Vain Things

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”1 It sounds more demanding written in the King James Version, doesn’t it? But what does it mean, this third commandment that we have conveniently overlooked and almost completely eliminated from our minds? The first response would probably be not to use God’s name as a curse—which certainly is a good rule of thumb. But we live in a culture where curses and vulgar language are quite acceptable. This is one area where believers should stand out. The New Testament is filled with messages regarding how we should speak. My favorite is probably “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.”2 Many believers feel quite pious regarding this command thinking they have it conquered. Even if that is true (which I seriously doubt), to wave the third commandment in the face of people who curse would be rather ineffectual. And unkind. And unhelpful.

            So, how do we handle the third commandment? Does the concept of taking God’s name in vain only apply to cursing?  Absolutely not! “Vain” is a multi-faceted word. In this context, we can break it down to mean having no real value. Therefore, to take God’s name in vain would be to believe that the name of God has no worth, that it is of no use, and it has no power.

            If that definition is true, then most of us who call ourselves believers break this commandment frequently! We break it every time we question God’s omnipotence—when we question if God is really at work in us, when we give up on God and our purpose and our prayers and our efforts and ourselves because we have concluded everything we do really is in vain. When we reach this depressing point, we are, in effect, saying that who God is does not matter and has no effect on our lives.

            To “take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” is to agree with Solomon who exclaimed, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”3  It is to believe that the name of God means nothing and to strive after him is futile and even a bit ridiculous. This is where many nonbelievers “live.” And, sadly, it is a place where many believers “visit.” A lot.

            To treat the third command lightly is to almost ensure that we will break it, and, at times, decide our lives are pointless, futile, and in vain because to call upon God’s name is pointless, futile, and in vain. But David wrote, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”4  And Paul proclaimed, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”5  So, the name of the Lord has real value after all!

            Although those facts are absolutely wonderful and essential, they are actually the elementary facts about God. There is so much more to embrace when it comes to not taking God’s name in vain. During difficult times in our lives, when God seems absent or cruel, it is tempting to believe that God’s name means nothing, and his power is far removed from us. And we will be tempted to curse God—quietly in our hearts, visibly in our countenance, and audibly in our words. We often walk away from our faith temporarily, and many walk away permanently. It happens subtly. In our despair, we find ourselves no longer honoring God for we believe it is futile to do so, thereby taking the name of God in vain! Paul writes, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”6

            When our thinking is darkened by futile thoughts, we tend to give up. We find ourselves believing the lie that God does not care for us, that living for him is in vain, and that “all is vanity and a striving after wind.” At that point, what are we to do? Can our hearts ever be light again? Is it possible to return to God in faith? Is it possible to believe that God’s love for us and our love for him is not in vain? Yes. Picture the prodigal son returning to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”7

            Some seasons of our lives are wanderings, with futile thoughts and time spent in vain. But God, with arms outstretched, waits patiently for us to return. As we learn to trust that God’s name is powerful and his love is unending, we will also learn how to “not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

            And we can say with Paul, “His grace towards me was not in vain.”8

1Deuteronomy 5:11     2Ephesians 4:29    3Ecclesiastes 1:14    4Psalm 124:8    5Romans 10:13   6Romans 1:21    7Luke 15:20   81 Corinthians 15:10




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