What Does it Mean to Take God’s Name in Vain


As a Deist you might think I would respond to this with who cares, and on some levels you would be right, on others not so much.  Recently a person emailed me about a comment that I made, that comment was as follows,

“Most Christians think saying God damn, is taking the lord’s name in vain, it isn’t, not even close.  Sadly most christains don’t seem to understand the faith they are so devoted to.  However, the belief that God Damn is a sin and offensive is so ingrained in modern people, I tend to not say it, in any sort of public speaking, just because I don’t want to upset people.”

I should point out to put this in context, I will when called for use words like shit and asshole in public speaking.  To me they are perfectly valid words.  It is funny though, many would prefer I didn’t but simply accept it but wow, say “God damn” and you’d think you had spit on a baby and punched an old lady in the face, in one move.  Why?  It breaks a commandment.  Well lets put aside the same people break commandments all the time and just ask, does it even.

I say no, here I will lay out a simple case for that fact.  Keeping in mind that I am not bound by the bible as a Christian chooses to be, I still know it well from my youthful Catholic indoctrination and my service later in life as a lay minister in another faith.  With that in mind, let me say the reason saying God Damn isn’t taking the Lord’s name in vain is it simply isn’t biblical at all, there is no biblical case to be made for it.

I will answer what does taking God’s name in vain mean from three persepctives…

  1. The typical modern Christian
  2. The informed biblical Christian or Jew
  3. To me personally as a Deist

The Typical Modern Christian

To such people it simply means to say the word God or Jesus or any other “official name” for God at the same time you say a profane word.  All good and well but can you show me a list of profane words in the bible?  A list of words God says, “thou shall not say these words”.  Nope you can’t.  So the entire concept of what is and what is not a profane or bad word is subjective to current society.  Any good bible believer knows that God does NOT WORK THAT WAY.

In the bible God is clear in his commands and they do not change simply because society has.  Only God himself or Christ his son can change such things or say, “what I really meant was _______”.  We may even accept the word of a profit who was told something by God, but man, you don’t just say, well today this means something different.

The truth is there are no profane words, there are profane concepts which can be described with words.  So first and foremost damn isn’t a “bad word”.  Have you noticed how many people find damn to not be offensive until you put God before it?  Next the bible doesn’t claim that to use a specific word with God’s name is to take his name in vane.  I pretty sure if that was the intent it would say so, clearly and plainly, given God even gets down to details like what to do if one man’s ox gores another.

That said modern Christians believe this for one simple reason, it is what they were taught to believe and, with no attempt what-so-ever to verify the meaning of a self imposed law, they simply choose to believe it means saying God damn, etc.

The Informed Biblical Christian or Jew

These folks understand the commandment because they understand the larger context of the Jewish Law and Jewish Customs of the time of the writing of the Torah.  One must understand almost everything in the law was not just a code of conduct, but an attempt to set the Hebrew people apart from all others.  This at a time of tribal and nomadic living.  Almost every law, is counter to what everyone else was doing at the time.

This included the concept of monotheism, or one God.  While this actually has roots in Egyptian culture (among others) at this time almost all cultures the Hebrew people had around them professed to have many Gods.  So the one God called his people not only to worship him, but to be set apart.  So now we must ask what others did with their God’s names.  What they did was speak for them, on their behalf and make edicts on said behalf.  Such as, “I proclaim by the name of Baal that we will win this war”.  Of course the same was said by the other side, “I proclaim in the name of Isis that we will win”.  Problem was neither Isis nor Ball had said a thing about this.

In essence these cultures claimed that their God’s wanted things for them and proposed to speak on their behalf.  Not just priests or kings either, in small home temples the same was done with the idols of the day by individuals.  Worse yet it was seen as clearly one God was stronger than the other if say Baal’s side won, Baal was the greater God.

