Recently I sat with my oldest son in a large stadium at a professional baseball game in the eastern United States. We were thrilled to see some of the more famous players up close and excited to watch a well-played athletic contest. There was one thing, however, that clouded the evening for me—the language of some of the fans. It was only a matter of a half hour or so before the tension of the contest and the desire for a win brought forth a stream of profanities from some of the people behind us. For the next three hours, we were subjected to a variety of the coarse and the crude, including constant use of the Lord’s name in the form of either cursing or exclamation. As we rode the subway back to our motel, I felt literally beaten down, deflated, even defiled. It was a painful experience.
In a world where upright, moral, God-fearing people would never conceive of murder, theft, or adultery, it is surprising how unthinkingly some take the sacred name of God in vain, dragging it through the gutter in flippant, profane, or unclean speech. Why is it that good people can be observant of the commandments from Sinai that pertain to interpersonal relationships but so careless with regard to the dignity and sanctity of the name and person of Deity? The answer, I think, is that violating the third commandment has as much to do with the way we live and the way we are as it does with the way we speak. It is tied to our eternal perspective—the way we think and act upon sacred things.
We cannot fully appreciate the seriousness of violating this commandment without understanding what it means for people to take the name of God upon themselves, and then for them to speak and act and pray in the name of the Lord.
The fall of Adam and Eve, though it was an essential step toward mortality and a pillar of the plan of salvation, resulted in bringing all mankind into a fallen, telestial world. The spiritual death that we thus suffer represents an alienation from God and from the royal family. If not for the possibility of reconciliation with the family head through the Atonement, we would lose the right to bear the family name and the right to eternal life with our Father in Heaven.
Deliverance or redemption from spiritual death is made possible only through the labors of a God, one mightier than death, one upon whom justice has no claim. As the foreordained Messiah, Jesus Christ, our Savior, became the “author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Heb. 5:9). Abinadi taught that “God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. … I say unto you, that these are his seed, or they are the heirs of the kingdom of God” (Mosiah 15:1, 11). Thus Christ is the Father of salvation, of resurrection, of redemption. Those who have been born again—through faith, repentance, baptism, and the reception of the Holy Ghost—are adopted into his family. As sons and daughters of Christ (see Mosiah 5:7), they are obligated by covenant to live a life befitting the new and holy name they have taken upon themselves.
We are, then, of the family of the Most High, linked to him through the only One who could reconcile us with our Heavenly Father (see Rom. 5:10). It should be expected of us (indeed, of all who profess to follow the Christ) that we speak the names of the Father and of the Son with dignity and respect.
An angel explained to Adam nearly six millennia ago: “Thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore” (Moses 5:8; emphasis added). This is a call to action for Adam and all of his posterity. We are to do all things in the name of the Son. We are to speak and act and worship and perform the labors of the kingdom and the labors of life in the name of the Son. Whenever the gospel has been on the earth, he has empowered others to act in his holy name, extending an investiture of his divine authority to chosen servants and recognizing the acts they perform by his word. Likewise, the everlasting gospel has been restored in our day “that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world” (D&C 1:20). It is an awesome responsibility. We must seek to think and speak and act as though we were the One whose blessed name we bear, so that our words and acts may become his words and acts.
Our Savior came in his Father’s name and in his own right, and he acted in all the majesty of his own divine calling. He healed the sick and forgave sins; in so doing he illustrated his power over both physical and spiritual maladies (see Matt. 9:1–5, Luke 5:23, with JST footnotes). He preached and prayed in ways that were clear to mortals (through the Spirit) and yet clearly divine (see 3 Ne. 17:13–17, 3 Ne. 19:31–36). Jesus is Jehovah, and Jehovah is God, and God works miracles in his own right; he needs neither the name nor the power of another. In contrast, all those who are agents of the Lord act and operate and are authorized by the name above all other names that have been in mortality, the name of Jesus Christ (see Philip. 2:9). We may only serve him truly when we have truly taken his name upon us.
How, then, do we become guilty of taking the name of God in vain, whether it be the name of the Father or of the Son?
Let us first define a few terms. The words that are used in Exodus 20:7 [Ex. 20:7] are highly significant. The King James Version has it: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The word translated “take” is from the Hebrew word Nasah, used in several related ways in the Old Testament—to lift or lift up, raise, bear or carry (as we carry a burden), and take or carry away (unjustly). Thus we might speak of taking the name of God in the sense of lifting up or holding up the name, bearing the name of God as we would a standard or a banner, or taking away (from its proper context) the name of God. The word translated “vain” is from the Hebrew word Shav, meaning empty, worthless, meaningless, even waste and disorder. As one biblical scholar has observed, vain implies “emptiness—a wandering in shadows without substance, a life without the possibility of satisfaction” (Lawrence O. Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishers, 1985, p. 608).
