Teenagers tend to feel disconnected from the Ten Commandments. And why shouldn’t they? They were written for a wholly different people—an adult people, no less—in a wholly different context. We do our best as youth ministers to help bring contextual relevance to some of the more obscure commands, and to help our teens understand the spirit of the law behind each one.
For instance, we know they aren’t melting down their purity rings in their backyards and making literal idols to worship, so instead we talk to them about how their smartphones and laptops and other gadgets can become idols, along with their pursuits of popularity or perfect grades. But even our best attempts to cast the Ten Commandments in culturally relevant light can fall short, especially when the language in which we learn and memorize them remains archaic. What, for instance, does it mean when God says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”?
Many, many, many elementary Sunday school teachers and youth ministers say, “Easy. Don’t say the G-D word or J-C when you’re angry. Instead, say pure words like dadgum, gosh-darnit, or geez. Next?”
Of course, none of you have ever made that mistake. Nuh-uh. We know that the youth ministers and leaders and volunteers and parents who read this blog never take the easy way out when discussing matters of faith with their students. This post isn’t for you. It’s for that youth leader of that other church down the street. (Print this off and slide it under his or her door.)
So what does it mean to take the Lord’s name in vain, if it’s not—and we’re pretty sure it’s not—merely avoiding using the name of Christ as an expletive when we stub a toe, or asking God to condemn that huge pothole in the road that just reminded us how bad the shocks are in our car?
Let’s think about the context of the people for whom the commandment was originally written. Yes, the new covenant and Jesus’s sacrifice and his blood ensure that all that exclusive, for-God’s-people-only stuff can now be applied to anyone. But when the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on the mountain, they were specifically for God’s people, who—at that time—were only the Israelites. God repeats over and over throughout the first several books of the Old Testament that the Israelites are to be a holy nation and a priestly kingdom; that they are to be his representatives; that they are his, and that the world will know it by the way they live.
So, armed with that information, the phrase taking the Lord’s name in vain begins to feel a little different. Doesn’t it start to feel like a situation where behavior should be considered? If the Israelites are supposed to be God’s people, then the world is going to watch them. And if you bestowed your seal upon someone else and vouched for that person and said that anything that person said or did was a direct representation of who you are… Well, you’d want that person to be well behaved and articulate and honest, wouldn’t you? You’d want to be represented as educated, kind, courteous, thoughtful, insightful. And anything that person did that misrepresented you… Well, wouldn’t you take offense to that? Wouldn’t you be indignant, and perhaps even hurt?