Taking God Seriously
June 14, 1992
Every Commandment has its problems. Some are difficult to understand, others are difficult to interpret, and some are difficult to apply. The Third Commandment presents us with a unique problem: We understand it all too well.
We think this is the commandment against swearing. We tend to think that it’s a warning against using words like
Or something worse.
Many of us were raised to believe that “taking God’s name in vain” means using the words “God” and “Damn” in the same sentence. By extension we were led to believe that the Third Commandment also covers salacious language, dirty jokes, vulgarisms, and what used to be called “gutter talk.”
So what’s the problem? If we understand what this means, let’s clean up our language and move on to the next Commandment. Maybe this sermon won’t take 10 pages!
Not so fast, Buster.
Let’s start with one observation: The key to understanding the Third Commandment lies in properly interpreting the phrase “in vain.” The Hebrew expression means “lightly, frivolously, loosely or casually.” To take God’s name “in vain” means to use it in a light, frivolous or casual way.
In one of his sermons Halford Luccock mentioned an ad run by a large department store for a new fall coat. The caption underneath read, “Casually yours.” The ad went on to say, “This coat captures beautifully that fine air of informal unconcern. Casually yours.” (Cited by Arthur Fay Sueltz, New Directions From the Ten Com-mandments, p. 30)
What a perfect image. “Informal unconcern.” Does that not describe the spiritual temperature of this informal age? These days religion is personal, private, a thing not to be discussed in polite society. And God? Only fanatics worry about him.
Arthur Fay Sueltz adds these penetrating words:
So much of life seems to fit into that air of informal unconcern. Even in my search for deeper spiritual roots, God keeps getting shoved into that category—the category of spare time, some-thing to think about after I’ve taken care of the important things, if I have time and energy left over. All those things Jesus said get put into the same bag with Sunday football or TV or sleeping in. “I’m casually yours, God.” (pp. 30-31)
In my reading this week I ran across the story of the Broadway actress who said she always consulted her horoscope. When asked if she believed in astrology, she replied, “I believe in everything—a little bit.”
There it is! That’s what the Third Commandment is getting at. People who take God’s name “in vain” are guilty of believing in God—a little bit!
This is not a commandment about swearing. Or at least we can say that’s certainly not the main point. The issue is not whether you use four-letter words. The issue is whether or not you take God’s name seriously.
Which brings us to the first major issue we must face. Why is God’s name so important?
I. Why Is God’s Name So Important?
Let’s begin with the obvious point that names are important. Your name is important to you. It may not matter to anyone else in the world but you care about your name because it identifies who you are. Your name may be Sally or Jill or Mary or John or Robert or Phil. You may be one of 20 John Smiths in the phone book, but to you, you are the only John Smith who really matters.
Think of how much time parents spend naming their children. They spend hours thinking about the possibi-lities—discussing, debating, arguing, writing down a first name, then adding a middle name, then reversing the order or dropping one and adding another.
My full name is Clarence Raymond Pritchard. I was named Clarence for my uncle who died two years after I was born. Raymond was my father’s middle name. When my oldest son was born we named him Joshua Tyrus Pritchard—Joshua for the great Bible hero and Tyrus in honor of my father who was named after Ty Cobb, the great baseball player. Our second son was named Mark Alan after Marlene’s older brother Mark and my younger brother Alan. Then when our third son came along we named him Nicholas Andrew because … well, because we were expecting a girl and we didn’t pick out a boy’s name until the very end and we were stuck so we looked at the roster of Joshua’s soccer team, saw a boy named Nicholas and said, “That sounds good.” No kidding! But the Andrew is in honor of my older brother Andy.
Names mean something. They communicate history and tradition and family heritage. They identify us with our past, drawing across the generations a shared set of values.
How important is a name? In 1961 a convict escaped from prison. For 28 years he managed to elude capture by living under an assumed name. In April 1989 he voluntarily turned himself in. When asked why he returned, Sylvan Carter said, “I want to see my own name on my tombstone.”
A person’s name is important.
Why is God’s name important to him?
A. It Represents His Character.
What pops up on your mental screen when you hear the word “God?” The answer depends on who you are and how much you know. For most of us, the word “God” brings up images of the stories of the Bible—how God created the world out of nothing, how he parted the Red Sea for the children of Israel, how he caused the walls to come tumbling down at Jericho, how he enabled David’s tiny stone to slay Goliath, how he shut the mouths of lions so Daniel could get a good night’s sleep. We know God through the things he has done. We hear the stories and then we refer back to the God who stands behind the stories. God’s “name” is his character and his reputation.
We all tend to associate certain names with certain emotions. For instance, if I mention “Hitler,” you instantly think of Nazi Germany and the horrors of the concentration camps. If I mention “Mother Teresa,” you think of her selfless work for the homeless and dying of Calcutta. Two people. Two names. Two wildly different emotions.
