A Competition of Names

I am standing in a big bookstore, usually some large chain, like a Barnes and Noble, hovering around the periphery of the bestseller shelves. Customers come and go, but then one person catches my eye. She reaches over and pulls a title off the shelf, examines the cover art, and then opens the book.  Unlike the people who have come before her, she takes her time, beginning with the copyright page, the table of contents, the dedication, and then the first few pages of what she is holding. For a moment, she stands there, slowly turning the pages, until finally, with her eyes remaining in the book, her feet direct her to a nearby La-Z-Boy, and she sits down. The aura of sacredness surrounds her as she allows the words to draw her into a new reality. I feel guilty as I casually approach.

“Um, excuse me,” I say. “May I ask what you are reading?”

For a moment, she remains in the reverie of the story, then looks up, captures my words before they float away, and turns the book back over to show me the title and the author’s name.

“Oh, I’ve heard of that,” I say, as I take the seat across from her. “Is it any good?”

She says that it is. A friend had recommended it to her, so she decided to check it out. She is only a few pages in, she says, but she already feels hooked.

I smile my typical crooked grin.

“What’s it about,” I ask.

She gives a brief overview of what the flap has told her and then describes the first few pages of the novel.

“Hm, that does sound interesting…Who was the author again?”

She tells me.

“Oh, yes. I think I’ve heard of him. He’s new, I think.”

She agrees. He is new. She likes new authors. She thinks they have some of the most original ideas and freshest voices.

I can’t disagree with that, and I tell her so.

“Well,” I say standing up from my chair, “I don’t want to be a bother and keep you from your book. It sounds like it’s going to be good. Maybe I’ll get myself a copy before I leave.”

She smiles and says it was no bother at all.

I smile back and walk away, but the smile is more for myself. As I pass her chair, I see her flip to the author’s description on the back flap. A small gasp escapes her, and she pivots in her chair as if checking for her blind spot. Slowly, she turns back around. She reopens the back flap, stares, and then begins to laugh as the picture of me and my impish grin stares back at her.

For twenty years this has been my dream. As fantasies go, it’s fun. The problem is, it’s only real in my head. I’ve started many stories and novel ideas but have never finished any of them. When asked about my novel, I tell people I’m stuck. I have writer’s block. I can’t get my outline right. I can’t choose which character to make my hero. I feel the idea is unoriginal. I’m too busy. Or, worst of all, it’s not quite perfect.

For a long time, I thought that the only function of these excuses was to deny my insecurities and fears. But four weeks ago, as I sat beneath the teaching of my pastor, I realized that my problem is not psychological but theological. Contrary to what I had supposed, the problem does not begin with the excuses.

It Begins with the Dream

Everyone has something that they want. A promotion at work. To overcome addiction. To get out of debt. To have a child…To be a novelist. The list goes on and on. At first it is only an ember of desire, glowing in the dark, unexplored parts of ourselves with only hope as its fuel. But as we concentrate on what we want, we begin to build a picture in our mind of how life could be. Images float in and out until one day a story arises in full color within our mind’s eye. It is the picture of ourselves having overcome our obstacles, standing assured, confident, and content like a victorious Greek hero. Problems cannot survive in this dream. Nor can unhappiness. We are, as we have always desired, finally at peace.

It is a beautiful dream. Some of us use it for motivation.  Some use it as another form of procrastination, a way to suckle our insecurities or fears. And some use it as a balm for all of life’s regrets. Regardless of how we choose to employ it, though, the dream has one major flaw: it is all about…me.

For most of my life I never thought these dreams were a problem. It is healthy for people to have goals, to visualize accomplishing those goals, and to draw hope from the idea that life can always be improved, even if in a small way. As far as these points are concerned, I still believe all these things. But four weeks ago, as I sat under the teaching of my pastor on the third commandment (“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain”), I realized that this verse is not about using God’s name as a curse word only. It is about the name of God being preeminent, sacred, and uniquely set apart from all other names in identity, reputation, character, and power. In other words, this commandment is not about man controlling the behavior of his tongue. It is a call for man to abandon all forms of self-exaltation so that the name of God may be publicly displayed in the fullness of all of its perfection. It is no different than the New Testament injunction that says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1st Cor. 10:31)

But the third commandment goes further in implication than Paul’s directive, for it points out some truths about man and his relationship with God.

