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OMG: Thoughts on Using God’s Name in Vain

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

Friends, I figured that if we’re going to get into this then honesty would be the best option. So here goes, I’ve been known to sprinkle a four-letter word into my vocabulary here and there. I, Brooke Dooley, an ordained minister of the UCC, cuss. Phew. Got that out of the way. Now onto the matter of the day, one of the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:7.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God…

I imagine many of us have heard, or been told, not to use God’s name in vain. And lately, I’ve been giving that a lot of thought. For the most part, I was raised to never follow-up “God” with another word that happens to begin with a “d,” but I also grew up pushing God’s buttons and, sometimes, pushing God away. That is to say, I’ve used these words. But as I spent the last few years of my life at my fancy pastor school, I became more curious about the context of this commandment. My curiosity extended to the use of language (yes, I investigated how profanity might have been used in Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew), as well as what it means to even name God. I mean, how do we really name God? Holy One is nice, or the Divine, Gentle Creator, Adonai, and Elohim (which is plural, isn’t that neat?), or the Tetragrammaton, יהוה which is traditionally not even read aloud because of this very commandment. It is also common in Jewish traditions to write out God in English as “G–d.”

A general search for “taking God’s name in vain” will show you how vast the debate is on what this really means. If you were hoping to come across that answer here, I will be the first to admit that this vocation is not one built on answers, and maybe it shouldn’t be. But I do have thoughts. It is often said that “sin” can be translated as “missing the mark.” It is something that causes harm to yourself or others, and acts counter to the love for which God made us. Some translations of this commandment have translated “in vain” to mean that one must not “misuse” the name of God. That is, using the name of God to justify actions that directly or indirectly harm another person, yourself, or any part of God’s creation.

So, with that interpretation, what are some ways that we might have used God’s name in vain? Perhaps with the Doctrine of Discovery, which used the name of God to justify the colonization, eradication, and displacement of the people who called this land home long before we arrived. The use of scripture to justify the enslavement of Black people would certainly qualify. Or trying to convince someone that God does not love them because they are queer, or trans, or nonbinary, unhoused, disabled, a sex worker, or a family, whose nationality does absolutely nothing to diminish their personhood, trying to seek the safety and shelter that God imagined for all of us, amid razor wires and buoys.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God…

I cannot claim to have the answers for what this commandment is asking of us, but if God is the ultimate manifestation of love, then with that name, let all that you do be done in love.


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