The Third Commandment, which tells us not to take God’s name (nature or character) in vain, is to be obeyed literally, morally, and spiritually. The Sunday School children can learn all three, as they progress in their ability to understand and demonstrate.
There are so many facets to this Commandment, it would take several lessons to cover. Whenever you return to this subject, you can review what they already know, and then build upon it with a new idea.
First, explain to them that something that is “vain” is worthless, empty, or hollow. If we do something “in vain,” it is a waste of effort, fruitless.
To introduce the concept of the Third Commandment to young children, perhaps describe a scenario such as this: It is Friday night. Your parents agree that you can watch a movie you’re excited to see that has just become available for home viewing. You are given a DVD or video, with the cover showing the movie’s title and perhaps a scene from the movie. You make some popcorn and settle down to watch what you know is going to be an exciting film. But you open up the package and discover that what was inside is the wrong movie! And something you had no interest in watching. What a disappointment!
Now, ask the kids what their response would be? (Remind them that using God’s name in vain at this point would defeat the purpose of the lesson!)
What would they say or do? How deep would be their disappointment?
Then, ask them why do they feel so disappointed or misled. Isn’t it because the label on the cover identified the movie they thought they were getting? They trusted that the box was correct, because in the past they usually got the same movie that was advertised on the cover? Didn’t they trust the company to keep the movies in their proper covers? Even when they return the movie for a replacement, they may not quite forget the feeling they had of being betrayed. You could say that their efforts to see a good movie were “in vain.”
Explain to the students that sometimes in life people are like that. They say and do things that get you to believe they are special in some way, or that they can do something great, and yet it is a lie. It possibly means nothing to us, until a time comes when we may have to depend upon that knowledge. That person may fail us in some way. We become disappointed when we learn that they were either pretending to be something they were not, or that they were simply unaware of their true limitations. Either way, our trust was broken.
For instance, maybe a young friend at school brags all the time that his family is rich. Maybe he even promises you that you can come swim in his pool, or ride his horses some day. But later, you learn it was all made up. Maybe your friend was ashamed about being poor, and said those things to make himself feel loved or respected by his other classmates. But, he lied. And you feel a bit let down when you learn it was all a big show. You really, really wanted to ride one of his horses!
Now, turn the children’s attention to the Third Commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” God gave this Commandment in order to stop people from using His name, or words about Him, in such a way as to make a person appear to be closer to God than he or she really is.
Some people have even tried to use God’s name as if it had magical power to make things happen. They thought it would impress God and anyone else watching. Maybe they even fooled themselves into believing that words alone had power.
Tell the children that this insincere use of God’s name does not make God happy, and He forbids it. And, Jesus warned the people of his time not to pretend to be so good and righteous, when they were not. He called them “hypocrites.”
You might want to have the pupils read some of the situations in the Bible where Jesus confronted the Pharisees and called them hypocrites. These people certainly paraded around flaunting their superiority. Maybe their original motives were to follow God’s laws as closely as possible, but they needed to learn to balance that righteousness with a bit of unselfed mercy and meekness.
People who pretend to be good Christians, but in the privacy of their hearts still hate others, or are greedy, or tell lies, etc., are like the rental movie with a false label on the outside cover! Note: this is just an update on the old saying “You can’t judge a book by looking at its cover,” and it is worthwhile to teach this to the kids. It describes how people are not always what they appear to be on the outside.
Tell the students directly that we want to learn how to obey the Third Commandment, too, so that we will not be like the “hypocrites.” We certainly don’t want to use God’s name in a way that would make us disobedient to Him.
What is our overall goal then? You might put it like this (which is based on a statement found in my book on The Ten Commandments): Our goal is to make our words, and speech, our thoughts, motives, and acts, all flow from the same truth! We want what we say to match what we truly feel and believe. We want to conform our actions to the motives that are our ideals. We want to pause before acting and speaking if we know that we are not ready to tell it like it really is. And we don’t want to use God’s name carelessly, or in moments of anger, as if His name added force to your feelings.
