Is saying “God” wrong? For many years people speak the name of God for all kinds of situations rather than addressing God himself. When people get upset they will say “Jesus Christ” or “Oh God.” Today is the popular OMG shorthand when texting which stands for “Oh my God.” If you grew up in the pews, then you might have heard that this is taking the Lord’s name in vain, which is the third commandment. Is this what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain? Is this what God was condemning? This particularly came to mind for me a few years ago with Dr. Laura Schlessinger. She was a radio talk show host in Los Angeles for a long time and then some time later went national which practical and often godly advice to people who were calling in with relationship problems. She is Jewish but at some point was called out by a caller for saying, “Oh God” because she was breaking this commandment. She responded that she was not taking the Lord’s name in vain and that the caller needed to go look at what this commandment was really about. So this struck me as I happened to hear that episode and wondered if Christians have misunderstood the command God gave.
To help understand what God declared we can look at some of the other English translations. The HCSB, NIV, and NLT read that you shall not “misuse the name of the Lord your God.” The NRSV reads, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” S.R. Driver says this means “use of the name for any idle, frivolous, or insincere purpose.” God did not want his name used for no purpose or misused. Later in Judaism, this command was understood to cover any careless or irreverent use of the name YHWH. A fairly literal reading would be: “You shall not lift up the name of the Lord your God for nothingness.” This did not mean that the name of the Lord could not be spoken. Later Judaism feared to speak the name of the Lord in an effort to not violate this commandment. But this was not at all the point of the commandment since everyone in scriptures addresses the Lord. Also, this commandment did not mean that a person could not take an oath by the name of the Lord. “It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.” (Deuteronomy 6:13 ESV)
Ways God’s Name Was Misused In Ancient Times
The first way we see God’s name misused is regards to sorcery. People believed that they could gain supernatural power by using divine names in magical incantations. If you said the right name then that would empower you to do certain things. We see an example of this in the New Testament.
Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. (Acts 19:13–16 ESV)
Notice that they tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over evil spirits by simply saying the name. God’s name is not to be used this way. Saying his name is not going to give you an ability or a power to do something. Today we have seen similar things where false teachers declare through books or television that if you would say a certain prayer or incantation that God will act for you or empower you. This is foolishness. The false teaching has increased by some saying that there is a formula that must be spoken in order to be saved. Some will question your salvation by asking what was said by the one who baptized you. They will declare that if you were not baptized with the person who baptized you saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ” then you were not saved. This is committing the same sin. God is not an incantation. God never teaches to say a particular formula so that God will act. I hate that people have done this with the model prayer Jesus gave in Matthew 6. It is not a magical incantation. This is one way the name of the Lord is misused.
Second, the name of the Lord was misused through false prophecy. A prophet would say, “Thus says the Lord” to prophesy lies. “And the Lord said to me: “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.” (Jeremiah 14:14 ESV) These people use the name of the Lord to advance their own agenda or boost their own credibility. We see this happen all the time today. We particularly see this in our culture as God’s name is used by politicians and political parties to advance their own agenda. Social causes, wars, slave trade, the Crusades, and more all used the name of the Lord to justify their actions. All kinds of false things are taught in churches today declaring that this is what God says. This happens even more blatantly in charismatic churches where the teacher will claim to have a special revelation from the Lord. Someone will say that the Lord told me to do this or the Lord told me to say this to you. The Lord’s name is being misused. The person claims to have a message from God but God did not give him one. The person claims to be acting on behalf of the Lord but the actions are contrary to God’s will.
Third, the name of the Lord was misused by swearing false oaths. People would use the name of the Lord to try to prove what was being said was true, even though it was actually false. Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her. Though they say, “As the Lord lives,” yet they swear falsely. (Jeremiah 5:1–2 ESV) They are using God’s name to confirm what is false. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:12 ESV) People do the same today. Someone will say that they swear on a stack of Bibles or on their mother’s grave. These are ways to try to prove what is being said was true. When God’s name was invoked, the words were not to be false.
The Holy Name of the Lord
With these things in mind, how much worse is it to curse God’s name which is blasphemy. In Leviticus 24:10-16 an Israelite woman’s son blasphemed and cursed the name of the Lord and God ordered him to be put to death. Jesus taught us that God’s name is holy (Matthew 6:9). For God’s name to be holy means that it is set apart and not used as common or profane. His name is to be honored, blessed, celebrated, and adored. Now, we might ask what the big deal is. It is just a throw away exclamation. But the name represents the person. A person’s name represents everything the person is. When you use my name in conversation, it is not a throw away word but represents everything about me. The name is not nothing. I think a parallel would be the American flag. Why is the flag to be so carefully treated? Why must it be folded properly? Why is it to never touch the ground? Why must it fly higher than all other flags? It is just fabric and material. It must be carefully treated because of what it represents. It is respect for the nation in which we live. The name of the Lord must be carefully treated and used in holy ways because of what his name represents. His name represents all of his goodness, purity, graciousness, love, and greatness of who he is.
Further, the scriptures repeatedly declare that the name of the Lord is the power that saves. How could we misuse and flippantly utter God’s name when his name is what saves us!
And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 ESV)
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13 ESV)
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13 ESV)
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11 ESV)
Notice what God says about those who misuse his name. “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). This tells us that the Lord’s name is intensely precious to him. God holds his name in high regard because it means everything. His name is glorious and saving. We are to honor his name. Martin Luther well said, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not use his name superstitiously, or use it to curse, swear, lie, or deceive, but call on him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.”
One of the ways we must be very careful is that we use God’s name as a polite way to swear and curse. Declarations like “geezus,” “heck,” “good Lord,” “OMG,” and the like are often simply ways to curse without using what is considered a more offensive word. We must examine our words and make sure we are not doing this also.
Finally, let me end by saying that if we use God’s name uselessly and frivolously, it is only because God does not mean anything to us and he seems frivolous to us. If we understood the person of God, we would never use his name the way the world does. Jesus taught us that God’s name must be counted as holy and must be treated as holy (Matthew 6:9). This does mean more than not using God’s name as an expletive. We are not to be flippant with his name. We are not to use God’s name to take a false oath, give a false declaration, or try to gain special power by saying his name. But it does mean that when we say the name of the Lord, we say it with honor and adoration.