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Monday, August 16, 2010

why swearing is dumb for christians

I recently came across a blog written by a Christian author on the topic of swearing. After getting off to a reasonable start, he contended that swearing could be used by a Christian, even one with a platform, in certain situations to add emphasis to a point. He cited several examples of lyrics from Christian songs that included some of the more colorful blooms in the expletive garden – think “FUchsias” or “SHastas” – to drive home their message.

I was fascinated by this line of thought. I tried to imagine this author educating my children on the merits of the well-placed swear word in communicating the gospel, or just in everyday conversation. Of course, any discussion of swearing in the Christian community is bound to start someone crying “legalism” pretty quickly (what dirtier word, among Evangelicals?). So bearing in mind that right actions are the fruit of right motives, here are four thoughts on why profanity is just plain dumb for the Christ-follower:

1. profanity is lazy speech
First, it is lazy because it requires no imagination. Profanity has become so common that it has entered the ranks of not-so-power-packed words like “amazing” and “awesome”. A lazy mouth usually has as its proprietor a lazy mind. This is probably one reason Paul, whose mind was not lazy, managed to express concisely and effectively the message of the gospel without once dropping the Greek equivalent of the f-bomb. Even on the Galatians.

Second, it is lazy because it takes almost no effort to refrain from. Quitting swearing is a cake-walk compared to quitting, for example, smartphone addiction (now, that’s bleeping hard). And yes, it’s a signal to others that you’re at least heading for the path of self-control. Some areas of deficit self-control hide themselves to the casual observer. Speech is not one of these areas – it immediately reveals our laziness. Yet it is a small thing to master. Consider Luke 16:1: He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. (NASB) Put another way, if you can’t resist and flee from this simplest of verbal sins, the subtler ones are going to bleeping eat your lunch.

2. profanity is the language of contempt
Profanity is the hatchling of anger, incubated in contempt. Anger may call someone a jerk, but contempt would call him a bleeping moron. Contempt implies that its object is not just irritating but valueless – it devalues and implies the desire to harm. Jesus makes this connection between anger, contempt, and our speech in the Sermon on the Mount where he links such language to the sin of murder.

Here is where our edgy Christian artist or communicator asks “But what if my anger is righteous? Can I use profanity to communicate it?”

I confess it is hard for me to imagine a situation where righteous anger and profanity would be a “win”. And really, how often is our anger truly righteous in the biblical sense? J.C. Ryle puts it this way: “To say the least, such [contemptuous] language is unseemly and only defeats its own end. A cause which is defended by such language is deservedly suspicious. Truth needs no such weapons.” 

3. profanity denies the value God places on words
God can use any medium to communicate truth to us. In fact, he uses many: nature, art, music, even architecture, to name a few. But clearly one medium surpasses all others in clarity and effectiveness: words. The 66 books of the Bible stand witness to this fact. Could we doubt that He who calls His own son the Word would take lightly the way that we handle our words? The wisdom literature of the Bible is loaded with warnings about our speech. Can speech that is lazy or contemptuous find any place of honor in the vocabulary of the believer?

4. profanity clouds the message
As a Bible teacher, I ask you to consider: It is hard enough to communicate spiritual truths to lost people and young believers without muddying the message with profanity. Swearing is a luxury that’s simply not worth it. And it doesn’t sound like Christ – it just bleeping sounds like everyone else.

Psalm 19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.


  1. Thanks for writing about this Jen! Your point #4 really stands out to me. For a long time I'm not sure where I have stood on this issue. I had a bible professor in college tell me that Phil 3:8 the word that we typically translate as "rubbish" was more like the "colorful" version of dog poopoo. Your post reminds me that I need to (re)consider into this issue!

  2. Well said, Jen! I was really convicted about this in the James study, when we learned that friendship with the world is enmity with God. Swearing is not conducive to improving our witness. This realization has certainly helped me to make changes in my speech. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. I have long heard those "positive" arguments for use of profanity in Christian circles and have struggled to articulate what conviction/clarity on the topic I felt the Holy Spirit impress upon me. Thank you for addressing this. Your words resonated deeply.

  4. Great post. I love the line, "Profanity is the hatchling of anger, incubated in contempt." If ok with you, I will use that gong forward and give you credit. Thanks!

  5. But what if my definition of profanity is completely different than your definition? What if I am brought up in a culture where "FUchsia" is okay to say but "meany-head" is shockingly offensive? I don't think you can make blanket statements to say "This specific word is bad no matter what." Go to Europe and you'll words Americans still (sort of) consider bad used as common and inoffensive speech. We are bound to the Word of God in all that we do, including loving our neighbor and understanding the culture, not just trying to act like our culture trumps someone else's culture.

    1. Hi Dan, we actually agree on this. A word is only as profane as its cultural context. But as believers, we are beholden to be sensitive to that context. If I know a word is contemptuous in my cultural context and I choose to use it anyway, have I not embraced the unwholesome talk Paul warns of? My post does not make the argument that one culture should trump another culture at all, nor did I say "This specific word is bad, no matter what". I referenced a couple of examples from the culture of the vast majority of my readers.

  6. I've always loved this story about a preacher who started a sermon with this:

    "I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."

    This, to me, is a great example of a good, non-lazy use of "profanity."