We Are ALL Creative

All day long, regardless of industry, country, class, or race, people are always in the process of creating. As creatures designed to reflect the wonder and nature of God, we cannot help but be so. Our creations may be as small as texts to a friend or as large as innovations for society, but like Legos, each one connects to its predecessor and helps define who we are within this world. We may not be Da Vinci or Shakespeare, but all of us are creative. All of us have a passion that calls from the depths of our person, an innate desire that pulls us to infuse the world with beauty. To take the chaos of our lives and create order out of the swirling nothingness of ourselves. And as we align ourselves with our passion, we discover that: 1) there is an undefinable energy and joy in the act of creating; something that suspends time around us as we form the distinctive and the new and 2) there is unspeakable terror in allowing others to evaluate and critique what we have made.

Intuitively we fear that others will treat our creations the same way we treated God’s – with rejection. Therefore, we struggle to remain hidden behind our keyboards or canvases, but art is never complete until a person allows this piece of his soul to stand publicly exposed. Only then can one know whether the creation, this proxy for himself, is worthy of revulsion or awe. We understand that, ultimately, a creator’s character, identity, and reputation can only be known to the degree that their creation is well-made and remains undefiled. It is not a book, or a machine, or a symphony that will be taken apart and examined. It is, instead, a holistic expression of who we are as an individual. If anyone damages or distorts what we have created, we (the creator) will protect it, attempt to fix it, or in severe cases, create something better, for what’s at stake is not an object, but the integrity of the creator’s name.

This is no different than what happened in the book of Genesis. For six days, God poured Himself into making everything exactly as it ought to be, not because He is a perfectionist, but because He is perfect. In the end, His creation, in all of its multifaceted variations, worked together in an interstellar harmony to proclaim the wonder and beauty of who He is. But man, seeking to exalt his own name instead of God’s, damaged and distorted this creation. As with any damaged piece of art, the scars then became the focal point, not the Creator. This made it hard, if not impossible, for God to be correctly understood. Yet, He continually worked through and for His creation to heal what was broken, so that He may once again be clearly seen.  In other words, God’s protection and healing of His creation derive from a passion for preserving an accurate understanding of Himself. The benefit to what He has created is secondary.

But man still retained God’s image (dented and scorched as it was) and he unintentionally reflected this image as he continued to create and to zealously defend his name by healing his own damaged creations. For instance, in February of 2010, Toyota began a series of ads to address numerous recall problems with their vehicles. One ad, known as Commitment, begins by saying: “For over 50 years, providing you with safe, reliable, high-quality vehicles has been our first priority. In recent days, our company hasn’t been living up to the standards you’ve come to expect from us or that we expect from ourselves.” It then goes on to explain how they are to going dedicate themselves to fixing the problems with their vehicles. But, as in God’s relationship with man, the repairs were not chiefly for the benefit of the cars and trucks. That was a secondary gain. The primary concern was to preserve the character, identity, and reputation of the name “Toyota.”

This puts man in an unenviable position, trapped between being a creation of God (whose function it is to reflect the nature and goodness of God) and being a creator as well (whose designs and inventions reflect the qualities and characteristics of himself). Unfortunately, no person can accomplish both goals. It is as Christ warned us. We cannot serve two masters. A person either uses his energy and resources to exalt his own name or to exalt God’s.

A Competition of Names

Ever since the first sinful, self-exalting desire infiltrated man’s heart, a competition has existed between the name of man and the name of God for preeminence. This struggle has continually repeated throughout scripture, as seen with God’s challenge to Cain to master sin (an impossible commandment that should have pointed Cain to humbly depend upon God for salvation) to the establishment of God’s law as a practical way for man to honor God’s name, to Christ’s repeated statement, “Your faith has made you well” (for what is faith but rather an admission of one’s inadequacy and a surrender to the supremacy and sovereignty of God).

But perhaps there is no greater example in the Bible regarding this competition of names than in the book of Job.

Contrary to what you may think, the story of Job is not about the suffering of a man and how he integrates his faith with his pain (that would make it a man-centered book brimming with pseudo-psychology). Nor is it a cosmic battle over a man and his ability to maintain his righteousness in spite of impossible odds (again, this focus would exalt man over God in the book).  Rather, the battle in the book of Job is over the name of God. It is about whether or not Job will curse God to his face. It is about trying to strip God’s name of its integrity and power in the sight of man by removing the blessings of God from his life. If Satan can win this battle, especially in the life of the most righteous man on earth, then reverence for God’s name can be reduced to a business exchange between God and man whereby blessings are seen as rewards for loyalty to God and tragedies are known as punishment for disobedience. If this is true, then man’s devotion to God only exists because of the gifts God bestows upon man, not the Giver of the gifts Himself. Additionally, the glory of God’s name is denigrated as: a) God becomes just another commodity for man to use and b) the use of God in this way results in the exaltation of man’s name for man’s purposes. In other words, it appears that Satan has God boxed into a corner, one move away from checkmate. So, when Satan says, “stretch out your hand and touch all that [Job] has, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 1:11), he is suggesting that Job’s righteousness is based on a quid pro quo relationship with God, not on the holiness of God’s Name. Therefore, God accepts the challenge. It is as if He is saying, “Ok, Satan. Let’s do what you said and let’s see whether My Name withstands the test.”

