God says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (or, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God”) (Exodus 20:7).
Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use magical arts, lie, or deceive by God’s name, but call upon it in times of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”
Salvageable adds: Notice that in this and all the other commandments, Luther ties our obedience to our fear of God and our love for God. Because we cannot earn anything from God by our obedience, our efforts to live according to his commandments are part of our relationship with the Lord who has washed away our sins, purifying us, and making us acceptable in the sight of God. The commandments help us to imitate Jesus, since he lived a life of pure righteousness, faithfully following all these commandments.
In the narrow sense, God’s name is Yahweh (or Jehovah), the special name that means “I am.” In a more general sense, God’s name is anything that he is called: God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, and the many other names that belong to him. In the broadest, sense, God’s name is anything that teaches us about him or reminds us of him, including the Bible, church buildings, and crosses.
People insult God when they use his name to punctuate their conversation, declaring by God’s name how hot it is, or how happy or angry they are, or how much it hurts to drop a book of boxes on one’s foot. The roofer who worked on my house some years ago sounded like a very holy man, using God’s names in every sentence he spoke. On the other hand, he was neither praying to God nor witnessing about him. But, as Luther indicates, God’s name can be misused in other ways that are even worse than thoughtless and careless utterances of his name.
We should not curse. To curse is to wish harm on someone else. “I hope you fall down the stairs and break your neck” is a curse. The worst thing we can wish for anyone is eternal condemnation and punishment. Therefore, when a person tells another person or object to “go to hell” or says “damn you” or describes someone or something as “god-damned,” that person is cursing. (Other obscene language has come to be known as cursing as well, but Luther is using the word with its original meaning.) Only God can judge and decide who will go to hell. We have no right to make that decision for him, not even while driving on the expressway.
We should not swear. To swear is to use God’s name to back a promise. Luther taught that the government can require us to swear—when we bear witness in court, or when we take an important job with the government, for example. In our daily conversation, swearing is unnecessary and insults God’s name. We should be honest enough with the people who know us that they require no oath from us to prove that we are telling the truth. When we say yes, we should mean yes; and when we say no, we should mean no. If people can trust us to speak the truth, swearing is unnecessary.
We should not use God’s name for magical arts. Magic is part of many pagan religions, in which people use special words, gestures, ingredients, and objects to try to control the world. We are not to use God’s name in that way. His name is holy, but it has no magic power. We cannot control God or the world around us by using God’s name in a special way. In the broadest sense, people misuse God’s name when they believe that wearing a cross or carrying a Bible keeps them safe from certain kinds of harm. These things are holy because they remind us of God and teach us about him, but we should not look to them for magical power over the world.
We should not use God’s name to lie or deceive anyone. Luther says “deceive” as well as “lie” because he knows there are ways we can trick someone into believing a lie without actually lying. To claim that one has a message from God when one has no such message is a serious sin. Those who have made careers and become wealthy by using God’s name to lie and to deceive others face severe judgment when they finally meet God face to face.
It might seem that we can never misuse God’s name if we never speak his name. Neglect is also abuse. Luther says we should call upon his name in times of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. God wants to hear our prayers. He wants us to talk to him about what matters most to us. He calls us to praise and thank him, not because he wants to be flattered, but because he wants us to remind ourselves how good he is and how many good things he has done for us. Of course we also use God’s name to tell other people about him. We praise him to others as we speak of his grace and mercy and forgiveness and as we describe the victory Jesus won against all our enemies. Other people need to hear these things, and God expects us to use his name as we share this faith and hope. J.