In the book of Ephesians it is clear that followers of Jesus are called to walk in a manner congruent with their calling to God in the gospel. We are a forgiven people, a people who have been shown grace, a people who were once alienated from God and under his just wrath but now reconciled and adopted into his family. We have a new life to live and everything is now shaped by our relationship with God.
Some of the interesting exhortations we are given in the middle of this New Testament letter have to do with our mouths—what we say to people and what our speaking should really be about. In this essay our goals are too ambitious. First, we are going to look at what our speech is for; why we should be speaking creatures saying things to one another. Second, with that purpose in mind, we will look at ways we dishonor God with our mouths. Finally, and please don’t skip to this part, we will cover the use of strong language and the diverse subject of “bad words.” I told you not to skip down yet, keep reading right here.
Ephesians 4 and 5 give us some strong counsel as to how our speech is to be exercised. Chapter 4 gives us the commands to put aside falsehood and speak the truth to our neighbors (Ephesians 4:25). It should not be shocking, but lying is a big deal. It goes against God’s very nature as truthful and runs over one of his central commandments (Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 5:20). Further, Ephesians 4:29 gives resounding clarity as to the purpose, or telos, of our talk. It is worth repeating:
29Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
Our mouths are to be used not to tear down and corrupt but rather to build others up, to give grace to them, as is fitting for the moment of speaking. With this in mind, it is easy to see why elsewhere Scripture encourages us to be “quick to listen, but slow to speak” (James 1:19). Though some more than others, each of us can tend to pipe off in ways that are not always helpful or uplifting. Anyone else guilty here? Thankfully God, uses his speech to say “I will forgive you through Jesus.”
We do not have the space here to get into all the ways God speaks and his purposes in doing so. It is clear from Scripture that God’s speaking brings life, brings joy, brings fear of judgment, leads to repentance, forgives and gives hope to those who come to him in need of grace. We are called to follow God in the way we speak to others bringing life and grace to our hearers rather than evil doing with our mouths. We need to repent of using our mouths for purposes that are just wicked. What follows is just a small look at how we use our mouths to talk schmack rather than build others up, worship God and bring peace to situations.
In several places the Scriptures teach us about the use and abuse of our mouths. The wisdom literature in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, the teachings of Jesus in his sermons and the book of James come to mind. First, on more than one occasion Jesus taught that it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouths speaks (Matthew 12:34, Luke 6:45). What is in our hearts is the source of the outflow of our mouths. The heart is central in this matter and hear are a few ways the our hearts lead us to sin with our lips.
Lying Tongues (Psalm 5:9; Psalm 120:1,2; Proverbs 6:16-19, John 8:44)
God simply hates lying and we do it all the time. We lie to protect our image, to try to be nice to others, to increase our financial wealth, to cover up all manner of other sins. Jesus said the native language of the Devil was to lie and we do have this family resemblance (John 8:44). Repentance always involves us putting away falsehood and confessing what is true. It also involves stepping out of darkness into the light. Yet in this very act of confession, we find freedom again. No more lies…let us speak truthfully with one another and give grace to them when they fall short of God’s ideal.
Slander, Gossip and Tearing Up People (Psalm 50:19, 20; Romans 1:28-32; 1 Timothy 5:13)
Slander is lying on people in a way that directly hurts and damages them. It is maliciously aimed speech which is designed to tear down someone in the perceptions of others. Gossip is the revealing of personal information about someone to others when there is no authority or permission to do so. Even when gossip is the true, it is a betrayal, it hurts community and relationships and is sin. Gossip breaks trust and creates confusion and can cause deep divisions that can take years to heal.
Profanity and Obscenity (Proverbs 30:7-9; Ephesians 5:4)
The English word profane is derived from Latin terms meaning “before or outside the temple” (pro-before + fanum temple). It means to deal with that which is unholy. Profane speech is defiling or making something unholy. God has made certain aspects of life holy. His name, his people, our bodies and sexuality come to mind. To speak of such things in a way that degrades, mocks, tears down and dishonors that which is holy is what we call “profanity” - it should be avoided. Obscenity is a specific subset of profanity whereby we degrade human sexuality, sex organs and acts of a sexual nature. Ephesians 5:4 calls this foolish talk and crude joking—people do this sort of thing often, particularly young men. Remember, to understand whether something is being profaned or made obscene we must know the purpose for which something exists. Perversion and profanity flows from deviating from God’s designs for something. Be it our bodies, marriages, our sexuality or the worship of God.
Cursing Folk (James 3)
This one is actually pretty easy to understand—we call down curses, or ill desires upon others with our mouths. Many times, people will use the Lord’s name in doing so (see blasphemy below) as if they are invoking God to aid in the sins of their mouths. For followers of Jesus, the book of James gives striking clarity to us here:
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
Blasphemy is to speak against and profane God and his name. Using God’s name to curse others, using his name as an expletive is to speak about God in a blasphemous way. His name is not to be used as if it is some magic trick to accomplish our will nor is it to be used to back up the truthfulness of your words.
