Thursday, January 12, 2012

"in vain?"

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the use of God's name:

Q:  What does it mean to take God’s name “in vain”?  What are the proper and improper ways to use God’s name in accordance with the Second Commandment?

This is one of those phrases left to us as a legacy from the King James Bible, and which many of us remember from when we memorized the commandments in our youth.  Some translations have made this easier to understand by translating it in simpler terms such as, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” 

At first glance, we might think that this commandment simply means that we shouldn’t use “God” as a curse word or that we should avoid His proper name, “YHWH” or “Yahweh”.  On the other hand, there are small groups of Christians who insist that it is not appropriate to speak, or even to write the word God or other words which refer to Him, and as a result, they might render such words as “L-rd” or “G-d.”  However, this practice is more in line with the teachings of the Pharisees than of Jesus. 

While this commandment does not forbid all usage of God’s name, it does forbid misuse of God’s name.  So, for example, not only would using the word “God” as a curse word be forbidden, but also the use of other words which refer to God, like Lord, Almighty, Savior, Jesus, Christ, etc.  In fact, even if one were to make up his own name for God not found in any language, then misuse it, that would also be forbidden in this commandment, because it is not the syllables, but the intention that are addressed.

In addition to the way in which one speaks God’s name, this commandment also addresses other ways of misusing God’s name.  For example, if one were to wish evil upon their neighbor and do so in God’s name, or if one were to lie and swear it to be truth in God’s name, these would also be forms of misuse.  Any attempt to manipulate people or events for personal gain using God’s name, is more akin to witchcraft than Christianity and would be another way of misusing His name. 

One misuse of God’s name which might be less obvious, yet just as serious, is the teaching of false doctrine.  This is because to teach anything other than the truth about God is a way of misusing His name.  If a preacher says, “God says…” then follows with something untrue, he has lied about God and misused His name.  Likewise, if he says, “Jesus is this…” or “The Holy Spirit does that…” and his statement is untrue, He is telling a lie about God and therefore misleading people in God’s name.

When Martin Luther explains this commandment in this catechism, he reflects the teaching of several Biblical authors when he says that the way Christians ought to use God’s name is to “Call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”

While God takes seriously the way in which we use His name, He does not desire that Christians should avoid using His name or the many titles and descriptions of Him which we find in the Bible.  Instead, He desires that we use His name to explain the truth about Him, express our faith and trust in Him, call upon Him and His promises in times of need, and thank and praise Him for His many blessings.

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