As a high school sophomore, I remember one particular class where we were studying anatomy in seminary. It was the heart. The lesson had a profound effect on me. We were studying the Old Testament when the Lord was guiding the prophet Samuel to find a replacement for Saul as the king of Israel. Saul made a serious mistake and was not obedient to the commandments of the Lord. He did what he thought he should by offering sacrifice, but it was in vain. It was Saul’s heart that the Lord was concerned about.
After Saul’s disobedience, the Lord told Samuel to visit the house of Jesse, from whom he had chosen the next king. Samuel met each of the sons of Jesse and received confirmation from the Lord that David, the youngest, was the one the Lord had chosen, for he was a man after the Lord’s own heart. (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22) In this decision, the Lord told Samuel, “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; … for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
As a young man I considered how I might apply this principle to myself and decided to focus less on my outward appearance and worry more about other things. In my attempt to follow the scripture and avoid vanity, I missed part of the principle. At the time, vanity meant placing too much focus on looks or appearance. It wasn’t until much later that I understood that vanity, or doing something in vain, referred to more than appearance. It can also refer to an attempt or action that has little effect, avail, or significance. In this sense, one who is excessively concerned about their appearance may spend a large amount of time improving their looks without a long-lasting benefit. They may have little to show for their investment of time and worry. Perhaps their vanity is not just in their appearance, but in their unwise use of time.
Vanity can also refer to an incorrect attempt or a wasted effort. Saul thought he was doing good by offering sacrifice to the Lord. Unfortunately, in his efforts to please the Lord, he caused offense. After his missed attempt, Saul admitted fear and confessed to listening to the people instead of the Lord. His efforts were of no avail because he didn’t follow the Lord’s instructions. His vain attempts lost the aid of the Lord and cost him the kingdom.
Like Saul, many of David’s efforts to serve the Lord were also frustrated. He did many great things for the kingdom of Israel but lost his own exaltation because of his passions. A lifetime of good choices was suddenly wasted and in vain because of a few unrestrained desires.
Another type of vanity is associated with one of the Ten Commandments. While growing up, I was taught by my parents and church leaders not to take the name of the Lord in vain. I knew there were certain ways that God’s name should be used, and certain ways in which it should not. That seemed fairly clear and easy to follow. I was grateful for good examples that showed me how. I avoided profanity because I had been taught to do so.
I was also taught that profanity included the use of other bad words that were not uplifting. Grouping good words and bad words together under the umbrella of profanity didn’t make a lot of sense. I just knew it was something I wasn’t supposed to do. Later I realized that the definition of the word profane was to take something sacred and make it common or vulgar. I think many of the other words I was taught not to use were profane because they were either mixed with things that were sacred, or they were used to describe God’s children in a way that depreciated their divine value.
At times I have wondered why it is that some words are bad and some are acceptable when they have the exact same meaning. I have questioned who had the job to judge the appropriateness of each word. The conclusion I came up with is that some things are merely tradition. I also believe that traditions are only worth continuing if they have meaning. One might argue that a tradition that has no meaning is vain. I decided for myself that some of the acceptable words I had been using were no longer acceptable to me, solely on the basis that they had the same meaning and use in language as their vulgar counterparts. Simply put, swear words have more to do with the meaning and intent than the way it is spelled. Substitute words still have the same meaning. If the meaning is vulgar or profane, then perhaps it is worth questioning its use.
There is an interesting relationship between vanity and profanity when we compare the commandment to not take the name of God in vain with the covenants we renew with the sacrament. When we take the emblems of the bread and water in remembrance of Jesus, we also covenant to take upon ourselves the name of Christ. It is possible to profane this holy ordinance should we choose to participate in vain.
