You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. (Deuteronomy 5:11 )
In his book, Postchristendom, Stuart Murray tells the story of a little girl in London who experienced the Christmas story for the first time through a church pageant. She really liked the story, what with the mother and husband, the glittering angels, the gifts from the guys on camels and the pop in visit from the shepherds. But one thing about the story puzzled this first time hearer of the gospel: why did they give the baby a curse word for a name?
Thus it is that in our deChristianizing moment, the name of Jesus has been transmitted as curse, the name of God as exclamation. OMG!
So much of what happens is unthinking, trading on the gold standard weightiness of names that have no meaning to the speaker. I once gently corrected a little girl in the kids’ program we host at our church, telling her like the old King James that we don’t take the name of God “in vain.” “Don’t worry pastor,” she reassured me. “I believe in God…and Santa.”
We’ve entered a big, swampy cloud where the disrespect for God’s name is so profound that many in our society have no inkling that they’re doing it. It’s not something we talk about much any more. Even bringing up the issue of respect for God’s name makes me feel old and crotchety in a get off my lawn! sort of way.
Of course, the command not to disrespect the name of God is old, about as ancient as they come, written with the “very finger of God” on the chiseled foundational documents of the people of God (Exodus 31:18). It also happens to be one of the only commands in the 10 commandments that has a warning tied to it.
The trouble with using the name of God in vain has to do with the way names function–in our society, but even more so in the ancient world. Names are sacred. They represent the person. When we reverence the name of God, we reverence God. To invoke God’s name irreverently is create a sort of audible idol, an image of God that we can control and trot out whenever it suits us. The Hebrew of the 10 commandments speaks of using God’s name “emptily.” It’s using it without care, without regard to its meaning and heft. It means dropping G-bombs, but it’s also swearing falsely and bearing false witness under the seal of God’s name (Exodus 23:1).
Contrast this with offering sacrifice wherever God places his name, burning incense in honor of God’s name, and praising God’s name (Deuteronomy 12:5; Malachi 1:11; Psalm 8). The early church understood that the sacred name of the Lord in the old covenant was joined eternally to the name of Jesus in the new. Thus God’s people are claimed in the three-fold name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, missionaries are sent out for “the sake of the Name,” and the whole people of God is symbolized as those who have the name of the Lamb and the name of the Father inscribed on their foreheads (Matthew 28:19; 3 John 7; Revelation 14:1). The church in Acts healed and taught and cast out demons in the “name of Jesus,” the one who had been given the “name that is above all names,” the one name under heaven whereby we must be saved (Acts 3:6, 4:18, 16:18; Philippians 2:9; Acts 4:12).
I think it’s time to renew our reverence for God’s name–not so much as stern cultural correctors (though there is a place for that), but as those who practice reverent love for God’s name. At the very least, we ought to remember that we bear the name of Jesus, marked upon our bodies through the waters of baptism (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38). And thus we’re called to reverently hold the name of God before us , through constant prayer, pouring out our love upon the name of Jesus like that woman poured out a jar of precious perfume upon the feet of Jesus. This is what Paul was talking about when he said, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). We can drive and work and pray and cook with the name of Jesus before us. And little by little, our names are enfolded into God’s name.
Renewing our reverence for God’s name also means remembering that we have been given the name of God because God desires that we enter into intimate communion with him. God is not a God out there somewhere, an anonymous smear of the divine. God has a name. He’s given it to us. And God has called our names, has inscribed the name of Zion–his people–on the palm of his hand (Isaiah 49:16). God has called out to us like he did to little Samuel. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening (1 Samuel 3:9).
God calls us by name and invites us to call him by name, to love and cherish and reverence his name so that we can grow in depth of communion with him. God has given us his name, which is nothing less than giving us an invitation to God’s heart.