1. Douglas Taylor-Weiss, a conservative Episcopal priest years ago developed a list of what an observer of our culture might identify as our functional ten commandments:
1. Have a good day
3. Eliminate pain
4. Be up-to-date
6. Express yourself
7. Have a happy family
8. Be entertaining
9. Be entertained
10. Buy entertainment.
In other words, live a fairly empty and superficial life. In a way, that is the target of the prohibition in this third commandment.
Growing up, I thought this commandment was about using profanity – and a particular kind of profanity. It was concerned with using the name of God, Jesus or Christ in disrespectful ways. Today I might think that means not saying OMG on Twitter. If I ever had an issue with using God’s name in vain in the past, it was pretty much obliterated by four years in the Navy where I lived with people whose vocabulary had been reduced over time to 25 words – and 20 of those being four letters or less. But it doesn’t, really. Actually, Scripture has very little to say about profanity except for Paul’s counsel in Ephesians. “Let there be no obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking among you.”
2. No, the third commandment is really talking about our making God’s name a commodity and emptying it of its rare value. It could be by using it foolishly or obscenely but more likely it is by using it for everything and reducing its meaning to nothing. It is making God’s name trivial. The danger of turning something indescribable or beyond our understanding into a word is we reduce it to our size and, sometimes worse, we give everyone a license to use that word however they wish. There is no copyright on a word and anyone can use it to mean whatever they desire without any real accountability. That is why Israel had a word for God that was so holy it was not completely spelled out and actually never used. There was no way to reduce God to a word. But once we have a word we are free to shrink it to our purposes, overuse it and leach all the meaning out of it. Think about how many times you hear these words today so often that they no longer mean what they should and once did:
Amazing, fantastic, incredible, unbelievable, brilliant, unique.
That’s our tendency though – to reduce something rare to a commodity. That was part of God’s prohibition in this commandment. You will not reduce me or my name to a commodity that means anything you want or it means nothing at all. We, especially in the South, are surrounded by God words, aren’t we?
Frederick Buechner has a good suggestion: “WORDS – ESPECIALLY religious words, words that have to do with the depth of things—get tired and stale the way people do. Find new words or put old words together in combinations that make them heard as new, make you yourself new, and make you understand in new ways. “Blessed are the meek” are the words of the English translators—words of great beauty and power—but over the years they have become almost too familiar to hear any more. “Heureux sont les debonnaires” are the French words—Blessed are the debonair—and suddenly new beauty, new power, flood in like light. Blessed is Fred Astaire in white tie and tails.”
In fact, it may be important not to use words at all…but to be silent before Him.
Zechariah 2:13: “Be still before The Lord, all mankind.”
Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.
Habakkuk 2:20: “The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silent.”
Psalm 62:5: “My soul waits in silence.”
Lamentations 3:26: “It is good that one should wait, and that in silence, for the salvation of Jehovah.”
We don’t have to fill up the space with words and we don’t have to do silent retreats or live the life of a contemplative. It is reserving a space for God’s voice in the midst of our everyday lives. Some of us have special ringtones to tell us someone special or important is calling. Everything else goes to vibrate or voicemail. We need the same thing for God in our lives. It is the one voice we hear in the noise of all the others.
3. But it also is a warning against empty belief based on a God who has been drained of all real meaning. It condemns those who believe but do nothing about it. Read James 1:22. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Be doers of the word and not hearers only. What have you done about what you know?
Do you remember Eliza Doolittle’s complaint to Freddy in “My Fair Lady”?
Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars burning above;
If you’re in love, Show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire.
If you’re on fire, Show me!
It is a warning against a faith that is essentially a hobby that has not been proven by the testing of real life. It is academic or even super spiritual but has never been used. It’s something like a hammer or other tool that is bought and kept in a glass case. It is nick-free and good as new because it has never been used. This is the person who signs up for every new Bible study but whose life is bubble wrapped and insulated from the lives of others.
The real enemy is not unbelief but vague religiosity. Elton Trueblood said “What is dangerous is not intellectual atheism, which is unpopular, but mild religion, which is very popular indeed. The worst blasphemy is not profanity, but lip service. The third commandment does not condemn those who fail to believe; it condemns those who believe and do nothing about it.”
C.S. Lewis in “Screwtape Proposes A Toast” has the senior devil at the annual feast complaining of the quality of the sinners upon which they are feasting. They are weak, watery and insipid – no real sin into which one can sink their teeth. They are people who just went along without really thinking about much other than convention. “The difficulty lay in their very smallness and flabbiness. Here were vermin so muddled in mind, so passively responsive to environment, that it was very hard to raise them to that level of clarity and deliberateness at which mortal sin becomes possible.”
4. Even worse than unbelief or a vague religiosity is using God’s name for our benefit or to boost our credibility by association with Him. How many times do we hear politicians bolster their credentials and electability by their being Christian? They know these code words register with us and make them better candidates. How many times do people end every speech with “God bless you and God bless America?”
