Several days ago a young man was confused about the kinds of words he could use. He brought up the idea of profanity simply being whatever people say it is. He mentioned that he could make up some new word & claim that it’s profanity. I agreed…to a degree. If you use a made-up word with the intention to use it profanely, then it is profanity to you (Rom. 14:23). Profanity isn’t just any words though, because words carry meaning. Our society has viewed certain words as being profane–we know that because if I were to use them while preaching, people would immediately call me out for it. When we hear certain words come out of the mouths of children, we know immediately that they’re improper words.
Over time words do change. For example, when I was in high school I used the word “dork” in one of my classes. The teacher called me out for it. I was perplexed because I thought it just meant a goofy doofy person. But she was from an earlier time when it meant a sexual body part. That word no longer meant that in my generation. There’s another similar 4-letter word today that has become commonplace when referring to someone who’s acting rude or abrasive, which I think most would still consider vulgar, yet is commonly accepted.
A word that was becoming prevalent in my era of high school was “sucks” (which means “bad”). But I remember the original meaning, & it was vulgar. Everyone was starting to use it, so I remember one day walking down the crowded hallway of my school deciding that I would go ahead & use it too. As soon as I said it I heard a gasp from a girl behind me who was from my church youth group. She said my name in a very disapproving & disappointed way. “Brett!” It shocked her because as a fellow Christian, I should know better. I decided from then on, I would not use that word even if others did.
But today, the word “sucks” has (mostly) lost its original meaning, & many people, including Christians & even ministers (in their sermons), feel no conviction about using the term. But I still can’t, because I remember its origin. Where we are now though is far beyond the word “sucks.” Profanity has become very common, constant, & mainstream. It wasn’t always this way. Profanity has always been present, but nowhere near to the degree it is today.
It was a rarity in my home (my grandpa did let some words slide). We didn’t really hear it on TV, not much in most movies, & it was a big deal if a swear word was heard on the radio. I don’t even really remember hearing other kids using that kind of language. In 1972, comedian George Carlin made waves with a scandalous routine about the dirty words you couldn’t say on TV–some of which would be considered tame today.
Now those words & more are all over the airwaves, internet, advertising, in political speeches, & on the playground. We’ve become so used to it that we hardly notice it. We’ve grown to expect that people in the world are going to say vile, even blasphemous words that revile & degrade God’s name. We’ve learned to tolerate it. More than that, some Christians go right along with it. “Christian” singers & movie stars regularly use such language. For example, actor Chris Pratt is probably the most famous Christian in Hollywood. Yet, he’s the one that pressed for the f-word to be spoken in the latest Marvel movie he starred in.
None of that changes the fact that God still forbids it:
“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…. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place….” (Eph. 4:29, 5:4)
“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (Col. 3:8).
Nobody can claim that these words–call them what you will: coarse, crude, cuss, curse–are just made-up subjective words. These are foul words that shouldn’t come out of Christians’ mouths. Of course we shouldn’t be using the name of God or Jesus in vain (carelessly or irreverently). But we shouldn’t even be using words carelessly that mock Him (such as “damn” or “hell” which refer to His divine judgment). We’re called to be holy & pure as God is. When considering whether to use a word, we have to question: “Is this a word that Jesus would let come out of his mouth?”
We all fail to live up to that perfect standard, but that’s still God’s expectation. I’m far from perfect, but I’ve always tried to avoid bad language because it’s disobedient to God, & disrespectful to others. I don’t think my wife or two sons have ever heard me utter a swear word. Yet, I know that would be far more of a challenge for someone who’s constantly around profanity because of their workplace. You may not be able to escape hearing it, but I would question why any Christian would purposely fill their minds with it intentionally by paying to be entertained by it or by listening to videos & podcasts filled with it.
One of the ways I’ve avoided much of it is to check out movie reviews ahead of time (pluggedin.com), & to set filters in place. I don’t have a rule that I can cite, for example, that a movie can have no more than 2 f-words & 10 other words, or take the Lord’s name in vain a certain number of times. But I would at least say that it should be a low number.
It’s obvious that the more we take in these words, the more likely those words are to come out. Or as I was told as a youth: “Garbage in, garbage out.” Jesus said, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). What’s in the heart eventually shows up on the tongue. What comes out of our mouths defiles us (Matt. 15:11). What are you storing up in your heart? Bad language is a heart problem. James warns us about using the same tongue to praise our Lord, & then to curse people. “My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:9-11).
We can try to wean ourselves off by using “Christian cuss words” like “gadzooks” or “crud” (Google comedian Tim Hawkins’ hilarious routine on that). But let’s be different & clean it up. Let’s keep our hearts sensitive, & not grow calloused to it. We have the Holy Spirit within us, not the unholy one.