In our last blog we discussed the second of the Ten Commandments (“You shall not make for yourself a carved image”), and how it appears irrelevant to modern Western citizens, but is in fact broken by most of us through, for example, our obsession with digital images with which we are willingly bombarded on a daily basis.
I suspect it would be hard to find a person who believes the Third Commandment is obsolete: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7)
It is somewhat ironic that, even as belief in the biblical God and the Lord Jesus Christ have declined in popular culture over the past few decades, the use of their Name has remained steady. Exclamations of “Oh my God” (so commonplace that it now needs an acronym, OMG) and “Jesus Christ” fly from the lips of people who place little or no value on the Christian faith. I have never heard anyone exclaim “Oh Mohammed” or “Oh Buddha” or “Oh Vishnu” – it is consistently the founder of the Christian faith whose name is blasphemed. Maybe this is because Christians are generally a tolerant bunch and they can get away with it. Or maybe it is because they know, on some subconscious level, that Jesus is worthy of their attention. It is not unheard of for God’s enemies to inadvertently prophesy (John 11:49-52).
Let there be no doubt that to exclaim “Oh my God” or “Jesus Christ” in a moment of surprise or disgust, without any intention of actually invoking the Lord and his power, is blasphemy and a violation of the Third Commandment – an offence that God solemnly declared he will not leave unpunished. In fact, a form of blasphemy (speaking evil when confronted with the work of the Holy Spirit) is the only unforgivable sin, according to Jesus (Mark 3:28-29, on which this explanation). So it is not a subject to be taken lightly. However, exclamations of this kind are often a merely a bad habit that is difficult to break, and in my view they are not the worst way to break the Third Commandment.
If invoking the name of God or Jesus Christ in a meaningless or irreverent way is bad, then what about invoking the name of God or Jesus Christ in order to achieve evil motives? For example, falsely claiming to be a prophet or miracle worker in order to obtain wealth or fame. Or, using the Word of God to manipulate or extort people. Or, taking an oath in God’s name to make a lie sound convincing (Matthew 5:33-37). Or, going on a murderous Crusade and claiming a divine mandate to do so. These are all gross abuses of the divine name, and they are traps within which we as human beings can easily be ensnared.
There are still less blatant ways of committing this sin. Maybe we tried to behave righteously in order to impress a devout Christian girl. Maybe we volunteered for a church outreach program because we thought it would look good on our C.V. Maybe our studies of the Bible are focused on proving our own presumptions right rather than growing and correcting our errors. We may have done things that are good on the surface, but if we did them to advance our own interests rather than Christ’s, we have taken his name in vain.
If we Christians search ourselves, we are all guilty of taking the Lord’s name in vain on many occasions, whether in word, in deed or in motive. If we are keeping an honest scorecard, we are all 0 for 3 after considering the first three of the Ten Commandments.