We have received quite a few emails on cussing, and why it’s a sin to let a four-letter word rip every once in a while. Why or why not is this a sin? And is there any difference if it’s directed at a person (calling someone a name) or just out loud in response to a circumstance (like hitting your thumb with a hammer)?
This kind of question is the sort of thing parents deal with because we all have to set standards for our kids. I think kids need to have reasons for the standards that you set for them, like the rule “you don’t say that in this family.” Well, why don’t we say it? And then we need reasons. So here are some of my thoughts about language.
First, there is a whole category of the misuse of important realities. I am thinking God, Jesus Christ, damn, and hell. Let’s take those four. I think the Bible is pretty clear and pretty explicit when it says don’t take the name of the Lord in vain.
“Most offensive language is simply contrary to ministering grace and living out of grace.”
We don’t take the words seriously when we use God as a throwaway word or Jesus Christ as a word for when I just hit my finger or something terrible just happened or damn as a swear word or hell as a throwaway swear word. The problem with all those is that they take things that are unbelievably important and serious and they turn them into moments of smallness. There is a disconnect. There is a lack of coherence and harmony between the way they are being used and the weight that they should carry.
If a person uses God and Jesus Christ and damn and hell as a throwaway standard expression of irritation or anger, he is belittling God, belittling Christ, belittling the serious of damnation, and belittling hell. We ought not to belittle these big things.
Second, there is a whole category in the Bible and in the English language called crude, crass, vulgar, and indecent. Those words didn’t come out of nowhere. Those words are invented because human beings in every culture have felt certain things are inappropriate.
Every culture has something that they view as offensive, off color, or rude. Now a person might ask: Well, is there a biblical category for that stuff? And the answer is a resounding yes.
I was talking about this just two weeks ago to the guys over at Bethlehem Seminary about the category of this kind of ethics. And here are a couple of texts. First Corinthians 13:4–5: “love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.”
Now rude in the King James is translated “does not behave itself unseemly.” Now that word unseemly is an old fashioned word. Hardly anybody uses it today, but we all know what that means. There are things that are inappropriate. They are dishonorable. They are disgraceful. They are indecent. The Bible says be aware in the culture where you are not to offend unnecessarily against what is broadly considered rude.
Here is another one. “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking” — and then you get this phrase out of place or unfitting — “which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4). Paul knew that there were one hundred decisions you would have to make in life for which you couldn’t consult a list. There is no list that is going to work when something is inappropriately crude or foolish talk or filthiness. He is saying, “But there is a category of crude, and Christians should not want their language to be crossing over those lines again and again.”
Right at the end of that verse is a third thought — thanksgiving. The first thought was taking big, weighty, and glorious things and belittling them or speaking as though they weren’t important is inappropriate. The second thought is there is a biblical category for unseemliness, inappropriateness, rude, crude, foolish, and filthy. Christians ought not to want that.
“People who use a lot of four letter words are generally angry. They are not content.”
Here’s more on the third idea. At the end of Ephesians 5:4, it says, “But, instead, let there be a thanksgiving,” which I think means that Paul thought if your heart is right and brimming with gratitude to God in all things, there will be a monitor on the kind of crudeness that comes out of your mouth.
People that tend to use a lot of four letter words, a lot to scatological talk, a lot of harsh, crude, rough, and crass talk, are generally sounding pretty angry. They are not content. They are not happy in Jesus. Something is out of whack in their heart. I think a third major issue is your heart. Are these types of words coming out of a good heart?
In Ephesians 4:29 Paul says, “Let 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.” Here you have Paul explicitly moving beyond gratitude in my heart, which I think is going to wash away most of the crude stuff.
Here he is saying, “Let your language always be good for people.” What he means by “good for people” is “minister grace for them.” You should ask, “Is it going to be good for people?” if you are about to say some four letter word or some harsh and ugly thing that is kind of dirty. Ask, “Is it going to build them up? Is it going to make them stronger? Is it going to make Christ more beautiful in their eyes?”
Let me see if I can sum them up. One, don’t debase and cheapen great realities. Two, does it come under the category of culturally recognized crude, off color, vulgar, and offensive? Three, does it reveal a bitter, overly angry, and dissatisfied heart rather than a thankful heart? And, four, does it minister grace to those who hear? We live to cherish Christ and the gospel above all. That should mean that grace is abounding in our hearts. And most of the language that is offensive and questionable is simply contrary to ministering grace and living out of grace.