It does.

Despite losing all of his cattle, sheep, camels, servants (with the exception of four), and children in the span of a few minutes, Job responds:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21, emphasis mine)

Then, the first chapter of Job concludes by stating, In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.” (v.22) This verse reminds the reader that it is neither the quality of a man’s life nor his capacity to endure suffering that is being tested in this competition. Rather, it is the enduring value of the Name of God that is at stake.

If Job had charged God with wrongdoing, Satan would have been right in stating that God was no more valuable to Man than the amount of things he owned. But Job’s response shows that God is good in both the giving and the removing of material blessings. The value of God’s Name exceeds the worth, and the loss, of all these belongings, surpassing even the importance of his own children.

In chapter two, Satan returns to God and once again, they discuss Job. Although the surface dialogue is about Job’s integrity and righteousness, the underlying contest remains about the superiority of God’s name as displayed through the life and suffering of a fallible human being. Knowing the frailty of man, Satan makes a countermove, indicting the supremacy of God’s name once again by saying, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job 2:4-5) And once again, God allows His servant to be His representative of His holiness, stating “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.” (v. 6)

The prologue ends with Job rebuking his wife’s statement to “Curse God and die!” by saying, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” One would think that this might settle the argument between God and Satan, but it does not. Job quickly finds that his answer, though true, cannot quell the torment within his heart. Instead, it is merely the opening salvo of a battle that will threaten to break every part of his heart, soul, mind, and strength that clings to the glorious nature of God.

For the next 35 chapters, Job and his friends use his suffering as the vehicle to debate the guilt of Job and, by extension, the holiness of a God who would ruin an undeserving man. Despite his friends’ insistence that such tragedies only happen to egregious sinners, Job is adamant that his integrity remains intact! It is not until chapters 38-42, when the LORD speaks out of the storm, that Job finally receives an audience with God. His one shot to ask “Why?” But look closely and you will see that after Job’s long battle with sickness, confusion, and grief, God responds not with an explanation for Job’s suffering but with a revelation of God’s character and nature. To explain would have made Job and his suffering the focal point of the story. But as God questions Job and reveals more of His holy self, Job begins to see that in the competition of names, man is inadequately pale in comparison to God. In the end, this is Job’s response:

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”

Kings build empires. Conquerors claim cities. Politicians erect memorials. Authors write books. Entrepreneurs build businesses. Parents teach children. And children? Children constantly seek approval. But regardless of the role one plays, everyone seeks to exalt himself. We Americans call it “making a name for yourself.”

But the Story is not about Us

If there is one truth hammered into us throughout scripture, it is that God’s name is to be exalted, not our own. Yet we remain a stubborn and stiff-necked people.

How do we violate the third commandment?

We take His name in vain when we are not careful with the gifts we give or dedicate to Him (Lev. 22:2).

We take His name in vain when we do not observe His law or fear His name. (Deut. 28:58).

We take His name in vain when we place something/someone above God, such as our goals, local sports team, family, job, etc.   (Neh. 9:5)

We take His name in vain when we rely on something/someone else to protect us from harm, instead of the name of God. (Pr. 18:10)

We take His name in vain when we do not trust God to provide (Mt. 6:33)

We take His name in vain when we rely on our own strength, instead of His (Php. 4:13)

We take His name in vain when we pray with wrong motives (James 4:3)

This list goes on and on and on. The question is how long will it take until you understand that God wants you to filter out all that is in you so that you may receive all that is Him. Christianity is not about leading. It never has been. It is about following.  Placing your feet in the footprints of Christ. Doing His will, despite confusion about His reasoning. Living your life in such a way so that you become less of a mirror, which reflects only yourself back to you, and more of a window that allows others to see Christ through you.

And the more you deny yourself and follow Him, the less you will embrace the self-exalting dreams. You will take on the mind of Christ and orient your thoughts and behaviors around His vision.

You are standing where the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flows from the throne of God and the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stands the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are there for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.

Then God says, “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”

You turn.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” The one who hears says, “Come!” The one who is thirsty comes; and the one who wishes takes the free gift of the water of life.

Then Jesus responds, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

“Amen,” you think. “Come, Lord Jesus.”

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