This is not an easy task! But it is a worthy goal, and we need to begin right away with trying to put it to work in our lives. It begins with the Third Commandment, and continues with the Beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Older children might be interested in the historical perspective regarding this Commandment. I am quoting below a few paragraphs of commentary from the Interpreter’s Bible relating to the background of the Third Commandment, which you might want to share with older students:
“The Third Commandment deals with the use of Yahweh’s name in vain, i.e. for that which lacks reality or truth. The name of God expresses his character and power. To call upon unreality, i.e., that which is not an expression of the divine character, by means of the divine name is to use the name in vain. Not only perjury, but also the practice of magic, which constitutes the invocation of ultimate powers with whom God stands in conflict, and the invocation of the dead, were in all probability among the specific prohibitions implied by this commandment at its inception.
“The misuse of the divine name was especially heinous among people who believe that the name was an essential part of the personality. The very naming of the name invoked the power of the whole person of whom the name was a part. The magic use of the divine name seems to have lingered on among people who were only beginning to know that true religion is more nearly related to moral
action than to magic formulas. The magic use of the name was frowned upon as a part of a campaign to banish superstitious ideas and practices from the people. There may be reference here also to swearing falsely by God, and to light and blasphemous use of the divine name. We still are subject to both kinds of temptations, to belief in the miraculous power of sacred names, and to the
blasphemous use of holy names.
“Every minister is tempted to cater to the primitive urge on the part of some in the congregation to hear over and over again certain magic formulas which seem to them to guarantee soundness of faith and comfortable doctrine. Whether the phrase is “the blood of Jesus” or “the brotherhood man,” it is merely magical when it is used as a spell. Religion for many people consists in the good feelings
aroused by the repetition of certain beloved formulas. This type of piety can be recognized by its extreme harshness in the denunciation of those who do not use them. It is not an easy type of religion for others to live with. Its sin is disobedience to the Third Commandment, which forbids the cheap and easy use of the divine name to cover up poverty of real thought and feeling.
“Common cursing and swearing are due to the desire on the part of inarticulate people to impress others. The easiest way to shock another person into attention seems to be by the use of some particularly sacred and holy name. But the effect wears off almost immediately, and blasphemy simply becomes a boring habit, an expression of impotence and weakness.”
To summarize what has been written so far, here are some of the ideas for lessons to teach your children and pupils:
The Third Commandment forbids:
Using God’s name to swear or curse. Even if our friends and parents do it, we must understand how precious God is to us, and we to Him, and why we would not stoop to using His name for such cruel purposes.
Using God’s name as if it had magical powers to do good or evil, just by being spoken over and over again, with no meaning or feeling behind it. Our prayers must be heartfelt.
Using God’s name to take an oath, especially if we do not mean it. In courts, we are asked to swear on the Bible. We are expected to honor this type of oath and not lie. In our private life, we should not hide behind the words “I swear to God that . . .” Our life should be so honestly lived, that we would not need to say that. Our simple statements and our personal promises should stand on our trustworthiness.
Using God’s name, or words about Him, to cover up our shortcomings or insincere motives. We should not show off our ability to “talk” God or to worship Him by following church rituals and traditions, while in our hearts we are not really thinking or feeling the selfless love that God really wants His children to express. Jesus demonstrated what a true, humble Christian should
be like. If we are not living up to his Sermon on the Mount, if we are not following his life examples, no amount of church attendance or donations or committee work or reading the Bible Lessons — will save us from the discipline eventually administered to hypocrites.
Using God’s name to justify going to war or killing or hating those who do not share our religious beliefs.
Using God’s name lightly or jokingly for purposes other than the sacred adoration that all His children owe Him daily, for their life and blessings. God is “Amazing Grace” and His name should be seen as no less.
Literally and morally, the Third Commandment teaches us not to use or abuse God’s name for our own personal needs or selfish purposes; it tells us not to use God’s name lightly or jokingly, or as a “magic formula.” But, what about a spiritual meaning, useful for those of us who practice Christian Science, and wish to understand the Commandment on that level? Obviously, this is something that needs to be revealed to you in your study and practice, and those of our children. My sense of a spiritual meaning at the moment, in addition to the moral imperatives mentioned above, is that as the image and likeness of God, man must use the qualities and talents that God gives us only for purposes that are good and worthwhile. We should use our spiritual qualities to glorify God, not ourselves, and we should expect to bring forth “fruit” — demonstrate God’s name, or nature, and prove His power and presence in our earthly life.
