My father was a kind man, but he struggled with anger. There was a battle inside him between his vision for how things should be and how they actually were. That’s what bothered him. It wasn’t the angering thing itself but that it represented a failure on his part to make the situation right, to control the world around him.
He never swore at us kids, but my dad was a champion at using swear words when he worked. In fact, when our dad was working on cars or the tractor, my older sister and I would get each other so we could eavesdrop on him while he worked. It was a form of entertainment to see how Dad would cuss up a nonsensical storm. E.g. did you know that supercalifragilisticexpialidocious can become a swear word? When you add some F-bombs and a couple of GDs with a sprinkle of Ss…well, you get the picture.
He would threaten inanimate objects with sputtered curses.
“I’ll kick the <stuff> out of you, you stupid <flipping> engine!”
This was our childhood. Go ahead and laugh. It’s completely ridiculous.
Swearing wasn’t for polite conversation in our house. My dad occasionally dropped a swear word, but he usually was more in control than that. Plus, my mom wielded a sharp look of reproach. Dad knew better.
As I grew, I started experimenting with swearing. I got it honestly after all. It was only a matter of time before I started using swear words like my dad (albeit with less flare and fewer Mary Poppins references). It started with hand gestures, graduated to out-loud words under my breath to myself, and then it finally progressed to casual use with my friends. Swearing was a rite of passage, a marker of my independence from my parents and one more stop in my journey through adolescence.
Now as a husband, father, and church leader, I have had to take an honest look at this topic. I’ve tried to assess what the Bible says, what culture says, what philosophy says, and what my mentors say on the topic, but I always end up on both sides of the aisle.
There are lots approaches to swearing. Some Christians try to replace swear words with less offensive versions. Words like flipping, crap, and butt are used to convey the message without hurting someone’s sense of propriety. But are these just as wrong as the swear words they replace?
The argument against swearing goes like this:
Jesus says that what is in our hearts comes spilling out of our mouths. Matthew 12:34
Jesus also says that it isn’t only murder (or any sinful activity) that’s wrong. The condition of the heart that leads to it is just as sinful. Matthew 5:21-22
James says that if we control our tongues, we are perfect. James 3:2
Therefore, when anger or hate come spilling out of our mouths, it doesn’t matter what our words are we use to express it. We are giving in to our sinful hearts and being led by a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).
So that means that every Cheese and Rice, Shut the Front Door, and Holy Schnikes you utter is just a filler for the real deal. You’re white washing a moldy board. You’re polishing a turd.
In high school I was introduced to another view along the swearing spectrum. Many Christians I knew swore openly. I started noticing it with some of my youth leaders using Ps and Ds. My friends were swearing more openly. As I got into church leadership as an adult, there was nothing off limits. Church leaders openly used whatever word they liked. If a husband picked on his wife in love, the response was an “F you” in reply. If a friend burned another friend, the response was a laughing “How’d you like to get your <stuff> kicked?”
The argument for swearing goes like this:
There are swear words used in the Bible. Paul uses them to emphasize his point. (e.g. “rubbish” – Philippians 3:8 and “by no means” – 11 times throughout Romans).
We are not people under the law but under grace. Romans 6:14
Swearing makes us more accessible to everyday people with the goal of winning them to Christ. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Therefore using words that are considered taboo is acceptable for the Christian.
There are other arguments to be made from both sides.
Swearing sounds ignorant. It’s easy to find another suitable word.
Sometimes a swear word is the most appropriate word to express our thought.
Why is a word considered off limits? Is it just that society says so?
Is it the topic that is taboo and the word just follows? Slang related to bedroom or bathroom behavior has historically been considered inappropriate for polite company.
Swearing isn’t wholesome.
If my heart is free from anger then why is casual swearing wrong?
I’ve gone through phases of casual swearing. In those times I’ve had to guard against letting it slip when I’m speaking in public, when I’m around my family or my kids. It became a constant burden to watch my mouth sometimes and other times be relaxed about it.
There is merit to being accessible to a non-Christian crowd. Ned Flanders from the Simpsons perfectly lampoons the inaccessibility of the ultra-conservative Christian. He’s fraudulently jolly and comes across as puritanical and holier-than-thou. So being real with our speech is a necessity as Christians. But is that a license to swear? Does swearing suddenly get us an audience? In most cases, no.
Where do I stand?
The debate cannot be answered by either extreme. Neither complete abstinence from swearing nor the free use of swear words is the solution. Swearing is like owning a handgun. It creates problems when we misuse it. Is it sometimes the best tool for the job? Yes, though most people never need to fire one in defense. Some people choose not to own a gun at all. If that’s you, you’re missing out on a way to defend yourself, but there are clearly other ways. Other gun owners like to spray bullets. If that’s you, you need to be careful of innocent bystanders. You’re bound to shoot the wrong person and you’ll most likely miss your target.
My personal approach: since I couldn’t easily keep it straight whose company I was in I stopped swearing. I would not build a wall between me and another person.
In Ephesians 4, Paul is talking about what our lives as Christians should look like. He says we shouldn’t be liars. He says we can be angry but we should avoid sin. He says we shouldn’t steal but we should rather work hard and give to others. And we should “let no evil talk come out of [our] mouths but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that [our] words may give grace to those who hear”. The word Paul uses for evil is sapros which is the same Greek word Jesus used in Matthew 7 to describe the fruit on a bad tree.
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.
Sapros means rotten. Paul is telling us not to use rotten words. Do some words taste bad to you? I’ll bet on it. But not everything that tastes bad is rotten. (I wish my kids thought this about vegetables.) Taste is subjective. Rotten is objective. Likewise, not everything that tastes good is healthy (donuts, anyone?). The key to knowing good from rotten fruit is determining whether it’s nourishing, life-giving and wholesome or makes you sick, weak or broken.
As a writer, I’m often challenged to find the right word. Sometimes that word is the one that comes out of my passion for the subject. The word is the message. Other times I have to choose my words carefully. They are the tools of the trade. In the same way, we Christians need to watch our mouths. We should say the kinds of things to our friends that we don’t mind being overheard by our spouses, by our family or by God himself. Choose your words. Don’t be ruled by the habits of the world, but deliberately speak what the Holy Spirit wants said. But if you use a bad word, I promise I don’t mind. Just don’t lose your ¶ὲ®$¶ὲ[+!<ὲ.
What do you think of swearing? Do you think it’s completely unnecessary or even evil? Do you think it’s not a problem and Christians should relax about it? Please comment below and let me know your thoughts.