It is used by all kinds of organizations and businesses to create trust and credibility. It is using God for our own benefit and that is using his name in vain. It is using God as an endorsement.
I am old enough to remember something called “The Christian Yellow Pages” in Texas. Businesses would advertise and use their Christian faith as something of an edge on their secular competitors. I never liked it then or now. I do believe in ethical business practices but not that we should patronize a business merely because it is owned by a Christian.
I like what James says. “Don’t add words like “I swear to God” to your own words. Don’t show your impatience by concocting oaths to hurry up God. Just say yes or no. Just say what is true. That way, your language can’t be used against you.” (The Message)
5. The third commandment is about the importance of a name – any name but especially God’s. In a distorted way we read this in Genesis 11 and the Tower of Babel.
“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward,a they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
There is nothing inherently evil about wanting to make a name if by that we mean to distinguish ourselves – to be known for something – to have our name represent integrity and quality. That is the whole purpose of a brand, isn’t it. The name should represent something people trust. It should be the same with us. Our name should carry weight and substance and trust. Proverbs says “A good name is more desirable than riches.” The early leaders of the Church were “men of good name” and that also meant they were known for their wisdom, service, being full of the Spirit, devout and highly respected…but not famous. They were obvious by the quality of their lives – not by their advertising.
But that is not what the builders of the tower wanted.
There is something clearly unhealthy and unnatural about what they wanted. They did not want a name to represent something good, but a name for its own sake. A name that would set them apart – even from God. It was to be a name above all names.
“The hatred of anonymity drives men to heroic feats of valour or long hours of drudgery; or it urges them to spectacular acts of shame or of unscrupulous self-preferment. In the worse forms it attempts to give the honour and the glory to themselves which properly belong to the name of God.”
Does God not want great names? Yes, but in a particular way.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
I will make your name great….and you will be a blessing. That is the difference between those who desire great names on their own and those who wait for God to give them great names. It is the difference between grasping a great name and being given a great name. It is the difference between desiring to be like God instead of being the best kind of men.
6. The third commandment is about the temptation to make our names great and lose sight of the fact that our lives are meant to reflect His name.
In Ezekiel 36:20-23 God says, “It is not for your sake that I will do these things but for my name…so that the nations will know who I am…and I will show myself through you.”
The good that God does as well as His judgments are for His name only.
He is intent that men know Him – not the things we say about Him.
He intends to do this through us and that is the purpose of our lives. I know you are tired of hearing this but we are surrounded by voices that tell us the purpose of our lives is personal fulfillment and satisfaction. This is the hardest lesson of all for our generation. We are created for His glory and not our own purposes. We are the people of His name and He is free to use us however He pleases. We have turned that around. Our biggest challenge is understanding that we are His possession, his treasured possession, but still his possession.
7. Speaking in vain of God makes everything else become emptier as well. Fidelity, marriage, courage, mercy, integrity – all these words mean less and less over time because they are derived from our understanding of God. God wants us to say things that mean something and people are dying for lack of substance, for constructive words and not empty chatter. I believe Elton Trueblood also said, “In not knowing God we are soon incapable of knowing ourselves and others. All of life becomes superficial, described by our possessions and activities.”
Look at what God says the ultimate result is of not revering His name.
Deuteronomy 28:65: “If you do not revere the awesome and glorious name of The Lord your God…you will find no place of security and rest. And the LORD will cause your heart to tremble, your eyesight to fail, and your soul to despair. Your lives will hang in doubt. You will live night and day in fear, with no reason to believe that you will see the morning light. In the morning you will say, ‘If only it were night!’ And in the evening you will say, ‘If only it were morning!’ You will say this because of your terror at the awesome horrors you see around you.”
Taking holy things lightly is dangerous. It’s a long, gradual slide with few bumps or warnings. Yet, the end of it is hardness of heart and, ultimately, hell. Life becomes superficial and self-indulgent because we know so little that is real of God and so little of ourselves and other people.
But, if we seek to live up to His name we’ll begin to live up to our own. We will become people of good names over time because knowing who I am begins with knowing Him. The alternative to living in vain is to begin to speak seriously, enthusiastically, knowingly of God’s name and to know that we are His people, called by His name, to be instruments of His glory.
Let me end with this story.
Two brothers were convicted of stealing sheep. For their crime they were each branded on the forehead with the letters “ST,” for “sheep thief.”
One brother immediately ran away from the area and attempted to build a new life in another country. Even there, people asked him about the “ST” burned into his forehead. He continued his wanderings and finally, unable to bear the burden, he ended his life…
The other brother took a different approach. He said to himself, “I can’t run away from the fact that I stole sheep. But that’s the past. I can stay here and win back my self-respect and the respect of my neighbors.” The years passed and he built a reputation for integrity.
One day a stranger saw the brother, now an old man, with the letters “ST” branded on his forehead. He asked a resident of the town what the letters stood for. The townsman replied, “It happened a long time ago. I’ve forgotten the particulars, but I think the letters are an abbreviation for Saint.”