and forth commandments are about guarding the divine integrity of God, we can safely conclude that the third is intended to do the same. We should not take God’s name in vain–meaning we should not speak sloppily or casually about God, or call on His name when we don’t really mean it–because He is an awesome God, a holy God, a fearful God, and we should address Him as such. We should not belittle Him by throwing His name into random conversations simply for effect.
And just because you don’t use the exact phrase “Oh my God” doesn’t mean you are fulfilling the commandment. It’s also pretty common to add phrases such as “Praise the Lord” onto any and every story or piece of good news. While this phrase can be edifying when applied to legitimate moments of blessing, we should be careful about using it all the time because it can indicate spiritual carelessness or shallow theology…
“My favorite basketball team won the game…praise the Lord!”
“I got a parking space…praise the Lord!”
“Those shoes I love are on sale in my size…praise the Lord!”
It’s not that I have anything against giving thanks to God in all situations, but I think we often make such statements to simply fill conversational space. We use the phrase “Praise the Lord” even though we’re not truly thinking about what we’re saying…we’re just saying it for emphasis, or because we can’t think of anything else to say. What’s more, such thoughtlessness can fail to consider whether or not the “blessings” for which we are praising God are actually from the Lord. Maybe God doesn’t want you to have that pair of shoes because it will feed your sin of materialism. And maybe you stole that parking space from a little old lady who needed it more than you but you were too focused on getting it for yourself. Who knows!
That is not to say that we should never use the phrase “Praise the Lord” or even “Oh my God”–there are times when both uses are appropriate. BUT, we need to think about what we say before we say it. As with all our words and our actions, we should make sure that they reflect the character of God, that they honor Him and speak truth about who He is. This is the Creator of Heaven and Earth that we’re talking about, so He is worthy of being treated, and talked about, as such.