Biblical Profanity!?!

The Debate Continues

This is a response to previous comments.  This deserves book-length treatment and if anyone (i.e., me) gets into trouble on this one, it will because of brevity.  

If you think that cussing is wrong and you struggle with cussing, in spite of strong convictions, please do not read further.  I do not want to cause you to stumble.  This post is rated R for language.

If you think that cussing is wrong and you struggle with judging others who cuss, you might not want to keep reading.  This is going to offend you.  Come back later for my post on freedom, because you will be my target audience then.

If you are not a Christian, I hope that what follows will be educational, or at least interesting, if a bit wierd. 

Regardless, even if you’re not in it for the grammar and the Biblical exegesis (interpretation), then stay around for the four-letter words and for an honest attempt at  sane living.

Before discussing the ethics of profanity, we must ask:  What is Biblical? And what is profanity? 

By “Biblical,” I mean both the specific guidelines which the Bible gives us and the principles we can arrive at based on the entirety of its teaching.

By “profanity” I accept the definition: “abusive, vulgar, or irreverent language.”  However, I have observed that we define profanity by its specifics and by its uses.  There is a finite list of words, most of which we all now know by heart, even if we don’t use them, which are on this “forbidden list.”  But the list in the U.S. is far graver than it is in most of the world.  Germans have relatively few words and topics, which poses a huge dilemma for teens trying to be cool, leading to the importation of the “f-bomb” into everyday speech.  But in our culture, due to “Puritanism,” which probably has more to do with Victorianism and the 1950s, we have quite a few. 

What use do these forbidden words serve in American English?

1. To express extreme positive or negative emotion.  “Damn!  What a shot!”

2.  To intensify a word or phrase, usually, but not always, for emotional effect.  “That was a damn good dinner!”  See also the suffix “-ass.”

3.  To insult someone.  “You bitch!”  *It is interesting to note that no male equivalent of this term exists.  Even “bastard” primarily serves to call into question a man’s parentage, esp. the marital status of his mother.  See also “son of a bitch.”

4.  To insult God, a.k.a. blasphemy.  “God, damn it!”

5.  To add filler.  “So I was fucking going to the fucking store, man.”  See also “like.”

6.  To be sexually explicit.

These uses often occur concurrently.  “You stupid-ass son of a bitch!” covers 1, 2, and 3, for example.

Now, rather than premeturely ruling out words simply because they appear on “the list” — which would be foolish since none of them actually appears in the Bible, nor is there any precedent in Hebrew or Hellenistic-Christian culture for the forbidden word list — we can make an informed decision in light of what the Bible teaches regarding these 5 uses of “profane” language. 

1.  Expressing extreme emotions before God is encouraged in the Bible, so long as it is an  honest expression.  Words by themselves are neither holy nor unholy; they are a means of expressing what is in our hearts, and it is for our hearts that we will be held accountable (Matthew 12:34-35).  Entire books of the Old Testament represent the out-pourings of the deepest longings, yearnings, and doubts of people’s souls: Psalms, Lamentations, and most of the prophets.  I see nothing wrong with using “profanity” to express extreme emotion in prayer, especially if you use such language to express extreme emotion anyway.  (“Damn, Lord!  What the hell happened?”)  Nor is there anything inherently wrong in expressing extreme emotions to each other, although we should be careful, especially if those emotions include anger (Proverbs 15:18, 16:32; Ephesians 4:26).  Jesus encourages the disciples to pray to God as to their Father and the only kinds of prayers that he criticizes are too long and showy (Matthew 6).  One of my favorite prayers: “God, I’m fucked-up.  Help me!”

2.  Intensifying words and phrases for effect can be equally problematic.  I know many people who are “extreme talkers,” who use superlatives (“the most ____,” “the biggest ____ “) for everything.  If you make everything extreme, then nothing is extreme, and when it comes time to praise God as “awesome,” your words lack weight.  Extreme talking is simply irresponsible use of language.  One of the primary thrusts of Proverbs is that we must be careful with our language.  In our cultural context, you need to know your audience.  Careful use of language needs to be simple and straightforward, but G-rated?  I don’t think so.  Jesus has invited us into a life of great freedom and great responsibility.  Because we’re forgiven and His Spririt lives in those of us who are His, wee have the freedom to discern for ourselves and within our own communities that which is appropriate in matters on which He himself is silent. 

 3.  Jesus is not silent about insulting someone.  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ‘is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).

4.  Neither is the Bible silent about insulting God.  One of the earliest of the ten commandments: “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” (Exodus 20:7).  When I begin to doubt the importance of the Old Testament, I remember  that Jesus Himself believed that this was the Word of God.

5.  Filler is irresponsible, but not morally offensive, for the same reasons as “extreme talking” (see #2).  However, we should take great care not to judge those whose filler is less PC than our own, since this reflects more on their socio-economic-educational-geo-cultural background than it does on their moral worth.

6.  Sexually frank speech and speech about bodily functions should not be a problem in the right context.  The Evangelical sub-culture can be intensely prissy and there isn’t anything Biblical about that.  I’ve had Southern friends tell me that “Ladies don’t poop.”  Bullshit!  However, sexually explicit speech, jokes, etc. are a problem.  Why?  Because sex is so precious and important, such a blessing when held in its proper place (marriage) that to speak of sex jokingly or graphically deprives it of its purpose as something intimate (Ephesians 5:3-4).  Plus, such talk can easily lead us to lust in our hearts, which is as bad as adultery (Matthew 5:32).

