Should Christians Use Profanity?

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The question can also be whether it’s permissible for a Christian to curse, what cursing even is, what is the value we attribute to sounds and words, and many other constructions. Profanity means to profane, and perhaps there are some things that need profaning. Whether a slow driver in the fast lane should be profaned, well, I think not. The question I received dealt more with what my opinion was of Christians who do curse. Needless to say, everything I say pertains to all such constructs.

Christians are to aim for exemplary speech and conduct so that our lives might reflect our Savior in all his goodness, beauty, and truth. In 1 Tim. 4:12 Paul encourages Timothy to be an example in logos (word, speech). So the aim of the believer is to reflect the incarnate logos with our logos. Paul addresses all believers in Eph 4:29 and calls us to new standards for speech. Clearly, our speech, in both its intent and form, ought to be different than our old man or the pagan world. Our speech is to be redemptive in its aim, not just profaning. Now what exactly does this look like?

I just watched Akeelah and the Bee recently and was moved by Dr. Larabee’s strong rebuke of Akeelah’s use of ebonics in her speech. She wasn’t cursing, but her logos left much to be desired. The grammar wasn’t true, wasn’t good, and wasn’t beautiful. Lest I sound like a racist imperialist, both characters are black, and Dr. Larabee’s disdain was out of concern for the English language and how such grammatical abuse would reflect poorly on his pupil. A book I’d recommend here is Think by John Piper, which deals with sanctification in the realm of our mind and how that’s reflected in our words. We must aim high as believers. It means that we aspire to use the gift of language in a way that honors the giver of language. Adam named all the creatures, and this reflects creative capacities that are latent within us. Dr. Larabee wanted Akeelah to reach higher in her speech, and our Lord wants us to reach higher in our speech as well.

Having established our aim, the question is generally asked out of concern about what words are acceptable in the canon of our vocabulary. A couple points:  One can be cussless and yet have a heart that is hardly concerned with God’s glory, and one might cuss like a sailor and be the sweetest, most caring invidious you’d know. Those are exceptions at both ends of the spectrum, grant you, but it serves as a qualifier for my further thoughts. The fact is that most cussing occurs in the midst of some great disappointment, a fit of rage, adjectivally, descriptively, and to tear someone up. Some of these uses are just plain wrong, whereas the adjectival and descriptive use may be permissible.

There’s colorful speech throughout the Bible, uttered by God’s messengers and the ultimate messenger Himself. When I say colorful, I mean intentional use of provocative language to evoke a response. One might call this language earthy. The Psalms also include the expression of raw emotion through lament that would reflect in some ways the raw emotions expressed in troubled souls today. I’m not an expert in etymology and whether or not many of these words were considered anathema in the modern vernacular of that time, but my main points don’t depend so much on what the naughty list of words were, but that the language was intentionally provocative and serve as a contextual model for how corresponding words today would end up on the naughty list. I refer to a thoughtful post, The Trouble with Cussing Christians, by Carolyn Arends here. She touches on etymology, and how we don’t need to be experts to know the hows and whys that certain words ended up on a naughty list, they just did. I’ve seen way too many Christians try to out-think a situation to the point where everything is relativized and permissible. Let’s not go down that path.

Provocative language is only provocative when it’s NOT part of the common vernacular, meaning that gratuitous use of the provocative ceases to convey the power and emotion of it. I’m greatly annoyed by characters in shows and movies that curse over and over and over again – and I think the very point of the writer is that we are supposed to be annoyed at such a character because it precisely reflects a crude demeanor that is NOT to be emulated. We are to feel a bit like Dr. Larabee and wish to rebuke the gratuitous profaner. Certainly, the Christian ought not to be that – even the secular writer wants us to disdain that.

