“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” Exodus 20:7 (Big Ten Series)
When I was growing up the third commandment was all about cussing. If you cussed, used any profane word, you were breaking this commandment. However, the reality is that the commandment against misusing God’s name has little to do with verbal profanity in our modern context.
In the Old Testament, the idea of misusing God’s name was not about a swear word but rather about invoking God’s name haphazardly. Words and especially names had a great deal of power, and you didn’t want to bring in the power of God’s name into something unless you were really sure you wanted God to show up.
Think of the Old Testament misuse of a name like the 1988 Michael Keaton movie “Beetlejuice.” All it took was the repetition of Beetlejuice’s name three times to conjure him into your world, and once unleashed, he was terribly difficult to get rid of. For people in the Old Testament, to misuse the name of God was to sling around God’s name and the power that went with it unintentionally. If you were going to invoke God, you really needed to mean it, or you were misusing the name.
In the modern world, names don’t have the same amount of power in our minds. A word is a word. “God” is just the generic term we use to describe the supreme deity. It is not the actual name itself but a placeholder for the name. For Arabic speakers Christian and Muslim alike, the generic term for the supreme deity is “Allah,” and for Spanish speakers it is “Dios.” These words refer to our conception of a supreme being.
In ancient times, you misused the name of God by using it when you didn’t really want to bring God into the situation, but hoped to trade on the power of the name alone (without the actual presence of God). And the way we misuse it today is not all that dissimilar.
Today we break the third commandment when we use the name of God to baptize things that are not gospel: when we wrap the cross in the American Flag, when we politicize God and claim that God stands firmly with one political party or another, or even when we claim that God is on the side of our favorite sports-ing team. When we claim that God is making something sacred that is outside of the character of God, we are guilty of misusing the name of the Lord.
For instance, when people make claims that our treatment of immigrants is right and just and godly, they are using God to justify something that is most definitely not in keeping with the God we know. That is misusing God’s name, and it has nothing to do with a cuss word.
As followers of Christ it is important for us to recognize and reflect on our lives and see where we are manipulating our faith to justify our own desires. It is much easier to avoid saying things like “God dang it!” and believe that we are in the clear. But the truth is, when we use God to justify an action against God’s own character, we are guilty of misusing the name of God.
The flip side is that we can rightly use God’s name: we can intentionally invite God into every moment of our lives, we can invoke God’s presence in the most important conversations, and allow God’s character to guide us toward true justice and mercy.
In God’s name,