That brings us to the Lord’s Prayer, which begins “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”
The name “Mother Teresa” is hallowed or holy.
The name “Hitler” is inexpressibly evil.
We “hallow” the name of God because he is holy and good. We take it seriously because God’s name represents who he is and what he does. We don’t take it lightly or flippantly because we don’t take God lightly and flippantly.
What does God look like? The Bible doesn’t leave us to wonder about the answer to that question. Nearly 2000 years ago a little baby was born in Bethlehem who forever answered that question. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Hebrews 1:3 calls him the “shining forth of the glory of God.”
Does God have a name? Yes. His name is Jesus. In him, the abstract becomes concrete. When I look at Jesus all those theoretical ideas about God suddenly become reality.
—God now has hands.
—And eyes to see.
—Ears to hear.
—Lips to speak.
—God has a voice!
—He speaks a language I understand.
I see him touch a leper, and I know no one is too dirty for him.
I see him pause to speak to a beggar, and I know he’s never too busy for me.
I see him feed the multitudes with loaves and fishes, and I know he can supply my needs.
I see him with the towel and the basin, and I know no job is too menial for him.
Finally I see him hanging on the cross, suspended between heaven and earth, beaten, bruised, bloodied, mocked, scourged, spat upon, jeered, booed, hated, attacked, scorned, despised, rejected, crucified. When I hear him cry out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” I suddenly understand that Jesus has no enemies.
What does it mean? In Jesus I discover a God who takes people seriously. He never treats people casually. He never brushes them off. He never says, “You’re a loser.” He’s a God who cares enough to get involved in this ugly, twisted, unredeemed world.
That’s who God is. If he never took people lightly, then I must never take his name lightly.
There is a second reason why God’s name is so important.
B. It Protects His Reputation.
Did you notice that there is a threat attached to this command? “For the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” Do you know what that means? It means that God is not a toy you can play with casually and then put back on the shelf. It’s like those warning signs that say, “Danger! High Voltage!” If you ignore the sign, you will soon be electrocuted. The Third Commandment is saying, “Danger! God is a live wire! Do not touch!”
If that sounds strange, remember the story of Uzzah in II Samuel 6. King David had ordered that the ark of God be transported from the house of Abinadab into the city of Jerusalem. David’s men put the ark of God—”which is called by the Name”—on a cart—which was their first mistake. God had ordered that the the Levites should carry the ark by inserting long poles through rings on the sides. Perhaps they were in a hurry; perhaps they thought it didn’t matter. Two sons of Abinadab—Ahio and Uzzah—walked beside the cart to guide it and to protect it. As they approached the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumbled, causing the ark to sway on the cart. Uzzah immediately reached out his hand to steady the ark. It was the last act of his life. When he touched the ark, God struck him dead. “The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.” (II Samuel 6:7)
Very possibly that seems like a huge overreaction to you. After all, Uzzah was only trying to do his job. But God was sending a message that no one should dare to trifle with his Name.
Take God lightly … and you will die!
That’s the message of Uzzah.
Are you surprised? Don’t be. Don’t the great celebrities pay millions to protect their names? Don’t major corporations like Coca-Cola and IBM hire hundreds of attorneys to insure their corporate name is not misused? I’ve read that Frank Sinatra’s name is worth a cool $500,000. Misuse it deliberately and that’s how much you’ll pay to Ole Blue Eyes.
The message is clear. God’s name is important to him. Misuse it and he’ll see you in court!
II. Using God’s Name Wrongly
With that as background, let’s consider three ways in which we may use God’s name wrongly.
When we think of irreverence, we may think of the drunken spectator shouting swear words at a football game. But that’s not the kind of irreverence I have in mind.
Here’s an unusual thought: Unbelievers can’t really break the Third Commandment. How can you be irreverent toward a God you don’t even believe in?
The Third Commandment was given to the Jews—not to the Canaanites. By definition the only people who could break this Commandment are people who know God’s name in the first place.
Don’t misunderstand. Pagans can blaspheme, but their blasphemy is a pale imitation of ours.
Blasphemy is for believers!
Consider these words of G. Campbell Morgan:
The profanity of the church is far worse than the profanity of the streets. The blasphemy of the sanctuary is far worse than the blasphemy of the slums.
Shocking, isn’t it? Once again we’re discovering that there is no way to wiggle out from under the weight of the Ten Commandments. They speak directly to us about the way we live.
What kind of irreverence could be called “blasphemy” and “profanity?” Anger toward God, bitterness directed at him, willful doubt, deliberate unbelief, rebelling against his will, idly wishing you could live like an unbeliever, a miserly spirit that causes you to hold back your giving, hatred of other believers, a cold spirit toward God, a prayerless attitude.