Now, is there a place for earthy and colorful language in our speech? I think so, so far as those words are used descriptively and prescriptively. Hurray for the earthy. There was a rancher boy in homiletics class that preached in front of the class recalling a story where he stepped in a pile of…well, you get it. He was oblivious that this would offend someone. He was earthy and his parents found that word to be the normal way of referring to well, that stuff on the ground. One can argue that his earthiness is crude and he must get some grace in his speech. Perhaps. Or perhaps the offended needs to chill out. Or perhaps a little of both, which I think the best option. He needed to be informed that such a word would prove an unnecessary hindrance to him preaching in certain audiences, and the class needed to be told to chill out because Jesus wasn’t offended in the least bit. Not trying to relativize language, but certainly it can be regionalized and understood in a context. Mind you, I think such words reflect a lack of craft in speech 99% of the time I hear it by people encounter today, meaning that the same sentiment could have been more powerfully, clearly, and truthfully conveyed through the use of other words in the dictionary. At the same time, certain words have been appropriated in a way that has become commonplace that it’s almost expected as the fitting reference (as in the example of the rancher boy). What do we call a psychotic female that is vile towards everyone? What do we call a big fat lie from someone trying to con us? The words become a more concise and clear way to convey what would otherwise take several words to describe. In these cases, the words aren’t intended to be as provocative as they are explanatory in a way that isn’t offensive to anyone (but the person being referenced, and just perhaps they need to hear it).  “Stop bull******* me,” or “You really need to chill out and stop acting like a *****” (in this case the provocation is intended to evoke a needed response or apology). If they are more offended by your speech than their actions, you have them checkmated – or do you? Do the ends justify the means?

I recall a story of Tony Campolo cussing at a conference just to get the attention of the crowd, which was quickly perturbed at the words they were hearing. Once he got their attention, he went on to chide the crowd for being more offended at his profanity than they were concerned that children are starving to death in other countries. The point was made, but I don’t know if I could follow in Campolo’s footsteps on the means he employed. Of course, the aim better be redemptive or else you’re the one being, well, never mind. Campolo’s heart was certainly in the right place and he wanted to provoke this complacent crowd into caring. This is also the tact of former coaches, Mike Ditka and Bobby Knight, to provoke your athletes to respond. I find this dehumanizing in the long run, and hardly befitting the style of a professed Christian. I’m more of a John Wooden and Tony Dungy fan when it comes to cultivating an environment that fosters the same results, albeit by treating everyone with dignity and coaching them up. They were both professing Christians and were quite intentional about refraining from profanity, seeing it as crude and unnecessary in inspiring and provoking their teams. Wooden was never heard using a single swear word. From this piece on Wooden, former pupil Gary Cunningham said,, “I never, never heard him use a swear word. Instead, he would say, ‘Gracious sakes alive.’ If he said, ‘Goodness gracious sakes alive,’ you were really in trouble.” As for the highly revered Tony Dungy, he so disdains the use of profanity that he once refused to hire Rex Ryan because he didn’t want his players around profanity. You can brand Wooden, Dungy, and myself as legalists, but their legacy is filled with much fruit, precisely because they aimed high, which included little to no patience for profanity. They set out to make men, men who would be respectful in their logos.

My pastoral advice is that we aim high, that we submit our language to the Lordship of Christ, and that we aspire to refine our craft in the use of words. If there are any cuss words that make it through that grid, and I’ve suggested that there can be, then such usage should also take into consideration whether it causes unnecessary offense, even when it’s not intended. That also rules out the usage, in my opinion. Because there’s little left bby way of usuage, I personally aspire to just not use cuss words in my speech, period. It’s easier this way. If it worked for Wooden and Dungy, and if Paul called Timothy to display exemplary speech, then that’s my aim. But I’m hardly offended if you do in front of me, unless of course it’s of the gratuitous kind, in which case I’ll tell you mix in a few other adjectives, or in front of another party that finds your language offensive. As a parent, I strive to be a Dr. Larabee, and am deputized to be stricter with my kids than I can be with you. When our children encounter a cuss word, I explain the word, sometimes its use, and then tell them that they aren’t to use such words, the reason being that they aren’t mature enough to go through the entire checklist and filter through the appropriate use of such words. Kids are the worst cussers, and I mean that their application of it is laughable. They revel in the novelty and shock value of it – and it’s a reflection of their immaturity. Problem is that many of the Christians using profanity today in public conversation or on social media are acting like the 8 year-old showoff. Their so-called liberation and maturity is actually crude and immature more times than not. And if your intention is to cause offense, then you struck out already. Provoking redemptively is a very high craft that I don’t think I even have obtained. There are some people who are like surgeons and can do it well, but more times than not the Christian who defends their provocations as high functioning redemptive prodding falls way short of the claim. For these reasons, I think it best to simplify the complex grid and simply abstain. I think the abstaining will produce more fruitful communication. And also, when was the last time you were chided by someone for NOT using a cuss word? In the rare case some literary genius corrects you, suggesting a cuss word would have been more apropos, you can admit your lack of genius. Don’t hold your breath.

© 2014, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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