Taking the Lord's Name in Vain

Question

I have some coworkers that constantly use the Lord's name in vain. It seems almost like a contest to them who can cuss the most. As a Christian how should I respond?

Answer

This is an important and relevant question since people are always observing us. While not every situation is the same, there are some general things we can be prepared to do. An example may be helpful.

I was formerly in law enforcement and prior to that was in the U.S. military. I can understand what you mean by there being an almost competitive nature to cussing in some environments. I became a Christian after becoming a police officer. It was then that my language made a rather instant dramatic shift for the better. One evening my supervisor and I were discussing a call when out of the blue he asked if he could ask me a personal question. I said "Sure." He stated he knew I was a Christian and also noticed that I didn't cuss. He was desiring a promotion to a command position and wanted to clean up his act as a supervisor. He asked how I was able to not cuss like almost everyone else in the department. Although taken aback, I went ahead and shared with him that I used to cuss and was exceptionally good at it and worthy of a gold medal if it were an Olympic sport. As the conversation progressed, I shared my personal need of Christ with him – and his need of Christ as well. This interaction planted seeds that Christ grew in his own time. Approximately a year later, both he and his wife became Christians. And about a year after that he was promoted. All accompanied by cleaner language.

Using the Lord's name in vain is a violation of the third commandment as stated in Exodus 20:7: "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain" (cf. Deut. 5:11). This (and any) sin is sufficient to condemn us, and it's not to be taken lightly.

Let's consider some definitions and Bible examples. The word "vain" can mean empty or worthless. And "to take" means to take up or bear something. The implication here is that to use the Lord's name in vain is to use his name in a wrong, worthless, or wicked manner. This is obvious when outrightly cursing God (cf. Lev. 24:16), but there's more to this. The sacrifice of children to Molech was also profaning God ( Lev. 18:21). So was swearing false oaths (Lev. 19:12; cf. Hos. 10:4), as were false visions and claims to speak on God's behalf (Jer. 23:25). In Malachi's day, the priests who cut corners per se were devaluing the name of God by their polluted offerings and contemptuous hearts (cf. Mal. 1:10-14) and likewise used the Lord's name in vain.

But how is a Christian to respond when we hear others use the Lord's name in vain? First off, it shouldn't surprise us because the kingdom of darkness constantly wars against the kingdom of light. Words matter and play a part in serious spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:10-18; cf. Dan. 10:12-13). On a battlefield, it is common to challenge and insult your enemy (cf. 1 Sam. 17:16, 25, 26, 42, 43, 45). So, a Christian should remember that the unsaved walk in darkness where humanity's fallen nature causes them to act as enemies of God (Rom. 8:7-8; cf. Rom. 1:18-32) out of outright hate for him but also as even simple disregard and disrespect.

Rarely, a non-believer may appear to live up to God's set of laws. But even then it's still sinful because it's not for the sake of God's glory.

And we should take note that using the Lord's name in vain is the most serious form of cussing - the most evil elevated form of it. And, we shouldn't be surprised then that every language and dialect in the world contain cuss words or at least metaphorical ways of expressing that which is considered taboo. [1] Amazingly, this even includes a new language called Toki Pona which has only 120-125 words in it. [2]

Besides insulting and sinning against the eternal God of the universe, one problem with using the Lord's name in vain goes much deeper than just the words themselves. It is reflective of a serious heart issue. Most who indulge in this sin as you have described aren't regenerated (cf. John 3:1-7) and therefore first and foremost need Christ. So, a first response would be to immediately and continually pray for them (cf. 1 Thess. 5:17), even silently while having conversation with them. Then, as the example above reveals, look for opportunities to share Christ with them.

Will others using the Lord's name in vain anger you? As a Christian it should! However, as Christians we have not only an obligation but an opportunity to be a light in the darkness (Matt. 5:16). We can respond as children of light with language and wisdom that glorifies God (cf. Matt. 5:13; Eph. 4:29). Even if a believer uses the Lord's name in vain, we are called to gently rebuke them in both word and deed (cf. Gal. 6:1; Col. 3:17).

Taming the tongue (Jas. 3:1-12) is a matter of ongoing discipline — and one this chief of sinners still hasn't mastered. [3] All of us need continual instruction on the use of our words. It is as James says: "Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom" (Jas. 1:13-18). May God give us all mercy and grace and wisdom in our speech.

We're all people watchers. Others watch our responses, expressions, and just our general demeanor. How we respond matters.Though we may mean otherwise, it's very easy to be seen as prideful, judgmental, arrogant, or insulting in our responses. Our attitude matters. Our tone matters. The nationality, race, personality, characteristics of the person(s) we're responding to matters. Ultimately everything matters.

Notes

[1] The Chinese language doesn't have an alphabet. Rather it has individual characters that can carry multiple meanings in various situations. So, technically Chinese doesn't have any swear words. However, context matters. Words can be used in an offensive manner because tone and inflection can redefine the meaning of a word. And of course, the Lord's name can be used vainly within the Chinese language.

[2] Inspired by Taoist philosophy, Toki Pona was developed by a Canadian linguist in the early 2000s, first published online in 2001. Its intent was minimalism so one may more easily reflect on positive thinking. Though it has a small vocabulary of only 120-125 words, speakers are able to communicate relying upon the context and certain combinations of words to express more specific meanings. However, in 2010, less than a decade after its development, someone was already working on a Toki Pona cuss-word generator for the language. This emphasizes the ingenuity of Satan and the total depravity of man in their hatred of God. Reference: Rogers, Steven D. (2011). "Part I: Made-Up Languages – Toki pona." A Dictionary of Made-Up Languages. Adams Media.

[3] Cuss words and using the Lord's name in vain aren't my problem, although learning to phrase the truth in a non-offensive way for an international audience still is at times. I'm thankful that I have a talented editor at IIIM that goes over my work to make it more palatable. However, I sometimes find that I need an editor for when I speak. I'm still learning the value of being "slow to speak" and becoming a better listener (Jas. 1:19).

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).