What, then, are some ways men and women take the name of God in vain?
1. His children take his name in vain through profanity and vulgarity. The most commonly understood violation is speaking the name of Deity in the context of cursing or profaning. It is interesting to note that the word profane (from the Latin pro- and fanum) means literally “outside the temple.” What an insightful way to describe the profanation of the name of God: to take that which is most holy, remove it from its hallowed setting, and thrust it into an environment that is unholy and unclean. Thus, alternate translations of this passage read as follows: “You must not make wrong use of the name of the Lord your God” (Revised English Bible); “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God” (New Revised Standard Version); “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (New International Version). President Gordon B. Hinckley has taught: “So serious was violation of this law considered in ancient Israel that blasphemy of the name of the Lord was regarded as a capital crime. …
“While that most serious of penalties [death] has long since ceased to be inflicted, the gravity of the sin has not changed” (Ensign, Nov. 1987, p. 45).
The increase of profanity and vulgarity in music, books, television, and movies serves as a commentary on our times. It seems likely that people’s inhumanity to people is related to their neglect of sacred matters, that the growing harshness, crudeness, and insensitivity in society are correlated directly with denying, defying, or ignoring God. When we love the Lord, cherish his word, and humbly bow beneath his rod, we seek always to act and speak with deferential reverence toward Deity. On the other hand, one who knows not God and finds no personal value in worship or devotion cannot understand the true, deep meaning of holy and holiness. Such a person may have no sense of restraint in regard to speech, no hesitation to drag the sacred out of its context and thrust it into the profane.
In a modern revelation, the Lord cautioned: “Wherefore, let all men beware how they take my name in their lips—
“For behold, verily I say, that many there be who are under this condemnation, who use the name of the Lord, and use it in vain, having not authority. …
“Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit; and in this there is no condemnation” (D&C 63:61–62, 64; emphasis added).
The Lord is from above, as is his word (see D&C 63:59). When we speak of him or take his name, we should do so with the deepest reverence. To do otherwise is to take or hold up or raise up his holy name before others without serious thought, without appropriate reflection—in other words, in vain.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks has explained that “we take the name of the Lord in vain when we use his name without authority. This obviously occurs when the sacred names of God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, are used in what is called profanity: in hateful cursings, in angry denunciations, or as marks of punctuation in common discourse.” On the other hand, Elder Oaks added, “The names of the Father and the Son are used with authority when we reverently teach and testify of them, when we pray, and when we perform the sacred ordinances of the priesthood” (Ensign, May 1986, pp. 49–50).
2. His children take his name in vain through the breaking of oaths and covenants. To ancient Israel the Lord said: “Ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:12). The Jewish Publication Society translation of Exodus 20:7 [Ex. 20:7] is: “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God.” One commentator has written of the third commandment: “This prohibition applies strictly to perjury or false swearing, the breaking of a promise or contract that has been sealed with an oath in the name of God. He will not allow His name to be associated with any act of falsehood or treachery. His name must not be taken in vain, i.e., lightly or heedlessly” (J. R. Dummelow, A Commentary on the Holy Bible, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1936, p. 67).
Anciently an oath was a means of impressing the necessity of truth and integrity upon parties to an agreement or upon witnesses in an investigation. The legal procedure involving an oath was fortified by holy words and sacred acts and sealed by invocation of the name of Deity. To break such an oath was indeed a very serious matter and was not to go unpunished (see Ezek. 17:12–19). But in time people began to abuse their oaths, to swear in a manner that was unholy, inappropriate, or that would allow for loopholes.
Jesus called his followers to a greater accountability: “Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne:
“Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.
“Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
“But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matt. 5:34–37). His was a call to his disciples to let their word be their bond in righteousness. Yes as a part of a legal or interpersonal arrangement should mean yes, and no must mean no. Personal honor and integrity are at stake.
Covenants are two-way promises between us and our God. All gospel covenants and ordinances are administered and entered into in the name of Jesus Christ; nothing can be done for the salvation of mankind in any other name or by any other authority. Thus, to willingly or knowingly violate our covenants made in his name is to take the name of the Lord in vain—to take lightly or treat as empty and meaningless our sacred and solemn obligations. God will not be mocked (see Gal. 6:7), nor will he suffer that his holy ordinances be mocked or treated capriciously or cavalierly.
