A.J. Clemente’s first two words as a weekend news anchor were a certain word that begins with ‘f’ and a certain word that begins with ‘s.” It was an accidental, verbal response to his fumbling over his first report.
Those words also got him fired.
We all know words matter. Clemente isn’t the first to lose his job over careless words. In public and on-air we censor ourselves, bleeping or blacking out unsavory words, substituting less controversial expletives.
As Christians, we are told that words, specifically spoken words, “Have the power of life and death.” Yet, there is a feeling among some Christians that those bleeped words and even flippant references to the Deity shouldn’t be sweated.
After all, a spoken word is merely air vibrating a couple flaps of skin and running an obstacle course in the mouth. It seems silly to categorize certain words—mere fluctuating symbols given meaning by society’s whims—as sinful.
Further, profanity is said to be the speech of a culture—the language of certain identity groups. It seems insensitive to call it sinful. But the fact remains that the Christian Bible treats profanity extensively and seriously as sin.
That said, it is important to understand what is meant by profanity before we go around calling it wrong and stomping on cultural and linguistic toes. Profane speech, in its Biblical context, is any unholy talk. To be holy is to be set apart, completely pure and different—like God. “Obscene,” “corrupt,” “crooked,” “filthy,” “foolish,” “irreverent” words—to borrow a few adjectives from scripture—are considered unholy and are to be left unspoken by those who follow Christ.
Just like it would feel improper to use a Van Gogh as a dartboard or a kazoo for a Debussy sonata, the mouth of a Christian is to be set apart for God-honoring speech.
It should be understood that language and its usage do change with time and culture. For instance, the word “damn” has grown in its potency since the morally conscious Dickens centered a humorous character of Nicholas Nickleby around its usage and C.S. Lewis chose a variation of it as the third-to-last word in his children’s book, The Magician’s Nephew.
Words can be more or less profane depending on the country in which they are used or even the city. But these are exceptions and are becoming rarities. The digital dissemination of mainstream culture across the English-speaking world has begun to standardize obscene language, and it is not difficult for the Christian to discover what words and phrases are currently considered obscene.
There is the argument that profanity is a vital part of certain cultures and identity groups. But it is important to differentiate between cultural variations within Biblical morals and cultures that promote immoral practices. Just because something is a part of a culture does not make it right in the sight of God.
For the Christian, pluralism must have limits. If a people group were to declare wife-beating vital to its citizens’ identity, God’s word on a husband’s gentle, sacrificial love for his wife would not quietly step aside.
On the other hand, we must make allowance for cultural changes. Certain words and phrases a Bible Belt Baptist may consider offensive may be used daily in good conscience by someone near Mack Avenue, Detroit without sin being involved. To borrow and change a popular phrase, “It’s partially relative.”
Where socially fabricated “cuss words” are involved, it is more about the heart of the speaker than the word spoken; though, in the spirit of Romans 14, the speaker should defer to the conscience of anyone in hearing distance who might take offense at your language. Cussing to assert your freedom to cuss in front of those who think it wrong is bad manners and morally reprehensible.
Is profanity a problem that should be addressed in others’ lives or is it just personal? Above, I compared profanity to wife beating. That was slightly unfair. Profanity is not on the same plane as wife beating. There is nothing relative about the immorality of beating your wife. And while profanity is sinful no matter the culture, it can be tricky (though doable) to address its use in those around you.
Christians can fall into one of two errors regarding profanity: overemphasizing it at the expense of more pressing issues or underemphasizing it to the point of encouraging sin. I think becoming more holy and spirit-filled will include becoming less profane, but a Christian should proceed with gentleness, balance and caution when confronting the sin in others.
Of course, profanity is more than “cuss words.” It includes “crude joking” and “irreverent babble,3” for they fall into the unholy category. Just because something is so funny it makes you laugh out loud and roll on the floor laughing (weird to see those written out?), that pleasure does not justify an off-color joke.
Again, it’s partially relative, and it is not the task of this article to define the line you can’t cross. Seek to please God with your whole heart (and mouth), and you may find that line begins to be less interesting to you. The same holds true in the use of God’s name.
As you seek and are filled with goodness—one of those delicious fruit of the spirit—you will learn to know when it is flippant to say His name and when it is reverent.