Does profanity and crude talk make us more relatable and effective in our engagement with the culture? The question comes up a lot in the inbox, and this time it arrives in an email from a podcast listener named Eden.
“Dear Pastor John, I’m a freshmen at a Bible college, and a trend is sweeping the campus — profanity. I have never been under the impression that it is okay for Christians to cuss, but many students here justify their language as a means to engage in the world. Is there Scripture that supports this idea? Is it okay for a Christian to use crude language to gain the ear of non-Christians?” Pastor John, how would you respond to this trend?
Well, I have three responses.
1. A Better World
This kind of thinking strikes me as being all of a piece with those Christians today who are voting into office candidates who, in another generation, would have been called lechers and perverts.
Now here’s the connection: Issues of moral character — that is, issues of biblical uprightness — are being subordinated to our strategies for how to make the world a better place. Those who put immoral people in office reveal that their strategy prioritizes political power over the fruits of godliness as a way to make the world a better place. Those who use vulgar language in order to engage the world in the hope of making it a better place reveal that their strategy prioritizes being culturally cool over the fruits of godliness.
“In becoming like the world in order to save the world, we lose the very thing we were saving the world from.”
In both cases, our trust has shifted from the power of God to work through the humility of holiness onto the power of our own cleverness, whether it be political shrewdness or cultural savvy. I regard this approach to life and transformation as hopelessly flawed.
It will not bring the kingdom. It will not transform culture. It will not convict sinners. It will backfire and destroy the credibility of the Christian church. That process has happened before; it is happening again as we speak. We have tried this. In the effort to become like the world in order to save the world, we lose the very thing we were saving the world from. That’s been tried. We do this cyclically.
I think at the heart of the mistake this time is not only a loss of confidence in the power of God and the truth of his word, but, even deeper, a loss of authentic thrill that in Christ — in his way and his word — we have found a way of life that is joyfully, magnificently superior to all that the world has to offer. We’ve lost the authentic thrill that our way is better.
Deep down, these students are probably using vulgar language not because they love lost people and want to rescue them for radical purity before a holy God, but rather, they do actually enjoy using that language and being like the world. It feels cool. It feels good, which means the battle is lost even before it begins. That’s my first response.
2. Superficial Changes
My second response is that we are naive in the extreme if we think the world will be persuaded about the radically counter-cultural claims of Jesus Christ (and they really are radical) because we make some superficial changes. Probably more than these students realize, we’re naive to think that the world is going to be persuaded about these radical claims of Christ because we make a few superficial changes in the way we talk or the kind of parties we throw.
“Crude language will not transform culture. It will not convict sinners. It will backfire.”
I mention that because somebody raised the same issue down in Texas recently. This I regard as a ridiculous approach to the pursuit of the miracle of transformed hearts. According to the New Testament, what will get the attention of the world and penetrate possibly to the inner recesses of their heart is not cultural similarity with the world but sacrificial service to the world.
Let me say that again, because that’s the heart of the matter on this point. What’s going to get the world — grab them by the scruff of their neck and shake them into reality — is not cultural similarity with the world: “Wow, you Christians know how to throw good parties. I think I’ll be a Christian.” What kind of conversion is that? Cultural similarity with the world will not grab them, but sacrificial service to the world. In other words, it’s not risqué language that will waken the dead, but radical love.
Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works” — your sacrificial loving and your good deeds — “and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). That may cause the world to be shocked, and ask if there is a God in heaven and if Christ did die for sinners and rise again from the dead. I don’t think a few changes in words are going to make us more credible on those radical points.
3. Filthy Language
Here’s my last response. I would point Eden to a passage — to Ephesians 5:3–4. It goes like this: “Sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place” — or “not fitting,” or “unseemly” (ἀνῆκεν) — “but instead let there be thanksgiving.”
I have three observations about this text:
“It’s not risqué language that will waken the dead, but radical love.”
1. This kind of nitty-gritty, micro personal concern with language is actually there in the New Testament. Sometimes, we Christians would prefer to just talk about macro issues like global warming and war and international relations. We seem to say, “What in the world? Who cares about crude joking?” Well, Jesus. Jesus is Lord of the micro and the macro matters of life, and they’re more closely related than people think.
2. Paul introduces the moral category of “not fitting,” or “not proper,” or “out of place.” In other words, Christians don’t just live by a list. We discern what is suitable and fitting in a hundred situations. Paul says, “Vulgarity is not fitting.”
3. Here’s what may be the most surprising thing of all, and it might go to the heart of the matter of what is best for these young people. The alternative to the crude, vulgar language that Paul mentions is not clean language but thanksgiving. In Paul’s mind, the problem with people who resort to filthiness, and foolish talk, and cussing, and crude and vulgar language is that they have a gratitude deficiency. Something is wrong in the heart, and he puts his finger on it. They’re not overflowing with humble thankfulness — that’s their problem.
For these three reasons, I would say to Eden that you may relax and joyfully go about your business, keeping your mouth free from vulgarity. But don’t put all the emphasis on what you don’t do. Instead, fill your mouth with Christ-exalting truth and overflowing, humble thankfulness. Pursue the very good works that Jesus says have a much better chance of impressing the world than if we would just adopt a little bit of their language, which they themselves know is cheap.