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Carrying God’s Name in an Evil Way

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name." Exodus 20:7

What comes to mind when you hear the third commandment? Personally, I think of my time as a dishwasher. In the restaurant, I heard more people call out Jesus’ name than in a church service. However, the name was called after spilling food; after a dish was returned topped with complaints; after the realization of another shift short-staffed. Although cursing using the name of our Lord may be part of the commandment, it is much deeper than that. 

This English word ‘misuse’, is a good translation of two Hebrew words. Traditionally these 2 words have been translated “take in vain.” The Hebrew word ‘take’ means to ‘lift up’. Lifting up a name was like carrying a flag which marked who you belonged to. A modern example may be carrying your keys with a lanyard. My own lanyard is decorated with the name and logo of the nonprofit I work for. With this lanyard, I tell you that I belong to this nonprofit and I represent it by the way I live. When people see me they see the kind of company I work for. In a similar way, God called Israel by his name (2 Chronicles 7:14). The Lord wanted Israel to be his representatives on earth so that when others saw Israel’s life carrying the name of God they would see who God is. God’s name is very precious and powerful for it is a description of God’s characteristics: unfailing love, kindness, peace, justice and mercy. Those who are under the name of God are called to be like God - to be people who love God and their neighbour.

No wonder the Lord has a huge warning in this command.

Now the word ‘vain’ means air or light and is translated as empty, meaningless or unimportant. In that culture things which are important and worthy of respect are described as being heavy. Things that are seen as frivolous are described as light. Vain can also mean evil. So, put these together and misusing God’s name means carrying God’s name in worship, in your dealing with others, in your daily life in a disrespectful and evil way.

Exodus 20:7 then ends with some harsh words: God will not hold those guiltless who do this. When we misuse God’s name we don’t just hurt ourselves and others: we hurt God’s reputation in the world. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin argues that slaveholders in Canada and America who justified the system of enslaving African brothers and sisters in the name of God have violated the third command. They have taken the name of God in an evil way – they hated and exploited their neighbours instead of loving and serving them. Another Canadian example is residential schools in which children were abused and even murdered in the name of God. Because of all this God’s name and reputation has been dragged through the mud and blood of the church’s sins. In my work in the inner-city I talk with many Indigenous peoples who find it so difficult to accept God revealed in Jesus because of all the evil done in God’s name. 

confession requires that we admit our sins without trying to hide their severity.

No wonder the Lord has a huge warning in this command. God wants all people to know him and be saved. However, when the church is a hypocrite (when they do not live up to the name they carry) many people doubt God. Instead of knowing God as loving, kind and compassion, people see Christians and think God is hateful, manipulative and murderous. God will not hold people guiltless who do this. My Indigenous friend sent me Matthew 18:6 days after the graves of hundreds of children were found at the residential school at Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc. These words of Jesus echo the warning found in the third commandment: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

The reason the church has become such a hypocrite is because of something already condemned in Exodus 20: idolatry. This third command is directly connected to the first two commands which focus on idolatry – serving and loving other gods above/alongside the one true God. Being a hypocrite while we are carrying the name of God, hides the other gods we are enslaved to. While I am carrying the name of God, I also make money/economy into a god and I act greedy; I make my nation or people group into a god and act selfish and racist. Instead of seeing God as who he really is, others see God through our actions which reflect other gods we are following. 

Now in the name of Jesus there is forgiveness of our sins. In Jesus all guilt is removed. However, confession requires that we admit our sins without trying to hide their severity. Yes we have carried God’s name in an evil way. Repentance means unmasking our idols and humbling ourselves before the powerful name of Jesus our Lord. 

Spirit of Christ heal this land and your people so that your name would be recognized for the beauty it beholds.  

Photo by David Bumgardner on Unsplash

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