I’ll never forget the exact shade of dinge my brother’s socks were the day my grandmother reamed him out when she heard him say “holy cow.” I was so ashamed and distraught during this episode I couldn’t look at their faces, so I stared at his sock-covered feet the entire time. The lecture involved a short lesson on swearing, euphemisms, Hinduism, and the Ten Commandments. Needless to say I did not utter that phrase until my adult years, and I still carry a lingering reluctance to speak it.

Ah the third commandment. It has sparked a lot of division in youth groups everywhere. Is “geeze” short for “Jesus,” and does that count as taking the Lord’s name in vain? I’ve even heard it argued that the phrase, “oh my word” is really a violation of the third commandment because Jesus is the Word of God and therefore one of His names that should not be used in vain.

I dropped out of this argument a long time ago, because I am not gifted with verbal argumentation. I have rather arbitrarily landed on the side of “euphemisms don’t count.” Being Midwestern, I have a plethora of euphemistic phraseology worked into the very fiber of my being to draw from at any given moment of tension.

Honestly, I think God is so much bigger than these petty arguments that have nothing to do with the heart. God is more real than swearing and our traditional understanding of what swearing is. He is deeper than our understanding of language itself. So there must be more to the third commandment than “geeze.”

When I think of a name, I think of a person attached to that name. Be it fictional, someone I know of, or someone I know. A name is very rarely just a name, which I think was the general idea behind Shakespeare’s bit about roses and their name in Romeo and Juliet. So, the name of God is inextricable from His personhood, His character, His heart, and all the rest.

In my understanding, to take the Lord’s name in vain is to speak wrongly about who He is, or to talk about Him in a manner of apathetic emptiness. To shrink God into someone He never was, and then convince others the shrunken version is the truth about God. It’s to use God’s name in such a way that all of His power, and glory, and love is reduced to vain nothingness.

What’s really a shame is not, “holy cow” but telling people that God is a slot machine: say the right words in the right order at the right time and, Jackpot! Even worse, people believing it. When all along, God is a living, breathing God who doesn’t interact with us formulaically; He interacts with us relationally. Our prayers should be based on relational history with Him and His word, the scripture.

Sometimes I find myself wondering about John 14, and how this idea of misunderstanding the use of God’s name works in our prayers. It is the last supper and Jesus is telling the disciples all His final thoughts before going to the cross. One of those thoughts was on prayer, “Whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14 NKJV)

I couldn’t tell you how many times in my childhood I followed up a prayer with, “I said this prayer in Your name Jesus. Now you have to do it, or else You lied.”  These weren’t holy prayers, they were little selfish prayers about candy and clothes. Which I’m sure the Lord found very entertaining. But how much does this surface level, formulaic understanding of these verses bleed into adulthood prayers? Ones about cars, and status, and yes, the inescapable subject of clothes.

I wonder if praying these selfish prayers in the name of Jesus is a form of taking His name in vain. Because Jesus didn’t give this comment as a formula for how to use Him to get what we want. He gave this teaching in the context of relationship. I think He meant His name to be used in prayer as a seal over the words from our spirts to His when we speak to Him in prayer.

Chapter 14 starts with Jesus telling us about God’s house and how there’s room for us there. Then He says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6 NKJV) The teaching about praying in Jesus’ name is sandwiched between a teaching on Jesus’ one-ness with the Father (a.k.a. God), and a promise that He would send the Holy Spirit. Essentially explaining that because Jesus came, lived, died, and rose again He made Himself a way to the Father.

In other words, if we unite ourselves to Jesus we can again have a relationship with the Father through Him with the help of Holy Spirit. So when you pray from that place of Trinitarian relationship and seal it with the name of Jesus, it will be done.

Sorta makes the selfish prayers look lame, one might even say vain.

-Etta Woods

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