Irreverence? Yes, because irreverence is nothing more than speaking of God but not taking him seriously. That’s basically a sin that only a believer can commit. You’ve got to believe in God before you can take him lightly.
What do we mean by profanity? Strictly speaking, profanity is taking lightly that which ought to be taken seriously. To profane something is to “treat something sacred with neglect or disrespect.”
Consider the profanity we hear all around us. Most of the four-letter words fall into two categories:
—The abuse or misuse of sex
—The private parts of the human body.
But the human body was created by God! And sex is one of God’s best gifts to the human race!
Profanity is wrong not simply because it shocks or disgusts, but at a much deeper level, profanity is wrong because it trashes that which God has declared to be holy and good and beautiful.
Dan Quayle Was Right!
Our Vice President has been taking it on the chin lately because of his attacks on the “cultural elite” of Holly-wood. The media darlings treated Mr. Quayle as if he had gone off his rocker. But Dan Quayle was right! The cultural elite is real, it is based in Hollywood, and it doesn’t reflect basic American values.
What has happened? Hollywood has desensitized us to profanity. We don’t even flinch when we hear our favorite characters saying “Damn” or “Hell” or “God Damn it” or things much worse. We don’t even blush. These days swearing doesn’t bother us. We’ve come to expect it.
And all too often, we’ve even come to repeat it ourselves.
“I Don’t Mean Anything By It”
But we have an answer, don’t we? When we get angry and begin to fill the air with profanity, we say, “I didn’t mean anything by it” or “I was just letting off steam” or “That’s not how I really feel.”
God doesn’t buy that argument. When you say “Go to Hell,” you are actually praying a prayer. When you say, “God damn you,” you are actually asking God to damn someone!
The Third Commandment might well be paraphrased, “You shall not use the name of the Lord without meaning something by it.” Every time you use God’s name, you’d better mean something by it. Because God takes your words seriously even if you don’t.
Ten Reasons I Swear
A number of years ago Alex Dunlap produced a tract with the arresting title “Ten Reasons I Swear.” The ten reasons throw into clear relief the foolishness of the habit:
1. It pleases mother so much.
2. It is a fine mark of manliness.
3. It proves I have self-control.
4. It indicates how clearly my mind operates.
5. It makes my conversation so pleasing to everybody.
6. It leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind as to my good breeding.
7. It impresses people that I have more than an ordinary education.
8. It is an unmistakable sign of culture and refinement.
9. It makes me a very desirable personality to women and children and respectable society.
10. It is my way of honoring God, who said, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
(Cited in Now a Word From Our Creator, Leslie Flynn, p. 58)
When we think about Christ coming from heaven to shed his blood for us, how can we dare to use his name lightly? When we think about God who loved us while we were yet sinners and sent his Son to the earth, how can we use his name in anger?
I am sure that many of us would never connect promise-breaking with the Third Commandment. But consider how flippantly we speak. “Tell me the truth,” we say, because we know we don’t. “Be serious,” we cry, because we aren’t.
We lack commitment to our own words.
—How quickly we break our marriage vows.
—We sign contracts we never intend to keep.
—We make appointments and then come 30 minutes late.
—We swear not to tell a soul … and we don’t … for about an hour!
—We promise to do something for a friend but then “something else” comes up.
Why? Because truth doesn’t mean very much to us.
What does this have to do with “taking God’s name in vain?” Consider Leviticus 19:12, “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God.” Deliberately breaking a promise is profaning the name of God.
But how can that be? When we make a promise, we are making it in the presence of God! He is there whether we use his name or not! All promises are made in his presence. William Barclay says it this way:
You cannot possibly keep God out of any transaction, for God is everywhere present, and whe-ther his name is mentioned or not, he is there present when any promise is given or taken. All promises and pledges are made in the presence of God, just as all places are in the presence of God, and therefore an oath in the name of God is unnecessary, for God is there anyway. (The Ten Commandments For Today, p. 23)
The next time you are about to make a promise, or take a vow, or make an appointment, or sign a contract, or agree to keep a secret, or promise to do something for a friend, ask yourself this question:
—Would I be so quick to agree to this if Jesus were standing beside me listening to the
promise I am making?
Remember, every idle word will someday be accounted for. Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. Every promise you make—even the one you make in jest—is made in the presence of the Lord.
III. Using God’s Name Rightly
Let’s briefly consider three ways in which we may use God’s name rightly.
