The phrase “oh my God” is a commonly used expression in our society today. Many people use it without thinking twice about it. This has become so common that the phrase is frequently abbreviated as “OMG” among young people. However, some believe that using the phrase in certain ways is sinful. That is, invoking God’s name improperly. This is the question we will answer in this article: is saying “oh my God” a sin?
Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain
The place where Christians get this prohibition against using God’s name commonly like this is in the book of Exodus. One of the ten commandments instructed the Israelite nation not to take the Lord’s name in vain.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.Exodus 20:7
God’s chosen people needed to understand His name was to be used only in a manner that was fitting. This was important enough to God that he wrote it down next to other commands such as “do not murder”. But what is a fitting way to use God’s name, and what is vain?
Breaking Down the Command
The verb used in the text in Exodus 20 is nasa or nasah which means to “lift”, “carry”, or “take”. It has quite a few literal and figurative meanings in the Hebrew scriptures. It is an incredibly popular verb throughout the old testament. Here is an example of its use in scripture:
So Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day and all that night. When it was morning, the east wind had brought the locusts.Exodus 10:13
The word “brought” in the passage above is the verb used in Exodus for “take”. Other verses that use this verb include Genesis 45:23, Leviticus 10:4, Numbers 4:15, and over 650 others.
The “Lord’s Name”
In the Exodus 20:7 commandment, the “name of the Lord” can mean the literal name of God (in this case Yahweh) or the person behind the name. An example of this is seen in Genesis 4:26 where people began to “call upon the name of the Lord”. Here, the people began publicly expressing their dependence upon God. They weren’t expressing dependence upon God’s name, but the person that is the name.
This use of “calling on the name” means more than simply verbally expressing God’s name. If this were not the case and “calling on the name of the Lord” really did mean verbally proclaiming God’s name, which name are we to call upon? There are at least 16 names for God. Instead, we understand calling on the name of the Lord to indicate a personal relationship, faith, trust, or belief in the person that is Yahweh. King David illustrates this as a lifestyle pursuit, not a one-time act (Psalm 116:2).
Vain means “without meaning” but is often interpreted as the word “false”. In other words, to use something in a vain way means to distort the truth about what it is, and turn it into something without meaning.
Does “taking the name of the Lord” mean speaking?
It seems to me, that if God wanted to prohibit the verbal use of His name in a meaningless way, he would have used another verb. For example, “dabar” is an extremely common verb that is translated as “talk”, “speak”, or “spoken” throughout the old testament. This would seem to be a more precise verb if the command intended to prohibit meaningless or false use of the Lord’s name.
Furthermore, if the command is to not verbally speak the name of the Lord in vain, then it would only apply to the name “Yahweh”. In which case, saying “oh my God” would not technically violate the command.
How does one “carry” a name?
It may be more helpful to think of this in terms of “take” instead of “carry”. This is a valid interpretation of the same verb and is translated this way a lot. When you think of the command this way, it’s easy to relate this to something we commonly see in modern times. That is, when a wife takes the name of her husband.
The Meaning of Taking a Name
When a wife takes the last name, she doesn’t simply speak it. Instead, she bears it. By the way, the word “bear” is another common translation of the verb in Exodus 20:7. This means that she now represents the family by carrying that name. Her lifestyle, reputation, actions, and mindset must all reflect the values of that family. The result of this should be a family that has a net-positive result on their community or tribe. If that does not happen, or if the relationship ends by choice, then you can say that she bore the name in vain. In other words, she carried (or took) the name in vain.
The same is true for the command directed to the Israelites. They were to represent God in a way that showed the world the truth about who He is. Therefore if their lifestyle failed to do so, then they would be guilty of taking or carrying the Lord’s name in vain.
In Colossians 3:17, Christians are instructed to “do everything in the name of the Lord”. This could mean by the authority of the Lord, but I think this lines up with God’s intent in the original commandment. That is, everything a Christian is to do is to reflect the character of God and Christ.
