When my youngest brother was learning to write, he kept a list of words that began with “F.” I am not sure why he did this, but it amused our family when he innocently referred to his “F-word list.” As the rest of us know, the “F-word” is one of many expletives expressing emphasis or frustration. Our thoughts on expletives, as this story points out, are largely influenced by our backgrounds and convictions.
Cursing is a relevant topic for Christians. While studying at Gordon Conwell, I was disappointed to hear coarse language from aspiring pastors and counselors. It has led me to ask: how should Christians verbally represent ourselves and God?
Swearing is verbal litter consisting of obscene gutter words, cursing someone to damnation, or profaning the sacred. Litter is ugly — it mars beauty and order. Similarly, cussing also detracts from self-discipline and discourages the thought it takes to communicate actual concepts and emotions.
Cursing, like any habit, can happen without much thought. However, speech reflects our hearts. The things we talk about indicate what we put effort into understanding. It involves internalizing information in order to repeat it to others.
A society with little restraint on profanity promotes a culture that internalizes shock, disgust, and dishonor. In fact, the most egregious form of swearing is taking God’s name in vain. This goes beyond simply venting frustration when something bad happens. It is a weighty action that falls directly under the definition of profanity which is “to treat (something sacred) with abuse, irreverence, or contempt.” Whether the name of Jesus or the milder “OMG!”, Christians should never use our Lord’s name to express disgust or surprise. If someone shouts your name when they stub their toe, they are not paying you a compliment! They are taking your identity and dragging it through the mud of their outrage. God is not pleased when we throw His name around in anger (Deut. 5:11).
Swearing is not always black and white. What about “junior” swear words? What if a word’s meaning is less contextually “bad?” Does intent mean more than the words themselves? What if we only swear alone? The problem is: nuances look for loopholes to justify cursing, and loopholes assume wrong behavior. That is why kids can get away with imitating bad words and we cannot: we know better. The purpose behind saying certain words in place of others reveals our motivation to use them at all.
Substituting a milder word when we really mean something stronger is somewhat commendable, but the intent to swear remains. On the other hand, I suspect most people use “gosh,” “darn,” and “heck” merely to express their emotions, a kind of litter that is not malicious, but still negligent. It is still important to know what we are really saying and why. Using bad words is mostly unnecessary, usually offensive, and frequently sinful. May the “exceptions” be few and far between.
The Theological Implications
Cursing can quickly become sinful. Christians should be especially aware of a higher standard. Scripture unequivocally states that words matter and that our language should not be obscene (Leviticus 19:12, Matthew 12:36-37, Ephesians 4:29, Colossians 3:8, and James 3:10). Furthermore, when invoking God or hell, we borrow what we have no business using. We cannot damn others (which is reserved for God)! Loose language reflects shallow theology of a) God, who is holier than we can ever imagine, b) hell, which is undoubtedly worse than we think, and c) the precious image of God in other humans. For the Christian, everything is downstream of theology. If Christians curse using the sacred, we would do well to examine if our upstream beliefs are aligned with Scripture.
Will we stand out by not cursing? Hopefully so; Christians should look different from the world. Because we have a privilege and responsibility to live as God’s witnesses, let us speak as if this is really true.
A Call to Greater Holiness
If profanity plagues society, the question should not be one of what we cannot say, but rather, how much we can imitate Christ. Cleaning up our vocabulary, or examining why we say certain words, helps us take steps toward pleasing God and honoring others. Like all of His commands, the prohibition of vile speech is for our good. Rejecting bad words can also have surprising benefits. It leads to more creative thought, greater self-discipline, and precise communication.
Thankfully, if we are Christ-followers, we are equipped with His Spirit to change our language! Whether you have a nice “F-word” list yourself or not, please consider the intent God has for your speech.