Further, those who have entered into the covenants of the gospel are under sacred obligation to labor to build up the kingdom of God. To refuse callings outright, neglect our duties, or in general fail to do our part is to take the name of the Lord upon us and then fail to bear it honorably. “Hearken and hear, O ye my people, saith the Lord and your God, ye whom I delight to bless with the greatest of all blessings, ye that hear me; and ye that hear me not will I curse, that have professed my name, with the heaviest of all cursings.” (D&C 41:1; emphasis added.) The Lord has warned that in the last days “vengeance cometh speedily upon the inhabitants of the earth …”
“And upon my house shall it begin, and from my house shall it go forth, saith the Lord;
“First among those among you, saith the Lord, who have professed to know my name and have not known me, and have blasphemed against me in the midst of my house, saith the Lord” (D&C 112:24–26; emphasis added).
3. His children take his name in vain through being flippant, sacrilegious, and irreverent. The divine decree from Sinai “necessarily forbids all light and irreverent mention of God, or any of His attributes, and we may safely add to all these that every prayer, … etc. that is not accompanied with deep reverence and the genuine spirit of piety is here condemned also” (Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible, abridged by Ralph Earle, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1967, p. 126).
Several years ago, a young man who addressed our ward in sacrament meeting began by saying, in essence, “Brothers and sisters, it’s great to be in your ward today. I am told that the best way to get a congregation with you is to liven them up with a few jokes.” He related several humorous stories, including some inappropriate for the occasion. The congregation roared—or at least some of them did. Others wondered what was going on. After fifteen or twenty minutes, the young man looked at his watch and said, “Well, I’d better close now. I say all these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”
His address was amusing and entertaining, something that might have been fun under other circumstances. But we were in a sacrament meeting, a sacred worship service. There was something haunting about his closing words, “In the name of Jesus Christ.” I had, of course, heard those very words thousands of times over the years. That day, however, I thought of all the times I had delivered talks or offered prayers in the name of Jesus Christ, but had done so without much reflection upon whose name I had taken. I thought of occasions when I had spoken on topics of my own choosing, but topics that may not have represented what the Lord wanted discussed. I thought of those times I had closed my prayers in a flash, zipping through the name of the Redeemer as though I were sprinting toward some finish line. I thought of the scores of times I had partaken of the emblems of the body and blood of the Savior with my mind focused on things alien to the spirit of the occasion.
It occurred to me then, and has many times since, that we need not be involved with profanity to be guilty of taking the name of the Lord our God in vain. We need merely to treat lightly, flippantly, and without serious thought the sobering charge we carry as members of his Church to speak and act in God’s name.
To be guilty of taking God’s name in vain is to participate in sacred ordinances lightly or unworthily, to pretend to faithfulness when our hearts or hands are unclean.
We are a happy people, and the joy and satisfaction that derive from living the gospel must not be kept a secret. On the other hand, Joseph Smith taught that “the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 137).
We have the privilege of bearing the name of God honorably and righteously. When we do so, we walk in his light. “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24). On the other hand, when we have covenanted to honor the name of God (see Ex. 20:2–6) and we do not do so, our minds will be darkened by our unbelief, and then the Lord has said that we are under condemnation, that a scourge and a judgment await (see D&C 84:54–59).
To be called upon to speak or act in the name of God is a sacred trust. It is deserving of solemn and ponderous thought. We would preach gospel doctrines more diligently and bear more fervent testimonies if we kept fixed in our minds the weighty fact that our words or our deeds can be the words and actions of our eternal Head. Our divine commission includes this sobering provision: “Wherefore, as ye are agents, ye are on the Lord’s errand; and whatsoever ye do according to the will of the Lord is the Lord’s business” (D&C 64:29). By contrast, if we speak or act or pray without seeking for inspiration, if we teach for doctrine the views and philosophies of men, if we approach spiritual opportunities lightly or carelessly, we are probably taking the name of God in vain.
President Spencer W. Kimball counseled: “It is not enough to refrain from profanity or blasphemy. We need to make important in our lives the name of the Lord. While we do not use the Lord’s name lightly, we should not leave our friends or our neighbors or our children in any doubt as to where we stand. Let there be no doubt about our being followers of Jesus Christ” (Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 6). Obedience to the third commandment has as much to do with the way we live and the way we are as it does with the way we speak.
It is our privilege to know him and, through him, our Father. We can rejoice in the revealed knowledge of our divine birthright and in the opportunity to take upon us the name of the Son. Our desires to acknowledge, recognize, and praise our Heavenly Father and our loving Savior should know no bounds.
Mortality offers the opportunity to be true to who and what we are by righteously taking upon us the name of God. At the same time, it offers the risk of losing our divine heritage if we take and use his name in vain. The Apostle Paul counseled the Corinthians: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?
If we truly want to be as living temples of our God, we would do well to remember, in our thoughts and words and actions, the dedication that is inscribed on each of the sacred buildings we call temples: “Holiness to the Lord.”