What's In A Name?
BENT, BROKEN, UNBOWED
The Ten Commandments for Today
IT’S MUCH MORE THAN SWEARING
Are names important? What do people think when they hear the word “God”? Does how that name is used have an effect on what people think of Him?
Research on the effect of a child’s name on that child reveals that kids with unusual names do worse in school, suffer in their careers and in their relationships, compared to kids with “normal” names. The warning conveyed to parents is to be careful what they name their kids! Names are important. They have meaning and influence.
The first name of one of the student leaders of the protest movement against the government in Venezuela is “Stalin”. I don’t know what his parents were thinking when they named him, but when those of us who know something about history hear the name, you know what WE think, and the image is not pretty!
In Bible times, and to a certain extent, modern times, the names given to people were descriptive of those people. Isaac’s sons by Rebekah were named Esau, meaning “hairy” because he was, and Jacob, meaning “he grasps the heel” because he was holding onto his brother’s heel as he came through the birth channel. Sometimes names were given to children to express what God had done. For example, Samuel, whom God had given in response to his mother’s prayer, means “God heard me.” The name “Jesus” means “The Lord saves” which was very appropriate to the mission He had in the world. And that was the name God gave His Son so that His very name would describe Him whenever people heard it.
Proverbs 22:1 (NIV) says: “A good name is more desirable than riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” The second part of this phrase explains that the author is referring to reputation when he speaks about “a good name.” Most of us want people to think well of us when they hear our names mentioned. A good reputation is something we all seek to have. We do a lot to protect our reputations. When people hear the name of our church, we want them to think well of the place. When something or someone damages its reputation, the name becomes ridiculed or looked down on in the community, and all who belong to that church suffer.
God goes by many names—and we can abuse every single one of them! God has a reputation that we can damage, a reputation that He cares about.
In this modern age, attempts have been made to be “politically correct” in our imagery of God. Political correctness can result in the use of language to describe God that can diminish Him, hurt His reputation, destroy the truth of who God is. The Bible speaks of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But there has been an effort made in some religions to create new “triads” to describe God. For example, in 2006 the Presbyterian church in the United States suggested the following be used instead of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” They now use “Overflowing Font, Living Water, and Flowing River”; “Fire that Consumes, Sword that Divides and Storm that Melts Mountains.” This was in an effort to avoid offending anyone by describing God as male. But what it did was to describe God as a force and diminish Him as a Person.
The Scripture is full of word pictures that describe characteristics, or qualities, of God that we use all the time. But God is not only, for example, our Great Shepherd, or the Living Word, or holy. That is only part of who He is. On one positive note, the Presbyterian churches decided not to use the following triad for God: “Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child, and Living-giving Womb” which strongly suggests what the Canaanites believed about their fertility gods.
The United Church revised its official hymn book and other materials to avoid being gender specific or, in other words, to make sure that God wasn’t referred to as a “He” so as not to offend women! Making God into what we want Him to be, which is creating another god, or something that isn’t God, is to diminish Him, to do damage to His name to His reputation.
There are words like OMNIPRESENT, OMNISCIENT, OMNIPOTENT that are used to describe God. Many people have no idea what those words mean since they are not part of common usage. Omnipresent means that God is everywhere at all times. When we think about that we realize that the name OMNIPRESENT describes something about God that is important: He is sooooooo big that He can be everywhere at once. But that is only one part of who He is. Omniscient means that God knows everything. That too, is a huge, important name that tells us something about God, especially if we are foolish enough to think we can hide something from Him! Omnipotenttells us that God is more powerful than anything or anyone else in the universe. These are important names that describe God, but even all together they don’t completely describe Him. He is everywhere, knows everything and is more powerful than anything. But we still have all kinds of other names that, added together, make an attempt to describe who God is. No one name will ever describe Him, in the same way that no single representation of Him is adequate. When people say, for example, that “God is love,” they are right, but that’s only a small part of who He is.
Our third command from Deuteronomy is this one: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (5:11, NIV).
Remember our first command given to us by the Lord Jesus in the New Testament? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30, NIV)
If I love someone, I will not abuse that person’s good name, damage it, dirty it by how I say it or use it. Nor will I allow anyone else to damage it. If I love God as I should I will not abuse His good name, damage it, dirty it by how I say it or use it. Nor will I be tolerant of its abuse by anyone else. God cares about His reputation, His “good name,” and if we love Him we should too.
So important is God’s Name, or reputation, to Him that when Jesus gave His followers the model prayer that they were to use as a guideline for their own prayers, He began this way: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” The word “hallow” means to honor as holy, to make holy, to consecrate, to be greatly revered or respected.