In all of this, the root issue is not clean words vs. dirty words.  The root issue is careless words spoken by careless people.  James 3 offers a stern rebuke, but Jesus’ is sterner:  “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).

How are we to live and speak in light of all of this?  We are committed to a Person, not to a set of rules, and to the community of all who follow Him.  We should use language that best honors Him and uplifts our brothers and sisters.  Such language is always honest and loving; sometimes it is soft, gentle, and appropriate for my grandmother; sometimes it is not.  When offering a stern but loving rebuke, you might need to drop an f-bomb or two in order to get your brother’s attention.

If you are tempted to cuss in front of a legalist, it is probably unwise, becausee they will stop listening and start judging.  More importantly, if you are going to offend someone and cause them to want to violate their own conscience by doing so, be careful!  If he thinks its a sin, then it is a sin for him in this case, just as in the debate over unclean food and holidays in Romans 14, for this is fundamentally a matter of opinion.  Do not cause a brother or sister to sin… but neither trample on their freedom!


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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Damn fine post, G-faith.

  2. Thank you. And you know how to wield your language well.

  3. You must be my long-lost brother. I have written the start of a book… god is an asshole that is certainly in line with some of what I’ve seen expressed here at your site. I have a blog here too – but not put that much into it. What I did put into it, I think you’d like… Write please! Jerry

  4. What if everything you spoke you imediatly had would you still speak it? If you follow Christ you should ask him what he thinks about profanity? Words of the wise comes from the wise one who gave words. God spoke the world into existance and created us in his likeness so what do you think your words do?

  5. Jerry: I am new to this strange world of disembodied meeting of mind/soul brothers. Thanks for welcoming me to the family. I’m not sure if I’d call God an “asshole,” but I frequently ask, “God, why the hell is this happening?”

    Grudd: Our words create and our words destroy. Our words have the power to give life and the power to take it away. This is true, if not in the direct physical sense, in the spiritual, emotional sense (although I have no doubt that lives have been saved and lost on the basis of “mere words”; ask any friend who has ever considered suicide).

    I asked Jesus what he thought about profanity. He told me to be careful, not to judge others, but to check myself, to remember that I am forgiven, that every word counts, and that it is my heart that matters (Matthew 12:30-37). He also reminded me of how big a hypocrite I used to be, judging others for their profanity, while I stored up poisonous pride in my heart. In the end, it’s what’s going on on the inside that counts. Depending on the friend, cussing can be the loving thing to do (while comiserating, sometimes only a nice “life is f-ed up” will do). And Jesus said I could cuss at him any time I wanted (Matthew 12:32). Strange thing is, I don’t want to.

  6. I was doing a little bit of thinking for myself and I am kind of curious. I have always been more or less the rebellious type, and as a Christian, a very devote passionate one, I’ve found myself challenging the religious. I was wondering where you would divide being like Christ in challenging the religious (Pharisees) and not causing your brethren to stumble. It seems like most brethren would misinterpret the intentions solely on a lack of spiritual maturity and discernment ::shrugs:: Also, I am curious where the church decided to adopt a code of ethics of its own, and for what? Oh, and the thing about using the Lord’s name in vain, is it possible that it is referring to swearing by the name of God creating an unstable oath and a possible misrepresentation of the Lord’s truthfulness? ::shrugs::

  7. Faithfool, wow, so I’ve spent some time reading through your blogs and such and your wisdom astounds me. I am currently an undergrad student at Georgia Southern University studying philosophy and wouldn’t mind the utility of a quasi-mentor. ::shrugs:: If you have free time or random boredem, it would be awesome to chat it up sometime! My email is

  8. Matt,
    Thank you! Re: your first message
    1) there is a big difference between a hard-hearted legalist and a tender-hearted soul who is likely to think what you’re doing is wrong but who is likely to imitate you… however, we need to be careful, since we can’t always tell the difference

    2) church code of ethics? look for future post

    3) Lord’s name in vain? ditto (your suggestion is part of it, but I think the answer is much bigger… or else it would not have made the “top ten).

    Re: the second message, I’ll shoot you an email.

  9. let no corrupt communication proceed out of thy mouth…….profanity is offensive, woe beyond to them that do the offending, i think Jesus, who came to destroy the “works” of the devil, said that in Luke.
    does that make Jesus a legalist.
    Grace and peace be unto you.

    God Bless you,

  10. I wanted to get an actual debate over profanity, if you will. Could you elaborate a little, give me an argument over it?
    As in, represent someone who is advocating profanity, and another who is vehemently against it.
    I want to see the down sides and the up sides–if there are any–and, I know the one against profanity will win, but I would like to know if it IS possible to have a debate on profanity, without the profane side completely losing.

  11. Oh, I know you may not answer for a long time, but I would like to hear from you as soon as possible. Reply, please!

    With God’s grace,

  12. There are times in life – in your own or in that of a dear friend – when the most compassionate and honest response to the situation is to say “That’s fucked up.”

    For a lot of abused and suffering souls, those are the very words of affirmation they’ve been waiting to hear.

  13. Faithfool! Thank you! I have been able to become friends with so many non-believers and able to be open about my faith with them, because I am REAL with them! They’re used to Christians that are pious, and so unrelateable to them! Yet, I say shit when I smash my finger… Amongst other things, it’s those little things that make them open with you. A friend and I eventually came to the conclusion that swearing is like farting. You don’t want to do it at a job interview or in front of your grandma… But amongst friends? Totally acceptable. 🙂

  14. wow. never heard anything of the sorts before. Thought i do not agree with any such profanity, it was certainly an interesting read. You certainly know how to grasp attention with your own language.

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