Recently, I read the Ten Commandments every day for a week. The idea was to see what new insights I could find while reading them over and over, meditatively. I was drawn to the third: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). What does this command really mean?
As a child, I was told it meant not to swear or curse, especially using God’s name, or any reference to God’s name, in an unholy manner. I was told not to make any promises I could not keep or fulfill, or swear to or by anything. I believe this to be a correct teaching, but I think it fails to address part of what I, and maybe other Christians, had not considered.
The Hebrew word translated “vain” is shav or shawv. It means to do something in a desolating manner, in an evil way; figuratively, in an idolatrous way. But also it means in a false or useless way, which many have interpreted to mean lying or deceiving. Others have concluded that vain means simply stating God’s name irreverently.
In looking up the definitions of the words useless and vain, I found new insight into the idea of taking God’s name in vain. In the English dictionary, vain means “without value, worthless, otiose, ineffectual, foolish, or silly.” The word useless means “having or being of no use, ineffectual.” This struck me as a meaning I had not considered previously. I had to ask myself, Do I as a Christian claim and identify with the name of God, or of Jesus, and do so in a worthless manner? What value do I place on, what priority do I give to, associating with His name? Is wearing the name of Jesus ineffectual in my daily life, in my interactions in public and private?
Taking a name means identifying with it. What do I do that would cause others to identify me with Jesus, the giver and hope of life, the author of salvation, the Lord? I do not want to identify with other things like a clothing brand, a sports brand, a state, or a special interest group or team more than I do with Jesus! I don’t have to wear a T-shirt that has a Christian message to identify with my God, but wearing one certainly should not deter others from identifying me with Him.
Another implication in the definition of the Hebrew term translated “vain” is that of conceit or pride. Some people wear the name of Jesus as a badge or trophy. Doing so is like “name dropping” at an event to gain entrance. Maybe this badge is like using a reference on a résumé: Knowing someone within the company will get you that job you want. Do I wear God’s name in a way that I think I may profit from it?
The idea that I may treat God or Jesus in any circumstance without proper regard is a way of taking God’s name in vain. When I consider the questions “What’s in a name? What does it mean to take God’s name in vain?” the answers are a lot more than I had ever considered.