What Taking God’s Name in Vain Really Means

If you were like me and learned the Ten Commandments at a young age, you attached each commandment with a specific thing to do to not break that commandment. “You shall not steal?” Don’t steal anything from a store. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor?” Don’t lie. I used to do this for every commandment because it made things simple to follow and keep track of. Obviously the commandments are not as simple as things to not do, but this is how I learned to obey them.

For “You shall not invoke the name of the Lord, your God, in vain,” I associated that with simply avoiding swearing. Not using bad words? Simple enough. I struggled with it, but I got the gist of the rule. While it is true that we shouldn’t swear or say the word “God” outside of a holy context, there is much more to taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Avoiding Responsibility for our Actions

There’s nothing wrong with being proud of what you’ve done in life and being grateful for the things that have happened. Where things might go awry though is when in the moments of embarrassment and shame, we avoid owning up to our shortcomings and instead shift the blame to an outside source. This phenomenon is called “Attribution Bias Theory” and it essentially boils down to:
1. People like to claim responsibility for the things they’ve accomplished/succeeded at.
2. People like to defer responsibility when they fail at certain activities.
For example, if I win a race, it’s because I’m naturally fast and I’m a great runner. On the other hand, if I lose, then it is because my shoes aren’t as good as my opponent’s, or they got a head start.

We all want to do well in whatever tests, competitions, difficulties that are in our path, but we cannot be the best at everything all the time. As human beings, we will struggle, fall, mess up, and sin. In the same way that we claim ownership of our actions that lead to good results, we need to admit when we are wrong when we mess up and fully accept our role in said actions. Often times, we are tempted to blame God for the bad things that happen to us. Even if it is ultimately our actions that cause said bad results, we assume a victim mentality and blame God for all of these horrible events that happen to us.

At the end of the day, no matter what events are outside of our control or things that happen to us beyond our will, God never makes us sin; our choices lead us to sin, and we need to be responsible for those decisions. Our free will is a beautiful gift from the Lord that only we have power over. Since free will leads us to sin, we cannot blame God for giving us the ability to choose since only we choose what we do.

(Along this same vein is when people literally use the Lord’s name to turn down a date or end a relationship. Often times, in order to “soften the blow” of a rejection, a person will tell someone “The Lord is telling me to [insert blank with bad news here].” While the Lord might tell us things in prayer, we also need to claim responsibility for our feelings and not just pin everything that we might deem uncomfortable to say to someone as divine revelation. Doing so could be a means of using His name for our personal benefit or protection, which is, indeed, using His name in vain).

Presuming God’s Mercy

The struggles of trying to live a Christian life are very real. There is no expectation to be perfect in following all of the commandments due to our human condition. That being said, we should not allow habitual sin to remain in our life just because we know the Lord will forgive us next time we go to Confession. God gave us the sacrament of Reconciliation for when we sin and are truly sorry for committing those sins. If we casually break any commandment and refuse to take it seriously since “God is going to forgive us anyway,” we are treating His name, the very name of Jesus himself, without the reverence it deserves. Jesus might be the answer to our problems and worries, but invoking the name of our Lord as a way to defend sinful actions, or even avoid responsibility for them all together, is never the right response.

Chrisitan Politics

Whenever there is a political controversy or debate over a certain issue, Christians tend to lean towards whatever person labels themself as a fellow Christian. When pushing policy or trying to gain votes, it is not uncommon for a candidate to bring up their faith as a way to explain their opinion in a certain manner or to gain empathy with their audience. It is not uncommon for a political leader to describe their goals and platform as “Christian” because they are Christians themselves or they are pushing policies that other Christians support. By labeling a certain agenda or platform to be something Christian, people who practice the same faith will feel a sense of obligation to support whatever is being pushed.

That being said, we cannot take a label that is pushed by a political candidate/congressperson as the Gospel truth (pun intended). Just because a candidate labels themselves as Chrisitan, or the policy they’re pushing as being one that aligns with our faith, we cannot take their word for it. As shady as it sounds, it is not unheard of for people to paint a candidate or perspective on a certain issue as “something that God intended” in order to gain approval from religious leaders and organizations, which in turn would garner more support or voters. It is true that Christians should support other Christians in missions that would help build the Kingdom of God here on Earth, but if the platform that said Christians are trying to push is inherently against what God’s message is, we need to recognize that disparity and act accordingly.

In our current political climate, the tone of opposition and polarity is at disturbingly high levels. While it might be tempting to just jump on board with a person/political party that labels themselves as Christian, we need to be thoughtful about what programs they’re trying to push and what those candidates have done in the past in order to conclude whether they will effectively lead. Again, nobody is expecting a political candidate to be perfect in their past; but if they’re claiming to be Chrisitan but are saying/promoting ideas that are thoroughly against what God’s message is, we need to recognize that and not just fall for whatever labels that exist for a particular platform.

There are several different perspectives that can be taken for every commandment to examine our daily decisions and behavior. The commandment of not taking the Lord’s name in vain is one that brings with it several dimensions of exploration and self-reflection.

Photo by unsplash-logoEdward Cisneros