Recently I sat with my oldest son at a professional baseball game. We were thrilled to see famous players and were excited to watch a well-played athletic contest. One thing, however, clouded the evening for me—the language of some of the fans. After only a half hour or so, the tension of the game and the desire for a win brought forth a stream of profanities from some people behind us. For the next three hours, we were subjected to crude and coarse language, including constant use of the Lord’s name as a curse or an exclamation. As we returned to our motel, I felt literally beaten down, even defiled. It was a painful experience.
In a world where upright and moral people would never murder, steal, or commit adultery, it is surprising how unthinkingly some take the sacred name of God in vain. Why is it that people can be so careful in keeping the commandments from Sinai that pertain to human relationships but be so careless with the dignity and sanctity of the name of Deity? The answer, I think, is that 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 appreciatethe seriousness of violating this commandment without understanding what it means for people to take the name of God upon themselves and to speak, act, and pray in the name of the Lord.
The Fall of Adam and Eve, though an essential step in the plan of salvation, made the world we are born into a fallen, telestial world. The spiritual death that we all suffer as we sin in this environment represents a separation from God and from his royal family. Without the possibility of reconciling 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 from spiritual death is made possible only through the labors of a God mightier than death, one upon whom justice has no claim. As the foreordained Messiah, Jesus Christ “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, Jesus Christ is the Father of salvation. Those who have been born again—through exercising faith, repenting, being baptized, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost—are adopted by his family, the family of the Most High. As sons and daughters of Christ (see Mosiah 5:7), they are obligated by covenant to live and speak as befitting the new and holy name they have taken upon themselves.
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, act, worship, and perform the labors of the kingdom and of life in the name of the Son.
Whenever the gospel has been on the earth, Jesus Christ has given his divine authority to chosen servants and recognized the acts they perform in his name by this authority. 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 demonstrated his power over both physical and spiritual sicknesses (see Matt. 9:1–5; JST, Luke 5:23). Jesus is Jehovah, and Jehovah is God, and God needs neither the name nor the power of another to work miracles. In contrast, all those who are agents of the Lord are authorized to act and operate only in the name of Jesus Christ (see Philip. 2:9). We may serve him truly only when we have truly taken his name upon us.
How, then, do we become guilty of taking 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 as a curse. The word profane means literally “outside the temple.” What an insightful way to describe profaning the name of God: to drag that which is holy from its hallowed setting into an environment that is unholy and unclean. President Gordon B. Hinckley taught that “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, November 1987, 45).
The increase of profanity and vulgarity in music, books, television, and movies reflects the vulgarity of our times. To be vulgar is to be crude, coarse, or indecent. It is to treat sacred things as common or ordinary. Perhaps people’s inhumanity to others is related to their neglect of sacred matters; the growing harshness, crudeness, and insensitivity in society may correlate directly with denying, defying, or ignoring God. When we love the Lord and cherish his word, we seek always to act and speak with reverence toward him. On the other hand, one who does not know God and finds no personal value in worship or devotion cannot understand the meaning of holy and holiness. Such a person may have no restraint in speech, no hesitation to profane the sacred.
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 use his name, we should do so with the deepest reverence. If we use his holy name without serious thought, without appropriate reflection, we are using it in ways that are common and vulgar—in other words, in vain, without authority.
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, 49–50).
2. His children take his name in vain by breaking 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). 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 , 67).
In ancient times, an oath impressed the importance of truth and integrity upon parties to an agreement or upon witnesses in an investigation. The legal procedure involving an oath included holy words and sacred acts and was sealed by using the name of Deity. To break such an oath was a very serious matter and did not go unpunished (see Ezek. 17:12–19). But in time people began to abuse their oaths, to swear in a manner that was unholy or would allow them to break their oaths.
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). Jesus instructed his disciples to let their word be their bond in righteousness. Yes, as part of a legal or interpersonal arrangement, must mean yes; no must mean no.
Covenants are two-way promises between us and 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 humankind in any other name or by any other authority. Thus, to knowingly violate our covenants made in his name is to take the name of the Lord in vain—to take lightly or treat as 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 lightly.
Further, those who have entered into the covenants of the gospel are under sacred obligation to build up the kingdom of God. To refuse callings, neglect our duties, or fail to do our part is to fail to bear the name of the Lord honorably. It is to take his name in vain. The Lord has warned that in the last days “vengeance cometh speedily upon the inhabitants of the earth …
“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” (D&C 112:24, 26; emphasis added).
3. His children take his name in vain by being light-minded 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, … that is not accompanied with deep reverence and the genuine spirit of piety is here condemned also” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, abridged by Ralph Earle , 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 talk to a congregation is to liven them up with a few jokes.” He related several humorous stories, including some inappropriate for the occasion. The congregation laughed loudly—or at least some did. Others wondered what was going on. After 15 or 20 minutes, the young man 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 words innumerable 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 reflecting on whose name I had taken. I thought of occasions when I had spoken on topics of my own choosing—topics that may not have been what the Lord wanted discussed. I thought of those times I had hurriedly closed my prayers, rushing through the name of the Redeemer as though I were sprinting toward some finish line. I thought of the times I had partaken of the sacrament, the emblems of the body and blood of the Savior, with my mind focused on other things.
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 God in vain. We need merely to treat without serious thought the charge we carry as members of the Lord’s Church to speak and act in his name.
To be guilty of taking God’s name in vain is to participate in sacred ordinances lightly or unworthily, to pretend faithfulness when our hearts or hands are unclean.
Although the joy and satisfaction that derive from living the gospel must not be kept a secret, 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, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith , 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 and do not, our minds are “darkened because of unbelief.” Then we are under condemnation, and “a scourge and judgment” await us (see D&C 84:54, 58).
To be called upon to speak or act in the name of God is a sacred trust. It deserves solemn and ponderous thought. We will preach the gospel more diligently and bear more fervent testimonies if we remember that our words and our deeds can be the words and actions of our Heavenly Father. 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, act, or pray without seeking inspiration, if we teach as doctrine the views and philosophies of men, if we approach spiritual opportunities lightly or carelessly, we are 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, November 1978, 6).
Mortality offers us the opportunity to be true to our divine birthright by righteously taking upon us the name of God. At the same time, we risk 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 living temples of our God, we will remember, in our thoughts, words, and actions, the dedication that is inscribed on each of our sacred temples: “Holiness to the Lord.”