Christian Cussing

When I was a writer for The Wheaton Record circa 2003, I wrote a feature entitled “Cursing at Wheaton.” It was a two-page spread, 3,000 word story that I had researched and worked on for a month. It covered all the angles of cursing from a Christian perspective, including insightful interviews with English and Anthropology professors (Roger Lundin and Brian Howell), and even a survey of 100 Wheaton students who reported on their cursing habits. My biggest finding in the article? Seniors at Wheaton were about 30% more likely to cuss on a daily basis than were freshman. And more likely to use the f- word on a daily basis. No big surprise, I guess. The language of Christian young people isn’t as pristine as it used to be.

The issue of language is of course a terribly complex one, and an entire book could be written on the whole idea of cursing, profanity, expletives, etc.

But to me (call me old fashioned), the issue for Christians is pretty cut and dry. We should avoid using profanity; we should keep our cussing to the absolutely minimum, especially in public.

It has less to do with anything inherently wrong with the words themselves and everything to do with our Christian witness. Even if you disagree that certain words are “profane,” you can’t change the cultural perception. You can’t change a taboo. And as long as certain words are viewed as offensive, profane, or taboo, Christians should make every effort to avoid speaking them. We are called to a higher standard, right? Aren’t we supposed to be set apart? For the same reasons that we should avoid drunkenness and drugs and other “worldly” activities, we should avoid cursing. We are the salt of the earth. We need to discipline ourselves as such.

When I am around Christians friends and I hear them cussing up a storm, I cringe. It makes me sad. The words themselves don’t necessarily bother me. They aren’t what make me cringe. Rather, it is the fact that my Christian brothers and sisters are so recklessly abandoning scruples in what I daresay is one of the most crucial areas of our Christian witness: our language. Just read James 3:1-12.

Not using profanity in today’s world is noticeable. It is the sort of abstaining activity that people will take note of. What an opportunity for Christians to truly show restraint and demonstrate the different-ness of the Christ-like life! I’m not saying we should chastise non-Christians for using bad language or avoid movies or music with salty language; I’m just saying that we, as Christians, should set an example by being different.

Certainly the case can be made that a well-placed swear word can be appropriate for a Christian when no other word will get across an idea or express a certain level of emotion/emphasis. Some of my favorite Christian artists will occasionally throw a profanity into their lyrics to really drive home a point.

Dave Bazan, for example, in his Pedro the Lion song “Foregone Conclusions”:

And you were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord /
to hear the voice of the Spirit, begging you to shut the f— up.

Or Over the Rhine, in their beautiful song “Changes Come”:

I wanna have our baby / Somedays I think that maybe / This ol’ world’s too f—-d up / For any firstborn son.

And most recently, Derek Webb caused a stir when his record label refused to include the song “What Matters More” on his new CD because of this lyric:

‘Cause we can talk and debate until we’re blue in the face / About the language and tradition that he’s comin’ to save / Meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a shit / About 50,000 people who are dyin’ today.

So there is definitely a place and a time for a well-placed cuss word. But it has to be used sparingly and with a real meaningful purpose behind it.

In general, Christian brothers and sisters, we need to clean up our mouths. I don’t want to get all pharisaic or anything, and maybe in the grand scheme of things it’s not a huge thing. But it is a thing. And a thing we need to be better about controlling. We have cussing pastors now, and cussing Christian bands, and LOTS of cussing Christian college graduates (they tend to take special pride in developing their long-silenced cursing skills). If I was a non-Christian observer I would be wondering, “What ever happened to the good little Christians who always said darn and dang and butt and shoot? I kind of miss them.”

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29 responses to “Christian Cussing

  1. I don’t have a cursing problem. I’m very good at cursing.

    But seriously, this is something I struggle with, because it’s much easier for me to just let the four-letter words fly out. I don’t really like the whole “think before you speak” thing. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion my loose lips have gotten me into big trouble, so I think it’s time to tame my tongue.

  2. I think one thing you might have missed is that cursing is generally a weapon younger generations wield against older ones. If for no other reason, Christians should avoid cursing because it sounds immature and rebellious and might hurt their opportunities for deep relationship with people who are older than them.

    Do I curse? Yes. But generally only when I am by myself or alone with my wife or a good friend and generally rhetorically, like if I’m telling a story. And I think the practice of public guardedness is a good one. I never know who I will be surrounded by and whether the fact that I say “sh**t” when I stub my toe or have a beer with my lunch will hurt my chances at relationship with them.

    I find generally that Christians who can’t hold their tongues or who revel in the “freedom” of using profanity are trying hard to put a sheep in wolves’ clothing. If you really just want to be a wolf, why be a fake one?

  3. One of my elders gave me a good guide, I think you are alluding to it a bit. He said Cursing is like a spice, you have to use is sparingly or it will ruin your flavor.

  4. I think it’s sad when Christians play a role in creating these false taboos and then feel the need to continually prop them up. The world only sees cursing as wrong as long as the religious culture continues to practice this type of false moralism. It’s not about being set apart by creating our own cultural standards by which to be different. This is the same old tired and empty argument that was applied to playing cards, dancing, drinking, and now cussing. It is culturally bound and is not

    We empty our message, not by cursing, but by acting as if cursing is somehow on the same moral level as loving our neighbor. It actually harms our Christian witness to hold up these cultural taboos to be something of moral significance.