I hope this treatment of sins of the mouth will help give us pause in how we utilize speech. We also should not overestimate the urge to pop off at the mouth—James taught us “no human being can tame the tongue.” This ought to lead us humbly to God for his help in realigning our hearts towards the gospel and the reeling in of careless words.
Up until this point I have made no comment about “bad words” as I find such discussions far too simple and not always helpful. God is far more concerned with our hearts than with creating a list of “banned words in heaven.” We will close this discussion with a meandering around the use of strong words and language. It is my hope to help us avoid both a silly legalism and serious sin with our mouths.
On the Use of Strong Language
We live in a culture quite polarized about the way we speak. Dana White, president of the mixed martial arts Ultimate Fighting Championship has no pause in dropping F-bombs on camera and in his personal video blogs. James V. O’Conner is doing his part in publishing his book Cuss Control—The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing. Connor’s book and his associated Cuss Control Academy are examples of how even the secular world is wrestling to curb the tide of base language. On the other hand I have met some Christians who seem to want to make every word into banned speech unable to be by those who are truly holy. Which usually means people just like them. In the small bit of space we have remaining I want to do a few very ambitious things. First, to look at the nature of speech how a word is considered bad. Second, I want to look at the shifting meaning of terms over time and the question of acceptable vernacular (everyday, common speech). Finally, I want to close by challenging some misunderstandings among Christians on all sides of the issue of cussin.
Let me begin by saying that there simply is no eternal list of bad words in heaven somewhere. Each language and culture has words that are unsavory and people typically know what they are. However, we must acknowledge the fluid nature of language in that it is spoken in a sociolinguistic context. Many of us would not recognize a curse word spoken in Farsi or Tagalog. Most of us would not even recognize a curse word spoken in Old English in 1000AD. Now don’t go searching the Internet for Tagalog cuss words to use with your friends. That would be immature. So how do we use wisdom in deeming words appropriate and inappropriate today? It is a question that is not always so simple. Some Christians love to say see Ephesians says “no corrupting talk…no filthy language” as if that solves the issue. It does not for we have to say that THIS SPEAKING fits the description of the Ephesians exhortation.
Moral philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas deemed all actions to be made of both an internal act including motive and intent and the external acting out of said intent (See his treatment in the Summa here) Speech acts are no exception to this. All speech has intent, motive, sociolinguistic context and meaning. It is spoken with a purpose and it has effect and meaning to the people who hear the speech. We must consider this when looking at how we speak and whether it is corrupting, filthy or crude. It is my contention that someone can do more evil without speaking a four letter word than by using one. Imagine for a moment of a young man, broken because of his sins, weeping and confessing to a Christian friend “I have really f-ed up my life…I’m so sorry.” Are we really going to focus on the fact that the guy used the f-word in this case? Imagine another case where a husband is sarcastically belittling his wife or mocking her physical appearance without a single four letter word. I think you see my point. In Scripture God seems much more concerned with the heart and use of language than simply the terminology employed. I am not saying certain words should be used, I am just trying to keep us from massively missing the point that Scripture actually teaches about the use of our tongues.
We have to think hard about certain words today as the meaning of terms does shift over time in a particular culture. A word with a less than ideal origin may evolve into a harmless word that has a different meaning today. Sometimes words that have less than savory origins make their way into the vernacular. A friend this week asked me if I knew the origin of the word “snafu.” I did not but I knew it roughly meant a situation of confusion—it’s etymology is a little rougher. You may disagree with me but many words that some would consider bad simply are not any longer. If you told me this essay sucked I would know what you meant and would not be offended by the term. I would just need to try and do better next time.
One last note on speaking within cultural settings. Adults may use strong language at times in certain circumstances and settings. I remember pastor John Piper’s use of the term “God kicks your ass” with a group of college students in 2007. Some understood his use of the word, some…not so much. It was controversial and he sort of apologized; you can read that letter here. However, I think the students understood exactly what he meant in a clear and compelling way. We all realize that young children do not have the experience, wisdom or maturity to comprehend something an adult would easily grasp. There is language appropriate in adult conversation that is not for children. I do not find this controversial.
In closing, there is nothing quite as silly as a Christian cursing because he thinks it is cool or because he has escaped from a Christian College and is trying to make up for lost time. It is equally silly to obsess about words that nobody considers bad in our culture and try to avoid people who speak in a gritty fashion. Anyone in sports, the military, construction or just alive today will be hard pressed to keep ones ears virgin. More importanly, mission demands us be present with people.
God considers the heart, motive and context of our speech. We need to ask if it builds up, does it honor God, does it give grace to the hearer, does it accomplish what is needed in that moment. These issues should be our concern. We should all watch our mouths and this goes far beyond vocabulary. My hope is that we might love people around us, build them up, communicate effectively with people in culture and bring honor to God with our lips. If you disagree, I would love to hear some positive interactions…