One way to accomplish this is to do what is sometimes called in Christian Science our “daily identification work” — taking the time to get a clear recognition in consciousness of our true spiritual identity as a child of God. We identify ourselves as God’s spiritual reflection, as His “image and likeness.” We awaken ourselves from the mesmerism, the “deep sleep,” that
would claim we are sick and sinful mortals. We affirm our identity as ideas of the divine Mind, expressions of His intelligence, substance, Truth, Life, and Love. Believing that God could create or permit a less-than-perfect material universe, filled with sin, sickness, and hatred, could be considered taking His name in vain. We must not identify with that false belief!
Practicing the Third Commandment — as is the same with any of the Ten Commandments — is not always a “black and white” matter. As Jesus taught us, these Commandments are to be fulfilled in love, and a dose of common sense. If we try to force ourselves and others to be perfect humans, sticklers for the law, we may lose our ability to think for ourselves, and to render good judgment and mercy when called for.
With that in mind, here are some suggestions for questions to ask your child, or pupils in your Sunday School class, to get a discussion going. Most of these questions are more suitable for older children and teenagers. Use these to get the pupils to think deeply, and express their opinions. Guide them along, if necessary, to possible answers, without telling them their own answers are wrong. Let yourself be surprised!
What would you do if one of your parents habitually uses God’s name while swearing or cursing? What should we do? Should we speak to them about it? How can we best do that? Does a parent using profanity give us the right to do so, as well?
What if one of our good friends uses profanity? How might we handle that?
Is there any value to memorizing Bible verses or other inspirational citations, even if there is no meaning for us when we first do so?
If your parents are forcing you to say “your prayers” at night or in the morning, do we have a right to protest doing so, if we do not feel like praying? What might be the motives of a parent who asks his or her child to say prayers every day? What will you do when you have your own children to raise? How would you encourage them to get to know God?
Is there any value to public group prayers — such as saying the Lord’s Prayer out loud at a church service? Explain your reasoning. Why do you think the Lord’s Prayer is used by so many churches in their services?
What steps might we take to get past “just saying the words” in a Bible verse, or other statement of truth, and start to feel, or connect with, the underlying idea or message?
In courts of law in the United States, people who take the witness stand are first asked to place their hands on a Bible and “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.” Do you think this action stops everyone from lying in court? Do you think if a person does not believe in God or the Bible, he doesn’t have to take this oath seriously? Why is it so important for people to keep this oath?
Is there any situation where it might meet the approval of God, for us to go to war, or kill, or hate, anyone “in the name of God”? Especially “our” God?
Should we judge a particular religion or denomination by how some of its adherents behave, especially those who may be hypocritical? Why or why not? Should we even make judgments about the value of other religions? Does God make judgments about churches and what they teach? What do you think God would consider to be sincere worship of Him?
In the Bible story of the woman taken in adultery, we see Jesus treat the woman with mercy and compassion, even though she broke the Seventh Commandment. However, as you can read in Matthew 23, Jesus was very angry with the Pharisees because of their hypocrisy, and called them all kinds of terrible names! Why would Jesus be tougher on them for breaking the Third
Commandment, than he was for the woman who broke the Seventh? Why might religious hypocrisy be seen as a worse sin?
Is it possible in this day and age to be obedient to this Third Commandment? Aren’t there too many occasions that require our putting on a face of ‘godliness’ even when we aren’t there in our hearts and minds? Isn’t it too easy to make light of God, or laugh at jokes about Him and His son, Christ Jesus? Is there a compromise we can make?
After I originally posted this lesson online years ago, I received a useful idea to share with Sunday School pupils, from a reader in Mexico: “One aspect of the commandment that I’ve found helpful is connecting the quotation from the Bible (I AM THAT I AM) with my daily life.
If I am tempted to say, “I am sick” or “I am unhappy,” this is, in reality, taking the name of God in vain. That idea has been quite helpful in keeping my thoughts in the right channels.”
I hope these ideas for teaching the Third Commandment prove useful. Feel free to send along comments for others to see.