#3 – The unknown Commandment

“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.” – Exodus 20:7


It takes just a quick flip through the TV channels to find someone using God’s name in vain. CLICK! An old Friends rerun, and there’s Phoebe using it as a synonym for “okay!” CLICK! A few channels further one of Doctor Who’s companions is using God’s name instead of exclaiming “oh no!” CLICK! On the sports channel a commentator decides that “Wow!” just doesn’t suffice. Yes, it’s easy to find people using God’s name in vain, but it’s hard to figure out why they do it.

It doesn’t make sense. While TV writers and producers regularly offend viewers, they rarely do so without reason. In a show like Game of Thrones, for example, the producers show a steady diet of sex and violence, knowing it will offend some viewers. But even as Christians are turning off the program, countless others are tuning in for the sex and sleaze. So TV producers are willing to offend, as long as it get them more viewers than it loses.

That’s why it’s hard to understand why anyone swears on TV. Using God’s name in vain is sure to offend some viewers, but it’s doubtful anyone out there really watches a show for the swearing. So why do they do it?

The same question could be asked in a number of other settings as well. Why is God’s name misused in newspapers, at the office, and in casual conversations? In many of these same settings the dialogue will be remarkably free from crudities – the f-word and others are strictly off limits. But God’s name is still open to abuse. Why?

Ignorance isn’t bliss

I’m convinced the answer is ignorance. God’s name is abused because Christians don’t object, and because we don’t object, TV scriptwriters, newspaper columnists and even our friends don’t realize that using God’s name in vain is offensive. They’re totally clueless.

How clueless? Some years back, when I screwed up the courage to ask a teammate on my rec-league basketball team to stop swearing he was quite willing to oblige. So the next time he missed a shot, instead of stringing God’s name together with the word d–n (as was his usual habit) he restricted himself to just misusing God’s name. He knew d–n was a swear, so he stopped using it, but he continued using God’s name in vain because no one had ever told him it was offensive.

Not everyone is this clueless, but it is surprising how many are. It is even more surprising how willing people are to accommodate a request not to swear. When our basketball team’s manager called an impromptu meeting about swearing everyone agreed to try and curtail it. (One player noted that a similar request had been made when he played college ball. Interestingly enough, on that team it wasn’t a Christian who had made the request, but a Mormon.) The non-Christians even had a bunch of questions about which words were more and less offensive. Many of them still swore afterwards, but it was a habit they were trying to break. And all we had to do was ask.

How do you ask?

The toughest part is the asking. How do you bring it up without sounding holier than thou?

The manager on our basketball team took the straightforward approach. He announced that since there were a number of Christians on the team, we would appreciate it if people didn’t swear using God’s name. He said it, everyone agreed, and it was done with. He made it look so very simple. And it should be simple. Not easy, mind you; as simple as it looked, he was the only Christian on the team to actually get up and say what needed to be said. It still takes courage.

One of my aunts uses a rather different technique. When someone misuses God’s name while talking with her, she interrupts and asks, “Are you praying?” This generally prompts a very puzzled reply, something to the effect of, “What? Why would you think I was praying?” “Because you just mentioned God’s name, and since we weren’t talking about God, well, why else would you be mentioning God? Or were you just using God’s name for emphasis? Maybe you don’t know, but using God’s name like that is very offensive to Christians, and to God Himself. Please don’t do that.”

A friend has written to a popular newspaper columnist who blasphemed. He alerted her to the offensive part of her column and then continued:

…many people don’t know this, but the way you used God’s name there would actually be a violation of the third commandment – You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.

Obviously it would be fine to use God’s name if you actually were addressing Him, but in this instance you used it more like an expletive, or as a way to emphasize your point. I know that columnists don’t seek to offend without purpose (sometimes they do so with purpose, but that is part of the job) so I thought I would make you aware of this, and ask you to please be careful about it in the future. Thank-you.

The columnist never replied but, in the days and weeks that followed, did not abuse God’s name again.


Not everyone is going to honor a request to stop swearing. Some will swear just to tick us off.

But our friends and neighbors will care. Employees will listen, if only to cozy up to the boss. Waiters will want nice tips. TV scriptwriters want us to watch their shows. All these people have reasons to listen to what we like and don’t like. We don’t like it when they use God’s name in vain, so let’s let them know.

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  1. Teresa Juranovich

    July 27, 2018 at 6:20 pm

    I hear what you’re saying but I’m unclear on what you understand the name of God to be, as your article doesn’t use that name. I could be mistaken, however I think I can safely guess that you have fallen it to the easy trap of believing God’s name is ‘god’. You wouldn’t be alone in that belief, many, many Christians do actually believe God’s name is god – but it isn’t. The word God when correctly used by Christians is a description of who he is; he is the supreme being, the all powerful creator, the ultimate and only true ruling deity. He is God, but his name is YHWH.

    A way to understand this more clearly is to imagine you have an appoint with your doctor and when you enter the doctor’s office you say, ‘Doctor I’ve been unwell.’ It is quite correct for you to call your doctor ‘Doctor’ but in no way does that mean you think the word doctor is in fact your doctor’s name, who may well be named Alison Smith. The word doctor describes who she is; a person licensed to practice medicine, a physician. Therefore, any non-christian exclaiming ‘god’ is, I would suspect under almost all circumstances, not blasphemy nor should it be taken as offensive. It is similar to that person exclaiming ‘doctor’.

    Personally, when any non-christian uses the the word god in the ways you describe, I do hear ignorance but not ignorance of the ways to blaspheme God, although I’m sure they are almost always ignorant of that matter. When they exclaim ‘god’ it is a much deeper ignorance, it is an ignorance of the knowledge of God himself; the supreme being, the all powerful creator, the ultimate and only true ruling deity.

    If I, or any Christian, were to say God under the circumstances mentioned in your article it would, I agree, be offensive. Yet it means something entirely different when a non-christian innocently exclaims ‘god’. The best thing a Christian could do if face-to-face with anyone using god as an exclamation would not be to ask them to stop but to instead politely ask, ‘Who is your god?’ You can be sure that they have typically never considered what they are literally saying and will at first be somewhat dumbfounded at your question. Then, God only knows, your question could lead to a eternally life altering conversation, instead of simply gaining a deference to your beliefs.

    • Reformed Perspective

      July 28, 2018 at 8:50 am

      God’s name is not limited to YHWH. In the Bible God tells us many of his names, including “Lord God Almighty” “The Most High God” and “The Lord, God of Israel.” All of these could be labelled descriptions or titles, rather than names, but that is a false division. Consider the many names and titles we all go by: a man might go by “Stan,” “daddy,” “sweetheart,” “grandpa” and “Smith” and maybe some nicknames besides. Is “grandpa” or “daddy” a description or a name? It is both. And so too, God is a description but also a name.

      I do agree that when a Christian abuses God’s name it is far worse. So, too, when a Christian lets God’s name be abused. We know what the unbeliever is doing – they don’t. So where does the weightier guilt lie: their abuse or our silence?

      At the same time, it is worth noting that in the Western, formerly Christian, world, we use “God” as an expletive, but rarely any other person. There might be the occasional “Pete’s sake” or the like, but 99% of the time when someone is mentioned it is God, and no one else. Not our mom, not our uncle Stan, not the doctor. Why is that? It’s because none of the rest are offensive. The intent here, was to be make an impact, and saying “Oh my doctor!” doesn’t cut it. Why? Again, because that is just silly, and not offensive. So whether the person in front of us understands the offense – they likely speak this way simply because so many around them do – the only reason this usage exists is to put a thumb in the eye of God.

      And the reason it persists is, at least to a degree, because of our silence.

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