The other night when I was wrapping up a workout, I started talking to the girl at the front desk. At some point, she said something like, ‘…what the hell—I mean heck…”
I laughed and asked her if she was trying to stop swearing.
She said yes, so I pried a little further.
“Why are you trying to stop cussing?”
She said something about it being wrong, about certain words being unprofessional, but ultimately realized she didn’t really know why certain words were so wrong.
Unless you’re a student at a Christian college or an English major, you probably have not given much thought to the language you use beyond These words are good and these are bad. Chances are, you fall into one of three categories. There are those of us who are strict with the words that fall from our mouths; those who know there are words they shouldn’t use but let slip on occasion; and those who don’t give a second thought to releasing a string of expletives.
But perhaps there is a fourth category, which hopefully more of us (Christians especially) begin to wander into: That of the thoughtful language user. Someone who gives thought to the words they use, and why they choose to use them in the way they do. This is not a comprehensive post, but just a few thoughts I have to offer for now.
The Heart of the Issue
I have not sworn/cussed/used an expletive since 5th grade. (And it was kind of a funny story when I did.)
However, I have come to realize that this feat is incredibly meaningless. I’ve subtly dropped this fact to others before and they are always amazed at my restraint. But there are more insidious elements of this subject below the surface.
The most evident is that it is a sort of shortcut to pseudo-righteousness. I look way better than you, because I haven’t sworn. There are few ways to look more like a Pharisee than to keep track of your swear count.
The next is also somewhat obvious: You can go your whole life without cussing and still find a myriad ways to hurt others, cut them down, and dehumanize them. This has been me countless times in my life. Sure, I won’t say the f-word, but I’ll still ruin someone’s week with a degrading comment or a sarcastic insult.
Alternately, you could spill expletives like a tipped-over thermos and be one of the kindest, most gracious people on earth.
So who is right?
I think some better questions to ask are, what is language, how should it best be used, and what does God think about the words we select?
(Spoiler alert: I’m not going to give you a black or white answer. I’m going to give a few differing arguments and end with my own philosophy of swearing.)
Of course, God cares much more about the heart behind our words than the actual sounds coming from our lips. Any sort of language that does violence to another person is wrong from the start. So then why does it matter if we use expletives as a means to loving other people?
Abuse of Language
A commonly cited argument for swearing comes from Tony Campolo, who once said in a sermon:
I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said ‘shit’ than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.
Initially, you feel convicted. As you are meant to. The point he is making is valid, but when deconstructed, the means by which he got there is by shock value more than by a well-constructed argument. The reason this paragraph works so well is because he introduced language to a context in which it is foreign and expects people to overreact.
Philosophers would call this an ‘abuse of language.’ He took a word which is commonly used outside the context of a church sermon and inserted it in such a way that people’s mental environment would be jarred so that he could make his point. Because if people heard that language used anywhere else outside a church building, they wouldn’t have flinched. In fact, there is a good chance that most of them use that same word any given day of the week.
So when people point to examples similar to this in order to defend the use of expletives, they are not realizing that they are being manipulated into reacting exactly how the speaker wants. Which begs the question, is cussing still justifiable?
As a youth pastor, I get to hang out with high schoolers several days a week, and I love it. It’s a complex position to hold, as people tend to think pastors are some sort of holy men, with whom they must act more righteous than they really are. In other words, when a student lets an expletive slip during youth group, they immediately look at me with this nervous, sheepish look, expecting a disapproving look from me.
But it never comes.
Some of the other leaders will reprimand them for the language they use, but I never do, and there are several reasons for this.
The first is, I am more saddened that they try to transform themselves into better kids when they’re at church than the fact that they swear. I would rather they bring their whole, authentic self to church than some phony, calculated version of themselves that only uses ‘clean’ language. The fact that there is still a dichotomy in their minds between ‘holy’ and ‘unholy’ places shows that the church has not served to teach them well about the nature of our God.
I always think of Jacob in the Bible, who encountered God in a random place in the wilderness. Prior to this time, people only interacted with the gods in temples, or ‘holy places.’ But at the end of his encounter, Jacob mutters “Surely God was in this place all along and I had no idea.”
Many of us still live in the mindset of only meeting God in churches. And this is tragic, because it likely means that we are cleaning ourselves up before going before God. We have trained our minds to think, God is over there in the church building, but not here in my public high school. The subject of sanctioning out swearing is simply indicative of a larger issue: People don’t see God in every aspect of their lives.
I would rather have my students bring their whole, uncensored selves to youth group and not have to fear judgment from their leaders. From there, I can only trust that God will begin to work in them from the inside out, rather than in a way where they try to transform their external behavior even if they aren’t really sure why.
Swearing is the least of my concerns for these students. If it helps them communicate in a more authentic way with me, I’m never going to reprimand them for it.
The English Vulgate
In 382 AD, the Latin Vulgate Bible was published. Prior to this time, there was only the Latin Bible, which was written in language which could only be accessed by the highly educated. The Vulgate was written for the common people; the masses.
When most people think of the term ‘vulgar,’ they think the definition has something to do with being dirty, crude, or offensive. But originally, the word simply meant ‘for the common (read: uneducated) people.’
In other words, using vulgar language simply makes you seem uneducated or ignorant. And for this reason, I try to employ a richer vocabulary. I think God has given us language as a gift, and we can choose to either refine it and use it well, for the edification of others, or we can squander it and continue to speak foolishly and uncreatively.
As I wrote above, the goal is not to earn Heaven Points by simply not cussing. And we all could find plenty of ways to verbally destroy one another without dropping a single expletive. The goal, above all, is to use our words to encourage and love one another, and to worship and glorify God. For some of us, this will require the occasional strong language, while others of us have weaker consciences.
Wherever we land on the spectrum, may we be people who use all of our words to love one another and to love God. May we be creative in our exploration of language and our construction of thought.