God appeared to Moses and called a reluctant shepherd to lead God’s people out of slavery. After some pretty intense discussion, Moses wanted to know how he should introduce God to the Israelites. What should he name God so that the Israelites would know that he, Moses, was really a messenger of the Almighty? Exodus 3 tells us that God said: “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you”’” (3:13, 14, NIV).
What kind of name is “I AM?”
“I AM” is another form YHWH, the initials that the Jews used to refer to God. These initials are often pronounced “Yahweh” or what we now think of as the word “Jehovah.” It is usually translated in English as “The Lord,” the most common name for God in the Bible. Basically “I AM” is a sentence that has no end, just as God has no end. He is everything that He chooses to be (NOTE: not what we choose Him to be).
“I AM” was God’s personal identity. It was such a privilege for God to tell His people what this name was that the Jews avoided even saying the word lest they use it incorrectly or lightly. If you didn’t say it you couldn’t misuse it. J. John remarks: “However strange and ritualistic to us, the point behind not using God’s name at all was a very valid one. It was to ensure that, at all costs, this commandment to treat God’s name with reverence was kept.” (Ten: Laws of Love Set In Stone, page 172) He goes on to say that he doesn’t think the Jews did this out of fear as though God would zap them if they spoke His name out of turn. Rather, they felt it was such a privilege and joy to know His name that they wanted to be careful with it.
In the Lord’s Prayer we see the balance between approaching God and respecting God demonstrated by Jesus Himself. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed (or made holy) be your name” (Matthew 6:9, NIV). We enjoy intimacy with Him as our “Father” or “Abba” but we also never forget to treat Him with the honor and respect that is His right as God.
IT’S JUST HABIT
The name of God is often used in inappropriate ways. For example, people post “OMG” along with some comment they make on FACEBOOK. Most people know what those three letters stand for, but their use is an example of abusing the name of Almighty and treating it with disrespect. “It’s just habit,” or “It doesn’t mean anything” is the protest. That’s the point—God’s name DOES mean something so it needs to be consciously treated well and used in a context where it IS meaningful.
But perhaps we have used God’s name in ignorance, not knowing that how we were using it was disrespectful. In Spanish, people often use the expression “Dios mío” (My God) without thinking.
Many times, God’s name is used deliberately as an indication of a disrespect for God and for anything that has to do with Him. Romans 3:14, 18 (NIV) describes sinful men this way: “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness…There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
First of all, we need to remember that we can’t expect regenerate behavior from unregenerate people. In other words, we can’t expect people to act and talk like Christians if they are not. We can impose Biblical standards on those who have no respect for the Bible. And unhappily we can’t expect that others will respect our beliefs by not using God’s name inappropriately in our hearing.
The mouth speaks what the heart feels and the mind believes. Matthew 12:34-37 (NIV) tells us: “…out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give an account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” Now, that is a pretty strong statement.
Because we can expect ignorant use of God’s name and rebellious use of God’s name we have to know how to deal with it when it happens. We should not tolerate it in ourselves. But the sad truth is that the more we are exposed to the inappropriate use of God’s name the more likely we are to be tempted to follow suite. I have often wondered why I never had a problem with misusing God’s name when I was younger, but why it’s much more of a temptation now that I am older. Part of that is because I have had a lot more time to become desensitized to swear words. I’ve been exposed to them more in society. And, truth be told, what I read, what I watch on TV, are also influences on my own speech patterns. There is a lesson here.
Often even we as believers use profanity when we are under pressure, when we are angry, or bitter, or stressed. The balance is tipped in favour of the fruits of our former life and not the fruits of Spirit of God that are part of our growing relationship with Christ. Sometimes, like the moth circling the flame, we try to get as close as we can without actually using God’s name as a swear word. So “Jesus” became “Jeez” and “God” became “gosh” and with the passage of time most people have forgotten that these words were invented to give us a chance to be as much like the world as we can without actually being like it—or so we think!
Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:29 (NIV): “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
If, and when, you ask someone to not use certain kinds of language around you because it is offensive to you and to God, remember that the second of the two great commandments begins with “love.” Leave the “holier-than-thou” attitude elsewhere. Do not lose your temper. Don’t criticize or make remarks about “washing their mouth with soap” and all that. You want to win them to the Lord, not alienate them. We are told by Paul that we need to practice, “…speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15, NIV).
