Liturgical Lessons from the Decalogue: Vain Worship
by Nicholas Zork
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…” (Exodus 20:7 NASB)
When we think about the prohibition against taking “the name of the LORD your God in vain,” we tend to imagine settings like a soccer match, ostensibly “secular” events or situations in which the divine may be inappropriately invoked. I’ve been enjoying a very entertaining and intriguing FIFA World Cup. And I’ve been surprised how often players reference God during a 90-minute match. Thrilling and sometimes elusive goals are perhaps the most frequent precursors to praise. I imagine missed chances have inspired less positive references to God as well. Concerns about such references—especially the latter—are valid, but I’m more unsettled about events in which our sensitivities to vain God-talk are dulled—events in which invoking God’s name can seem appropriate even when it isn’t: namely, Christian worship.
There are three ways in particular that we “take the name of the LORD your God in vain” in worship—often quite inadvertently:
- One way we may frequently take God’s name in vain is by trying to speak on God’s behalf. The temptation to speak for God is constant in worship gatherings. And our intentions may be positive: wanting to assure people that God loves them, expressing God’s welcome, or even offering a needed critique. But attributing our words to God creates more problems than it solves. With regard to our present discussion, such attributions tend to be vain in both senses of the word: vain in failing to take God seriously and vain in taking ourselves so seriously we think we can speak for God. Additionally, speaking for or even about God distracts us from what we are truly called to do in worship: hear God and respond to our Creator and Redeemer.
- Even when we don’t explicitly try to speak on God’s behalf, we often take God’s name in vain as a means of legitimizing and blessing proceedings which may have little to do with worshipping God. We use God’s name vainly—again, in both senses—as a way of talking about ourselves. It is interesting that so many Adventist congregations avoid setting aside specific Sabbaths on an annual basis to celebrate Jesus’ birth, ministry, death or resurrection; and that some of these same congregations have established annual Sabbath services that celebrate various ministries of the congregation, groups within the congregation, nationalistic allegiance and military service, and important civic holidays. There is not space here to outline all the challenges regarding the relationship between Church and State and the implications of patriotic worship. Suffice it to say, we are often eager to “divinely” sanction human activity; and it is shocking how often such vain use of God’s name goes unchecked.
- Perhaps the most common way that we take God’s name in vain in our worship ministries is in how we discuss and plan worship. Whether we are evaluating a recent service or planning an upcoming one, we tend to talk about encountering God and God’s activity in worship as though God is not presently in the room. For good or bad, we talk differently about people when they’re not there. But we forget that there is no such thing as God-talk behind God’s back. Perhaps if we discussed and planned worship with a greater sense of God’s presence, we would worship God with a greater sense of God’s presence. Perhaps we would be less cavalier in referring to God and more humble in referring to ourselves. Perhaps we would more fully recover a sense of God’s mystery—the mystery of a God who graciously meets us when we gather in Jesus’ name, a God who loves us all in the midst of our brokenness and vanity.