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!