What Jesus said about taking the Lord’s name in vain
Jesus was no stranger to opposition. However, the opposition he faced was usually from the strictest sect of Judaism, the Pharisees. The Pharisees placed incredibly strict rules upon the Jewish people, yet had little concern for being servants to others like the vulnerable. This is why Jesus reacts so viciously to the sect in Matthew 23 condemning them because they “do their deeds to be seen by others”.
Speaking Honor to the Lord but Living Otherwise
In Mark 7:6-7, Jesus quotes Isaiah to a group of Pharisees, pronouncing them as hypocrites. These are those who speak honor unto the Lord, but who live in a way that does the opposite. Notice how Jesus uses the word “vain” in this context:
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”Mark 7:6-7
The Pharisees were guilty of hypocrisy, taking God’s name in vain. Why? Because they honored God with what they said but lived in a way that did not. They heaped rules upon people, yet inside were filled with disrespect and hatred, lacking reverence and love.
Interestingly, this is exactly the opposite of the traditional view of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Here the Pharisees spoke correctly, honoring the Lord. However, inside they were corrupt. The traditional view of “taking the Lord’s name in vain” also emphasizes speaking His name honorably without regard to what’s in the heart of a person.
Jesus Condemns Falsely Speaking God’s Name
Luke records a question posed by Jesus for those who speak the phrase “Lord, Lord” yet fail to obey his commands:
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”Luke 6:46
Jesus asks the rhetorical question to call out those who behave like the Pharisees in Mark 7. Jesus is not condemning only those who specifically say the phrase “Lord, Lord”. Rather he identifies the type of person who claims God as their Lord (or take His name) yet do not live in obedience to Him.
Again we see, when one bears the name of the Lord while living in a way that is contrary to His commands, they falsely proclaim Him to the world. Notice again the contrast of this compared to focusing on how to verbally speak God’s name.
So what do you think? Did God really instruct the Israelites on how to properly verbally speak His name? Or did He instruct them about how to live honestly when bearing His name? Let me know in the comments!
What then, shall we verbally dishonor God’s name?
Certainly not! How can we who call upon the name of the Lord dishonor it? Consider that your mouth can dishonor God just as much as your actions. My judgment is that each Christian should examine their language regarding the words and context they use when invoking god. Whether you use the phrase “OMG”, say “oh my God”, or even “gosh” (which is a derivative of God) are you certain you are honoring God in your words?
Furthermore, Christians should express honor even without invoking God. Does your speech “bear the name of the Lord”? Do you often curse others or swear falsely? James warns of the Christian who blesses God while cursing someone who is a fellow image-bearer (James 3:9-10). Earlier he warns of the great power held by the tongue. We must take great care to reign in the power contained within it. Other verses to consider are Ephesians 5:4, and Colossians 3:8.
Consider Your Heart First and Your Lips Second
It should come as no surprise that Christians must consider what’s in their heart. Jesus made this clear following his condemnation of the Pharisees in our earlier examination. In Mark 7:14-23, he proclaims that it’s what’s in the heart of a person that causes all sorts of other evil deeds. Therefore, to cleanse a person’s deeds they must first cleanse their heart.
This is exactly where the Pharisees got it wrong. They cleaned the “outside of the cup” and honored God with the things they would say rather than changing their hearts. The Christian must start with the heart and the words will follow naturally.
Conclusion: is saying “oh my God” a sin?
I believe that each person should search the scriptures and seek out what God’s will is in their life. If an individual does this, they will come to the truth. There are many Biblical authors and prophets who used the phrase “oh my God” in a way that was honorable and respectful. However based on my studies, I do not believe haphazard, honorless, and meaningless ways fit with God’s will for the use of His name.
That said, I cannot decisively point to scripture and tell you that it is sin. Although, if you know of one that paints this clearly, I would love to hear about it in the comments. Regardless, I believe the Romans 14:14 principle applies here. If you believe it is sin, then participating in it is sin for you.