So the command to the Hebrew people was simple, YOU DO NOT SPEAK FOR GOD and YOU WILL NOT TEST YOUR GOD AGAINST OTHERS.  Simple no?  In fact the bible at times says God led his people into slavery and into losses when they turned away from him.  When you see this context it is clear what God is saying when he says, “do not take my name in vain”.

It means I am not a God of sorcery or a God to be commanded by my people.  I am in charge, I know what will be and why it shall be and you are to trust me at all times.  You don’t speak for me or on my behalf unless you are repeating what I have written or told to you though my profits (and later though my son).  This is it guys and gals.  This is a biblical understanding of the commandment.

In this context the statement God damn is more a prayer then taking the Lord’s name in vain.  It is a request, to make it a sin, one would need to say something like, “I proclaim that God will damn, ________”.  There by choosing to speak for God, vs. imploring God to damn something.  In other words many Christians actually break this commandment, not when they pray in God or Jesus name, but when they declare that X will occur or Y will not, simply by invoking the name of God.

In this context you see that “God bless” can be just as bad biblically as “God damn”.  God bless Uncle Steve is perfectly fine, but I declare in the name of God that Uncle Steve will be blessed, is taking God’s name in vain. This commandment is all about intent, not words current society have placed on the list of bad words.

To Me As a Deist

You might think to me that this all means not a damn thing, on one level you are correct.  I don’t believe in a God that judges his children, sends them to hell, tells them to kill other people in his name or anything like this.  I do however see wisdom in this concept, though I see it as a natural law of energy vs. a law to be obeyed by command.

You see as a Deist I have one and only one thing I claim to know about God, it is only that “God Is”.  That God exists, period.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Is God a person type God a being you would see as a man?   I don’t think so, but I don’t claim to know.  To me God is the single creative force that writes the symphony that is our known and unknown multiverses.  When you truly understand physics you see math, matter and energy as what they are, patterns of music.

Somewhere in this music and everywhere in this music is God.  How exactly that works I don’t know.  God could be anything from a singularity of thought and consciousness or perhaps something akin to “the force” from the Star Wars movies.  I don’t know, I don’t need to know and I can’t at this point in my evolution know and I am okay with that.

That said what this all means, what the fact that “God Is” means is wisdom of God is inherent to all people.  We all have a connection and in forming religions we often find morality that is positive and laws that are if nothing else good advice.  Many would point to a lot of bad things too, like stoning people for saying the wrong thing.  While I agree that doesn’t change the good from all faiths.

Even something many today balk at like Jewish diet restrictions made a LOT more sense in the desert, with no sanitation to speak of, no running water and no refrigeration.  I see the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain the same way, though more relevant to me personally than keeping kosher.

The commandment means to me what it means to anyone that interprets it biblically.  Don’t presume to speak for God or tell others what God will or won’t do, because you don’t know what God really wants or what God is going to do or not do.  God Is, be at peace and worry only about what you feel you should do in this world based on your relationship with God.

So do Deists have a relationship with God?  Sounds like a topic for another post on another day!

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Comments 13

  • That’s a damn good post man!

    Just one thing I would add, although saying God damn is not blasphemey, it’s not a very smart thing to do if you believe God listens to prayers. Thankfully God doesn’t actually damn peoples thumbs or doors when they slam them in the door and say “God Damn it!”

    You represented the informed Christian view pretty well, and I think that most Christians would agree.

    I would even go so far as to say that some Christians, including myself would find some simularities in their own beliefs as with your Diest view. I heard one Theologian say “Every theology is blasphemy, every picture of God is inadequete” We really can’t know what God is like, on our own understanding, we will always fall short of his Glory. So to say you Understand God, or to make a claim that God is this way and not that way, that is beyond what he has told us, is wrong.

    Since I am a Christian, I believe the Bible is his word, so the things he says about himself in it are true. But, I really should not draw my own conclusions beyond that.

    • Aaron, sadly MOST Christians are not informed and you know that man, and no they would not agree.