A. Reverent Speech
In his treatment of the Third Commandment the great Puritan writer Thomas Watson tells a shocking story concerning a woman who told her dying husband that only one of her three sons was by him. The father, upon hearing the news, instructed his executors to discover the true son and leave all his estate to him. After he died, the executors puzzled over how to discover the true son until at length, one of them hit upon a macabre idea. They took the corpse of the father and fastened it to a tree. Then they invited the three sons to shoot arrows at the corpse with the promise that the one whose arrow landed closest to the heart would be named the true son and inherit his father’s estate. The first son shot his arrow which landed near the heart. The second son’s arrow came even closer. But the third son could not bear the sight and refused to shoot; whereupon the executors declares him the true son and gave the estate to him.
Watson draws this striking conclusion from that story: “Such as are the true children of God, fear to shoot at him; but such as are bastards, and not sons, care not though they shoot at him in heaven with their oaths and curses.”
A few days ago I spoke with a man who nearly lost his oldest daughter in a terrible car accident. When I spoke with him on the phone he said, “All my life I’ve heard that God must be number one, then your family must be second, then everything else comes third. When something like this happens, you suddenly learn how true that is.”
God must be first—not only in our lives but also on our lips.
B. Courageous Speech
A right appreciation of God’s name will give us courage in the moment of crisis. Do you remember what David said when he faced Goliath? “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” (I Samuel 17:45)
Goliath must have laughed when he heard this brash teenager spouting nonsense about the name of the Lord Almighty. Hadn’t the Israelites fled in fear for 39 straight days? Hadn’t they been afraid to come out and fight? Now here comes this “snot-nosed little runt of a pimple-faced kid” (a description I once heard a speaker give of
David) talking trash to the mighty Goliath.
What a joke!
Before the day was over, Goliath discovered the joke was on him. David found a stone, put it in the slingshot, wound up, and let it go. Before Goliath knew what hit him, he fell to the ground … stoned out of his mind.
Wow! Talk about a lucky shot!
Nothing lucky about it. It wasn’t the stone that made the difference. It was the courage of David to go into battle “in the name of the Lord.”
Somewhere I have read the story of a soldier in the army of Alexander the Great who deserted his post in battle. When asked his name, the quaking soldier replied, “Alexander, my Lord.” Whereupon Alexander the Great said, “You have three choices. Fight, get out of the army, or change your name.”
We bear the name of the Lord. His reputation in the world rests on us. We honor that name and increase his reputation when we speak up for him before others. And if we’re not going to get into the battle for God, then we ought to get out of the army or change our name!
C. Affirming Speech
Dr. Fred Howe used to tell us in seminary, “Men, it takes no size to criticize.” I often think about that when I am tempted to take cheap shots at other people. The world is filled with critics; where are the affirmers? On every hand we have self-appointed “truth-tellers” whose calling in life seems to be finding what’s wrong with everyone else. You know if you listen to them long enough they’ll soon begin sniping at others.
But there is a better way. Years ago—back in my seminary days, in fact—I picked up a copy of the Four-Way Test. It consists of four questions to ask yourself when you are tempted to say something unkind.
1. Is it the truth?
2. Is it fair to all concerned?
3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Pretty simple, isn’t it? What a difference it would make if we would apply those four questions this week.
Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Think about that. Every time you open your mouth either life or death comes out.
—What’s been coming out of your mouth this week?
—Life or death?
This explains why some people can’t keep friends. They speak death into every relationship. They are so criti-cal and petty that they kill every friendship they have. The same is true for many marriages. They die because we kill them with our unkind words. The same is true where we work. We destroy our team spirit through backbiting, gossip, slander and lying. The same is true in our homes. Some families fall apart because the parents kill their children with harsh words.
—Death in our lips!
—A corpse in our mouth!
—The stench of the grave in our words!
But the other side is also true. We may give life by the things we say.
Here is my bottom line: When we affirm others, God affirms them through us and his name is honored. As one writer put it, “God becomes believable as we become lovable.”
The Affirmation Project
Here’s a three-step project that could make a big difference in your life this week.
Step # 1: Affirm God’s goodness every day this week.
Step # 2: Affirm your loved ones every day this week.
Step # 3: Affirm one new person every day this week.
How do you affirm someone? Write them an encouraging note. Send them a gift—anonymously. Give them a hug. Call them on the phone. Tell them, “I love you.” Pass along some good news. Congratulate them on their latest achievement. Give them a pat on the back. Take them out to lunch. Smile when you see them. Forgive them without being asked. Pray a special prayer for them. Send them an “I was thinking about you” card. Treat them to a banana split. Stop and say hello. Laugh at their dumb jokes. Tell them, “God loves you and so do I.”
Does this seem far removed from the Third Commandment? It shouldn’t. The Third Commandment is concerned with the things we say and do.
—Take God seriously!
—Take people seriously!
It’s simple, and profound, and wonderfully relevant to us. This Commandment will never go out of style, because it challenges us to think before we speak and to mean every word we say.