What do you think of when you read the above title? I think of the numerous comments Nixon made in the Oval Office that, when transcribed, included the notation [expletive deleted] in order to redact foul language used in conversations Nixon had with his chief of staff, the attorney general, and other members of his administration. Maybe you remember George Carlin’s bit about the seven dirty words you cannot say on television. At the time, the words were considered highly inappropriate and unsuitable for broadcast on the public airwaves in the United States, whether radio or television. As such, they were avoided in scripted material, and bleeped in the rare cases in which they were used; broadcast standards differ throughout the world, then and now, although most of the words on Carlin’s original list remain taboo on American broadcast television as of 2015. Of course, use of any of these bad words is generally considered to be strongly impolite, rude or offensive.
On December 8, 2003, Rep. Doug Ose (R-CA) introduced a bill in Congress to designate a derivative list of George Carlin’s offensive words as profane in the U.S. Code. The stated purpose of the bill was “To amend section 1464 of title 18, United States Code, to provide for the punishment of certain profane broadcasts” that included Carlin’s seven words. Although I will not list them here, they are unbelievably included in the text of the bill.
Profanity, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “an offensive word” or “offensive language.” It is also referred to as bad language, strong language, coarse language, foul language, bad words, vulgar language, lewd language, swearing, cursing, cussing, or using expletives. Foul language can be used to show a debasement of someone or something, or show intense emotion. In its older, more literal sense, the term “profanity” refers to offensive or religious words used in a way that shows the user does not respect God or holy things.
All language is a kind of social contract. We agree, for example, to call the pointy thing in our arm an elbow, just like we agree to label things we find despicable with words we identify as profane. The words themselves hold only the power we give them. But curse words tend to be powerful indeed, because to linguistically reduce something or someone to the level of biological functions (and their resultant products) is almost always an act of contempt. And contempt is toxic. Contempt is injurious. Contempt is a mixture of anger and disgust, expressed from a position of superiority. It denigrates, devalues, and dismisses. It’s not hard to understand why even subtle levels of contempt are damaging—not only in marriages but in all human interaction.
If profane language has a privileged place in the lexicon of contempt, then Christians have a unique mandate to avoid profanity. It’s not that abstaining from pejorative language outfits us with some holier-than-thou halo. It’s that we are called to live with a servant’s heart, affirming the dignity of every human and the sacredness of existence. We’re taught in the Scriptures to love one another. Even our enemies. We’re reminded that, as Christians, we are often the only “Jesus” someone might see in their travels. Agnostics, atheists, and other detractors from the faith, are notorious for finding “examples” that prove Christians are hypocrites. Kari Jobe, contemporary Christian singer/songwriter, sings, “We are the light of the world, We are the city on a hill, We are the light of the world, We gotta, we gotta, we gotta let the light shine.”
James 3:6-9 says, “And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God.” (New Living Translation) We’re told in Colossians 3:8-10, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
Jesus told us in Matthew 15:10-11, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” James 3:10 says, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” Deuteronomy 5:11 states, “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.” Reminds me of a Facebook post I read recently. It said, If you feel like cursing anyone today, use your own name, signed, God.
Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” The word for corrupt refers to that which is foul or rotten, such as spoiled fruit or putrid meat. Foul language of any sort should never pass a Christian’s lips, because it is totally out of character with his new life in Christ.
It can be concluded from the Biblical definition of sin, the foregoing overview on foul language, and Scripture’s many expressions on the proper use of our tongue, that it is without question a sin to curse. As Christians, we are expected to rest on the promises of God, “cleansing ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1) Cursing is contrary to resting on God’s promises, for it is a failure to follow the Lord’s greatest commandment to love God and to love people. (See Matthew 22:37-40) When we curse an individual, we do not show him or her love, and when we curse God, we do not love Him.
Christians are called upon to live differently and to act differently than the world of unbelievers. I do not need to speak profanity to win a cursing unbeliever anymore than I need to drink alcohol to win over an alcoholic. The words of Scripture have all the potency and power we need to reach the heart of the lost. As a believer, you should understand that an inability or unwillingness to take control of your language shows a paucity of self-control or lack of graciousness toward others. Swearing shows that you are unconcerned about that which Christians ought to be concerned: edification, grace, humility, patience, self-control, evangelistic witness, example to children, integrity, and many other virtues that we extol. These are undermined by the use of language that offends or lumps us in with others who offend.
We should not let our words put us in cahoots with others who use words hurtfully or indiscriminately. A guy at the local gym swears like a sailor, as do his companions. But when he hears a pastor drop a curse word, he considers that to be evidence that the pastor most likely commits a whole slew of other infractions. When a Christian hits his thumb with a hammer and lets loose with a curse word, it’s obvious he’s harboring stuff inside that he doesn’t show unless his guard is down.
In the end, language is to be used for what glorifies God. A handy rule may be that if you aren’t prepared to use a particular word in your prayer to God then you shouldn’t be using it in your conversations with others.
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, LORD, my rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).