      As to “Just one thing I would add, although saying God damn is not blasphemey, it’s not a very smart thing to do if you believe God listens to prayers” well I don’t not in delivery mode anyway. The statement of God Damn is just a fanciful as God Bless.

      God Is but God doesn’t grant wished positive or negative.

    • Oh and let me add, the Bible isn’t what God says about himself it is what man says about God and even if Christians are 100% right about that, it is at BEST what GOD told a man and what that man remembered, told another man, then another man was told and wrote it.

      The phrase “purple monkey dishwasher” springs to mind for me when people claim the Bible is “Gods word”. Frankly the entire old testament is largely totally hosed up simply by translating Hebrew to English and read by people who don’t know Hebrew. The same could be said to a lesser degree about Greek in the new testament.

      “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he shall not depart from it”

      Problem, the verb train in this proverb is the SAME VERB used to describe the action a mid wife uses to clear the throat of a new born baby at the time of birth so it can breath. We simply don’t have a single word for that, we can’t understand that one line, let along the entire bible.

      If God did put his own word in print, I doubt such problems would exist.

  • One more thing, I forgot to mention that there are some things that most American Christians hold to be almost sacred, that are actually taking God’s name in vain.

    1. The pledge of allegiance, includes God’s name to pledge yourself to something other than God, the State.

    2. “In God We Trust” on our money which bears the image of men.

    3. Demanding that everyone says Merry Christmas, instead of Happy Holidays, even people who don’t believe in God.

  • Another aspect of this is that in ancient religions, to know the name of a god was to have some control over it. It was believed, in many of these religions, that invoking the name of a god was to summon it and to be able to get it to do one’s will, at least to some extent.

    YHWH is interesting in this regards because he refuses to tell Moses what his name is. He doesn’t want Moses thinking that Moses will have any power over him. So he simply tells Moses, “I am that I am.”

    Juxtapose this over and against Jesus who tells his disciples to do things in and ask things in his name. Most Christians end their prayers with, “…in Jesus’ name, amen.” They don’t realize that they are trying to invoke the power of their god to do their bidding. Then again, this is what Jesus seemed to teach. One of the reasons that I left Christianity, but not the only reason, is I found that this “formula” just didn’t work. Asking or pleading for something in the name of Jesus didn’t get me anything, even though my requests were often good-natured and laudable. I was never able to get his ear. He was probably too busy getting people parking places at WalMart and helping quarterbacks make touchdowns. 🙂

  • No. It means don’t use God’s name unless your talking to him. In vain means useless. If you cook a huge dinner for 20 guests and they all canceled, then you cooked in vain. Useless. Never call God’s name uselessly.

  • The Hebrew word that is translated as “in vain” in Exodus 20:7 is laš·šāw. This word means emptiness useless or vanity. Words have meaning in any language. To say that a meaning in one language cannot be stated accurately in another language is not correct. While some words or phrases may not have a direct translation to a similar length word of phase the idea that is being conveyed certainly can be passed along. In the context of this conversation God with a capital G is accepted to be the God of the bible. When you say you believe in God yet do not believe in the Word then you contradict yourself. This seems to be the reason the work “Deist” is used. The higher power you believe in is not the God of the bible. If that were so then you would accept the Word. Are there some flaws in translations? Certainly. But these flaws can be learned about and corrected with study. Or we can just throw up our hands and say it just doesn’t matter. My main point with all of this is that if you want to believe in a God other than the one we read about in the bible then you should use another name to avoid confusion and insult.

  • […] a violation of the commandment against taking G-d’s Name in vain, although it is unclear why this should be so, and at least some serious Catholics understand the sin involved in the manner of R. […]

  • Thinking more deeply and closer to the Hebrew is that God does not want us to “put on” or claim his name lightly as we are to be His disciples and therefore a reflection of Him. Not claiming to be Christian as we wallow in sin.

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