Taking Jesus’ name is not just a token gesture. This is a serious commitment. It demonstrates our acknowledgement of his supernal sacrifice which makes it possible for us to overcome the effects of sin and spiritual death. Doing so also demonstrates our willingness to change our lives and live as he did. This willingness to change represents a spiritual rebirth in which Jesus becomes our father through His atonement. Taking His name upon us is no different than taking on the surname of an earthly parent. If we do so without the intent to keep our covenants or become like him, then we do it in vain, making His atonement of little effect in our lives. With the enlarged definitions of vanity and profanity, the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain describes more than how we use or revere His name. It also describes how we use or revere the sacrifice of His own life that he made for all of God’s children.
The prophet Nephi used other words to describe the sacrilege of vanity and profanity. “For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet. Yea, even the very God of Israel do men trample under their feet; I say, trample under their feet but I would speak in other words—they set him at naught, and hearken not to the voice of his counsels.” (1 Nephi 19:7)
If we wish to avoid the pitfalls of poor intent, it is worth considering which of our efforts may be in vain, and which sacred things we inadvertently profane. We can ask ourselves some simple questions. In an attempt to be happy, am I making choices that will inevitably make me unhappy? Will my efforts be wasted because of a few bad choices? Do my actions reflect my beliefs or am I only following the traditions of others because that is what I am used to doing? Do I treat sacred things with proper respect and reverence? Am I ever ungrateful for special blessings that come from Father?
Because we live in a society where we are surrounded by unfruitful vanity and all-too-common profanity, it is hard for us not to be affected by it. The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that many of Father’s children have corrupt motives, meaning that they are not pure and are fraught with vain efforts. He said “and there is none which doeth good save it be a few; and they err in many instances … all having corrupt minds.” (Doctrine & Covenants 33:4) So the question remains, “How do we navigate through the world without being affected?”
Elder Robert D. Hales of the Twelve Apostles spoke of the familiar phrase: Be in the world, but not of the world (see John 17:11, 14–17). He said, “Our mortal existence is necessary to fulfill the plan of salvation. We must therefore live in this world, but we must also resist the worldly influences that are ever before us.
“Jesus taught, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). ... Being of the kingdom of God requires that we heed the Savior’s admonition “Follow thou me” (2 Ne. 31:10). Nephi taught that we follow Jesus by keeping Heavenly Father’s commandments: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, can we follow Jesus save we shall be willing to keep the commandments of the Father?” (2 Ne. 31:10).
“At baptism we make a covenant with our Heavenly Father that we are willing to come into His kingdom and keep His commandments from that time forward, even though we still live in the world. We are reminded from the Book of Mormon that our baptism is a covenant to “stand as witnesses of God [and His kingdom] at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life” (Mosiah 18:9; emphasis added).
“When we understand our baptismal covenant and the gift of the Holy Ghost, it will change our lives and will establish our total allegiance to the kingdom of God. When temptations come our way, if we will listen, the Holy Ghost will remind us that we have promised to remember our Savior and obey the commandments of God.” (“The Covenant of Baptism,” Ensign, Nov 2000, p. 6-9)
The gift of the Holy Ghost then is the key to staying clean. When we make mistakes or sin, the Holy Ghost can purge our hearts and make them pure again. He will help us sanctify our hearts and turn them to the Lord instead of away from Him.
We can invite the influence of the Holy Ghost into our lives as we make choices that are consistent with God’s will. In the sacrament prayer we are promised that if we take upon us the name of Jesus Christ, always remember him, and keep his commandments which he has given us, then we will always have His spirit to be with us. (Moroni 4:3)
Understanding the full meaning of vanity and profanity can help us navigate the pitfalls and traditions that are passed on thoughtlessly. Unless we consider the larger implications of vanity, we may be guilty of only looking on the outward appearance of our actions, and not our intentions. If we don’t scrutinize our own decisions, profaning sacred moments in our lives may already be too common. However, if we turn to the Lord with full purpose of heart, he will heal our hearts and purge out all of the impurities. The Holy Ghost will then have room to inspire thoughts and desires that are more fruitful and more sacred.
This is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am solely responsible for the views expressed here.