Why say anything at all? If someone is talking down about someone we love we usually jump to that person’s defense. If you start saying nasty about my mother I am not going to be silent—I hope! So why are we silent when someone says something nasty about God or disrespects His Name, whether it be in word or action? Is it possible, that we “love” how people see us more than we love God? Would we rather not run the risk of damaging the relationship or their feelings and allow God’s reputation to be damaged?
This also touches on what we tolerate in our own personal lives as well. Ephesians 5:4 (NIV) tells us: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” What we feel free to post on social media “because it is cute” but disrespectful testifies to just how close we are to the edge between respect and disrespect when it comes to our concern for God’s reputation.
Notice “thanksgiving.” Change the tape, change the subject, think thankfulness.
When we stop to think that everything depends on God’s favour, we realize how much respect we should be giving Him. If He decides to let gravity take a vacation, we’re in trouble. If He decides to withhold a breath, we are in trouble. This was Job’s issue. In his determination to prove to God that he hadn’t done anything wrong, he skirted the edge of disrespect and God called him on it. Job 38:1-7 (NIV) is a part of that monologue. God says: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will answer you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” And on He goes.
God doesn’t depend on us; we depend on Him. That makes Him and His Name worthy of respect.
The power to save, the power to condemn to hell, the power to maintain or destroy the world, the power over life and death, the power over every human authority and over every physical thing—the One who holds that power is worthy of respect.
God is OMNIPOTENT, all powerful, but we respect Him not out of fear but out of love. The “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” is based not on fear but on our love for Him because of WHO He is—His character. We admire Him and respect Him and hold Him high because He is Truth, Love, Wisdom, Holiness, Perfection, Mercy, Forgiving, Good, etc. etc.
J. John comments, “To misuse God’s name is foolish because of his mighty power; it is also immoral because of his perfect character” (Ten: Laws of Love Set In Stone, page 177). I find that word “immoral” interesting. It’s bad behavior.
Using the name of God as a swear word is only the tip of the iceberg. R. Albert Mohler asks a series of scary questions: “…what if the Third Commandment is not as simple as we thought it was?... What if the Third Commandment extends to the totality of our faith? What if it extends to all that we would seek to do or to say or to think or to sing in worship? What if it extends to the far reaches of our discipleship?” (Words From the Fire, page 66).
Dishonouring God’s name goes beyond simply swear words or inappropriate jokes.
Jacob is probably a prime example of a person who claims a relationship with God when it suits him but who generally lives to please himself. Jacob’s name means “he grasps the heel” or figuratively, “He deceives” or “supplanter.” Jacob lived up to his name (perhaps a good reason why “Jacob” might not be a good name for a kid!) From his early years living at home, Jacob used any means available to get ahead in life. Eventually this led him to using deceit, lying, manipulation, revenge, and a “do-it-to-others-before- they-do-it-to-you” mentality.
Jacob was a younger son, but he managed to manipulate his brother and get for himself the rights of the firstborn that belonged to his brother. He lied and deceived his father to get a blessing that didn’t belong to him.
All that got him run out of the house and he had to go to his mother’s brother’s home to get away from a very angry brother. On the journey God spoke to Jacob and reminded him that it would be through him and his descendants that God would send His Son, Jesus (Genesis 28:10-15). But before that, it would be through Jacob that the nation of Israel would be formed, the nation that was to be God’s witness, a living demonstration of God, to a pagan world.
What WAS God thinking? God’s choice of instruments through whom to work often amazes us. But then again, we should be amazed that He chose to work through us! His mercy and grace can change even the nastiest of men, even Jacob.
Jacob recognized that God was there. After his encounter with God, Jacob says: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it” (28:16, NIV). Perfect! He finally is paying attention to God. But then, notice the shift in focus. Jacob is afraid—I suspect because he knew every well how like his name he had become and how those character qualities didn’t line up with God’s standards and character—so he says: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God: this is the gate of heaven” (28:17, NIV). Hold it! Not “how awesome is God”? Jacob wasn’t quite ready to give up what his name implied he was, and settled, at least for this moment in time, to focus on the place where he met God, rather than on his relationship with God. He could manipulate the place but there was no way to manipulate God.
Then Jacob tries to make a deal with God. Remember the first commandment. God is the only God. The second commandment: There are no substitutes. In Jacob’s deal with God, the man puts himself in command, in God’s place. He says: “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the Lord will be my God…” (28:20, 21, NIV). If God met HIS criteria, did what HE wanted, then he’d pay attention to God. How typical of mankind, even to this present day!
