A few words about ‘bad words’

I recently came across a social media post from a minister who sent his young son to a conservative Christian summer camp and was disturbed to learn upon his return that all the other campers “swore like sailors.” According to his post, the boys told his son that the Bible says swearing is fine, and the camp counselor declined to take a position on the question. I’m not naming the camp because I know I only have one side of the story, but the vignette is not particularly surprising, as many Christians increasingly view concerns about foul language as mere legalism or political correctness. Given the Bible’s deep concern with what comes out of believers’ mouths, it is worth considering whether being “the salt of the earth” excludes language that is, well… salty.

One challenge when talking about swearing is that it comes in a few flavors, not all of which are created equal. Some swearing is a direct violation of the Third Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Ex. 20:7). If you are invoking the name of God to highlight the frustration of stubbing your toe or the excitement of winning your fantasy football bracket, you are breaking the Third Commandment. Period.

It doesn’t matter if you “didn’t really mean it.” In fact, that is precisely the point. You are taking the Lord’s name in vain. If you were actually calling upon God to damn the chair for its rude interception of your toe, you would not be breaking the Third Commandment (though we might have some other theological issues to discuss). The sin of taking the Lord’s name in vain is the sin of trivializing God.

It’s easy to dismiss such passing verbal sins as unimportant. But God doesn’t. Instead, when he chose significant, representative sins for the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments, he chose to include taking his name in vain. A moment’s thought suggests the reason. From the Garden of Eden onward, what sin has not started with taking God too lightly? Psalms and Proverbs agree: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (111:10, 9:10). If we really believed that God was the awesome Creator and Judge, with the power of life and death in his hands, would we casually use his name for color commentary on trivial life events? What are we telling ourselves and others about God when we take his name in vain?

But a “name” in the Bible is more than just the word used to label a person. Biblically speaking, my name is not just “David Vogel.” My name includes my reputation, my work, my words, myself. “Oh my God” is taking the name of the Lord in vain, but so are “Oh hell” and “Dammit!” God’s works are part of his “name,” and the Third Commandment warns us against trivializing them either.

But what about the array of four-letter words which have nothing whatsoever to do with God or his name? When Christians say swearing is no big deal, it’s usually these casual crudities that they have in mind. I vividly remember being about seventeen and confidently explaining to a friend that the word I had just used was just fine, because the Bible only talks about taking the Lord’s name in vain and what I had just said was most certainly not the Lord’s name. Like so many of my seventeen-year-old insights, I was a little bit right and a little bit wrong.

It is true that the Bible doesn’t include a list of forbidden words. But maybe that’s because the collection of crude words changes from language to language, generation to generation—almost moment to moment. The point isn’t the particular combination of syllables coming out of your mouth, but the spirit behind them and what they will mean to those around you.

At this point, I can hear a thousand voices indignantly pointing out that nobody really cares about saying **** any more. Everyone does it. Nobody notices. And maybe you’re right about that particular word. After all, the meaning and connotations of words do change. There are doubtless words I use today which would have been offensive fifty or a hundred years ago, and there are doubtless words I avoid today which will truly be acceptable for my children or grandchildren to use.

But I would ask you this: Would you say it in front of your grandmother? Your pastor? When Jesus says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned,” (Matt. 12:36-37), are you prepared to explain before the judgment seat of God the value of seasoning your conversation with ****?

Paul warned the Colossians, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” Why? Because we are to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (3:8,10). You are being made new, in the image of Jesus himself. Does that particular word, whatever it is, belong as part of that image? You are an ambassador of Christ. Does your language honor the One you represent?

Oh, by the way, I haven’t mentioned a particular word. If you have one in mind, one you think I’m talking about, one you habitually use, what does that tell you about how you and others understand that word? Remember, the question isn’t whether the word is bad in itself. A word is just a combination of noises—it’s utterly amoral by itself. The question is about its flavor, and about whether that flavor belongs on the tongue of an ambassador of Christ who is being renewed in the image of Christ.

This isn’t about being judgmental. It’s about being renewed. Jesus warned, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:11). Our words matter, to ourselves, to others, and to God. Personally, I know I am far from perfect in what comes out of my mouth, and sometimes I struggle to decide whether a particular word should be avoided or not. But we have no better guide than this: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17).

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