We have all heard it: people using the name of Jesus Christ to punctuate a point. “Jesus Christ!” they will say. When I hear someone say that, more than any other word, I notice it. I have even turned to people and said, “Be careful. He might answer you sometime.”
You never hear people use the name of other religious leaders or gurus in the same way they use the name of Jesus. You don’t hear someone get upset and say, “Oh, man! Buddha!” You don’t see someone hit their thumb with a hammer and say, “Aw, Hare Krishna!” Even people who don’t believe in God will invoke the name of Jesus Christ in the heat of the moment. It is “Jesus” this, or “Christ” that.
What is it with this? Why use the name of Jesus Christ? I believe that people, even avowed atheists, know in their heart of hearts there is power in that holy name. Sure, they are taking it in vain. They are violating one of the Ten Commandments. But in a way, they are acknowledging the existence of God. Otherwise, why invoke the name of a God you don’t believe in? Why say the name of someone you don’t even think ever existed? Because you know there is power in that name. As Scripture reminds us, “God elevated him [Jesus] to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names” (Philippians 2:9 NLT). His name has power. And if you don’t believe me, just say it somewhere, anywhere. Just say the name “Jesus.”
You can talk about anything you want – politics, spirituality, religion, even Christianity. But when you say, “Well, you know, Jesus Christ …” people take notice. They look at you as though they are thinking, What? Did he actually just say the name Jesus Christ, as in, he is alive and real? What kind of crazy person is this? People pay attention to the name of Jesus.
But God wants us never to take his name in vain. He wants us to honor it instead. As Psalm 113:2 says, “Blessed be the name of the Lord now and forever” (NLT).
He wants us to invoke that holy name in our hour of need as well. Proverbs 18:10 tells us, “The name of the Lord is a strong fortress; the godly run to him and are safe” (NLT).
Job knew the power of that name when tragedy struck. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21 NKJV).
On Mt. Carmel, Elijah knew the power of that name when he faced off with the prophets of Baal. He told them, “Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire – he is God” (1 Kings 18:24 NIV).
There is power in that name, and God pays attention when we speak it.
Have you ever noticed that when someone speaks your name, you hear it? You know your name. Now imagine if someone used your name for profanity. You wouldn’t like that, would you? God doesn’t like it either. It comes as a revelation to some that his last name is not “damn.”
In addition to profanity, there are other ways we can take God’s name in vain. The phrase “in vain” means empty, idle, insincere or frivolous. So taking the Lord’s name in vain means to say it in a way that is empty, idle, insincere or frivolous. And we have all done it.
One of the ways we do this is by swearing to God. People say things like, “I swear to God, this is true. …” Or, “Listen, man, I know I have said things before, but I swear. …” Just stop with that. If you are telling the truth, then you don’t have to swear by anything. Jesus taught:
Do not say, “By heaven!” because heaven is God’s throne. And do not say, “By the earth!” because the earth is his footstool. And do not say, “By Jerusalem!” for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Do not even say, “By my head!” for you can’t turn one hair white or black. Just say a simple, “Yes, I will,” or “No, I won’t.” Anything beyond this is from the evil one.
– Matthew 5:34–37 NLT
Remember the old adage, “Your word is your bond”? Just tell the truth.
We also take God’s name in vain when we say things like, “Oh, my God!” You know, it is one thing to say “Oh, God!” if you are in trouble, when you are in crisis. That is a perfect time to call on God. But it is another thing to say it, for example, when you are stunned or surprised or impressed. It is another thing to text OMG. That is taking God’s name in vain.
Another way we use God’s name in vain is when we use it for personal gain. I have been with salespeople who are cussing, cussing, cussing and then some. Then they say, “By the way, Greg, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a pastor.”
“Oh! Well, praise the Lord!” I actually liked them better their old heathen, cussing way, because at least they were being true to themselves. From that point on, I don’t believe anything else they say.
This brings me to perhaps the most awful and subtle form in which God’s name is taken in vain: through hypocrisy. This is when a person claims to know Christ, but doesn’t keep his commandments. Jesus asked, “So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say?” (Luke 6:46 NLT).
The hypocrisy of the church is far worse than the profanity in the street. We hear someone say the Lord’s name in vain and think, Oh, that’s horrible! And it is. But is it any worse than when someone claims the name of Christ and then openly lives in contradiction to what he says? I am not saying Christians must be perfect. I am not saying we won’t have moments of hypocrisy. I am not saying that we won’t fall short, because we all will. But a hypocrite is an actor, someone who pretends to be someone they are not. And this is more offensive to God than anything.
The Lord knows his name. He hears us when we speak it. So let’s not take it in vain, because his name is holy.