Jacob arrives at his uncle’s home. He would discover that his uncle was as much of a manipulator as he was and in the chapters that follow, we have a series of events that make today’s reality shows look pretty tame. We have the Maternity Ward Wars where the object is to see who can have the most babies fathered by Jacob. The competition gets pretty nasty between Jacob’s two wives! Then we have Jacob and his uncle squaring off to see who can take more advantage of the other. I call this the Property Acquisition Challenge, a struggle where the winner is the one who is the best at “getting all he can, as quickly as he can, by any means that he can, and then getting away as fast as he can!” Jacob was being manipulated by his uncle and paid his uncle back by being an even better manipulator.
Okay, so Jacob’s not nice, but what does that have to do with honouring God’s name?
Jacob has the privilege of being the one through whom God will form His nation, and the one through whom God will send His Messiah, Jesus. Because of that privilege he’s got “God’s man” written all over him. But Jacob is not living like God’s man. He lies, he cheats, he steals, he manipulates, he thinks only of himself, he tries to make God bend to his rules. He’s like the person who says he’s a Christian but doesn’t live like one. He’s got “God’s man” written on him but people look at him and say: “If that’s a ‘God’s man’ then I want nothing to do with that God.” God’s reputation, character, and name are discredited, misrepresented and diminished.
What people think of God is what they see in the believers they meet. The only image that He allows to represent Him is us. Jacob wasn’t a shining example of honouring God’s name by the life he was living.
But there is another aspect to this. Jacob made God the accomplice to his manipulating, cheating, lying, and general nastiness. After he has cheated his father-in-law of some of the flocks and herds he says to Leah and Rachel: “So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me” (Genesis 31:9, NIV). Then he goes on to describe a dream that he had. He doesn’t directly say that God gave him specific instructions on how to cheat his father-in-law, but he insinuates that he got his instructions directly from God (31:10ff).
A little later, in an encounter with Laban, his father-in-law, he actually says that what he gained by cheating and manipulating was God’s way of rewarding him for Laban’s poor treatment of him. Genesis 31:42 (NIV): “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.”
When we say that God said something that He didn’t say or did something that He didn’t do, we are abusing His Name, misrepresenting all that His Name means. Yes, God was with Jacob, but God doesn’t tell any of us to sin against Him or against others. Loving our neighbour as we love ourselves is our version of the medical profession’s oath to “do no harm.” Jacob told another lie. God did not rebuke Laban, as Jacob said. God simply told Laban that he wasn’t to say anything good or bad to Jacob when he finally caught up with his son-in-law (31:24).
God doesn’t contradict Himself. Matthew 6:28-34 which tells us a whole different story of how life is to be lived than what Jacob’s life demonstrated. God’s provision for us comes as we honour Him by seeking His kingdom and His righteousness first.
When we make false claims in God’s Name, we are misusing that Name. Hundreds of wars and acts of violence have been committed “in God’s Name.” Three thousand people died on 9/11 “in God’s Name.” The Crusades, supposedly carried out in order to rescue the Holy Land from Islam, cost thousands of innocent lives. These acts of violence done “in God’s Name” had mostly to do with greed, not God.
And the commandment says that God will not hold anyone guiltless who claims to act “in God’s name” when they have received no command from God at all. Tis a penalty, a punishment attached, to such abuse.
A lot of people use that famous phrase: “God told me to…” to sanctify direct disobedience to what God’s Word tells us to do. God doesn’t contradict Himself. Girls I know, and have known, have come along and told me that God has given them the most wonderful fiancée when that fiancée is not a Christian. God didn’t give them any such thing, because a relationship between a believer and a non-believer of that kind is prohibited in Scripture. Since marriage between two people is to be a living illustration of the relationship between Christ and a believer, it is an abuse of God’s name to join a believer with a non-believer thus saying something that He didn’t say, and doing something that goes against what He has said. It makes God out to be less than what He is. It turns a God who doesn’t change into One who does.
Does God bless us in spite of our sin? Yes. He WAS with Jacob and He did keep His promises to Jacob in spite of Jacob. He IS with us, His children, and He will keep His promises to us. And like Jacob we will suffer the consequences of our willfulness, our rebellion.
It also possible to attribute something to God that doesn’t go against something He has already said, but that really isn’t a revelation from God at all. This is why the Scripture warns us to be careful what we say, if our answer is “yes” then it is “yes”, and not “God said ‘yes’” or if our answer is “no”, then it is “no” instead of “God said ‘no’”. In other words, if I say that God said something that is only my personal opinion or preference, then I am abusing His name.
It’s not as simple as it seems, is it?
And if we really love Him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength we will not damage His name or His reputation by the way we speak about Him, the way we live or the things we claim that He does. We will honour His Name.