    This perhaps could be perceived as an issue of meat and milk. Don’t let it defile your conscience. Eat the meat.

    • Your words sound excellent. However you are failing to consider the “primary” purpose of “curse” words. While I agree we should never give the words themselves more power by labeling them by their first letters (except in obvious places), and that we should be able to discuss these words openly and easily as the Church, these words have power still which is in their use to harm or attack. And I hope we as Christians realize that words have power in subtlety and outright intention. When talking about language, it certainly is necessary to note that all words have the potential be used with the intent to harm (with either subtlety or outright intention); however, you can never stop there when thinking about the words that we create and “change.”
      Why did these words in particular take such hold in our language? A large part has to do with the “form” the words have taken and their syllables and “how” they sound. They were firstly, and chiefly (some of them) thought up for harm. Secondly, they are simply easy words to say. Thirdly, their syllables are formed in such a way that you can use most every one of them inbetween every other word in a sentence…such as the word fuck. These words are simply lazy and easy language used in order to insult someone as quickly and devastatingly as possible. Intent is only half the thought with words. And when thinking about a persons use of these words in “normal” conversation most Christians (that I have encountered) who “cuss”, who have become lazy with their language, find it incredibly easy to then use these words in an unbelievably offensive way against others who “attack” them and dishonor God in the process.
      Jesus Christ is another popular curse word/phrase. That’s not ok is it? And lets not use the “10 commandments” to dismiss it. That’s too easy and misses the half of the intent meant when that name is used profanely. Damn is another incredibly popular word, and I am confused about why this one is so easy to say now. The word literally is intended for wishing someone/something to go to hell or stating that a person is going there. And it most certainly is inappropriate for a Christian of all people to say “damn you” to someone.
      There’s a lot more I could say…but I guess I’ll stop there unless there is some sort of response :)

      • I’ll agree with you, K, in saying that “fuck you” or “damn you” to someone would be wrong, by Biblical standards. But say I am talking to one of my good friends, speaking about a difficult time going on in my life, a friend who is not offended by cussing. Say I say this sentence. “I don’t know, man, I’m just tired of dealing with all this shit in my life. It’s damned depressing and fuckin’ annoying.” Let’s revise this sentence to eliminate the curse words. “I don’t know, man, I’m just tired of dealing with all this crap in my life. It’s really depressing and freakin’ annoying.” Another revision, to less offend some language extremists. “I don’t know, man I’m just tired of dealing with all this stuff in my life. It’s depressing and very annoying.” To me, the first sentence is a much more honest expression of how I’m feeling. “Shit” in this context is not used to offend or insult or condemn, it’s used as, as Spock would put it, a “Colorful metaphor.” It’s extreme and it expresses the horrible things I’m going through much more than “crap” and especially “stuff” ever could. And as long as I know the person is not offended by these words, I fail to see how NOT saying them could be in any way construed more “virtuous” than saying them. Speaking as a writer who is an (as yet) unpublished novelist, short story writer, and film critic, the word “shit” in this case is the most succint and expressive word that can be used to express the truth of what I am trying to get at. In your opinion, would my initial sentence above be less “Christian” than either of the other ones?

  5. I’m still working on it all the time. I notice that I cuss when I’m stressed out, sometimes just to make the people around me realize that I’m in horrible-person mode and in desperate need of attention. Other times, four-letter words seem to be the only way to say, in one syllable “I can’t believe I spilled coffee on the floor,” or “I can’t stop in time before hitting the car in front of me!”
    But as far as swearing for shock value is concerned…it really bothers me when I see it in myself or other Christians, too. And I always feel ridiculously happy when I am able to restrain myself and restate in more creative terms how I’m feeling.

  6. @J, imho though, cursing is less a moral issue and more one of general ethics, politeness and overall cleanliness, not directly to morality.

    This is why you shouldn’t cuss at work: not because it reflects poorly on your Christian moraility, but because it reflect poorly on your ability as a normal person to avoid doing things that are generally offensive.

    In general, cursing is not a Christian moral issue. Being publically (and purposefully, or worse, carelessly) offensive, on the other hand, IS a Christian moral issue. And there’s no better way to act offensive in public than to drop the f-bomb.

    That said, personally and specifically for me, that my cursing is usually indirectly proportional to how seriously I take my faith. My crude-o-meter rises as a symptom of ignoring God and often I realize my cursing is a rebellion not against dumb cultural taboos (I know what breaking those feels like) but against God’s influence on my life.

    I wouldn’t begin to argue that this happens to everyone. But I find myself to be an exception to my argument above: whether or not I curse IS a Christian moral issue.

  7. I agree with you, Brett. It’s tempting to curse to show the world that we’re not squares, but the Bible’s witness on the issue is pretty clear. Better to stand with James.

  8. I’m just not too certain that Jesus wouldn’t drop a few F-bombs if he came and told us what’s up today. He wasn’t too keen on diluting his message.

  9. But does profanity actually make truth more powerful?

  10. Interesting post Brett. A few friends and I are going through Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and I’ve really been struck with how much I’ve let my own “panting for Christ” lapse with regard to holiness. God as Divine Other calls us to something pure and lovely and just and it seems we make light of it all.

    I also find that the ones (including myself) who try and justify certain “taboo” action do so as disenfranchised believers who are simply reacting from a strict or legalistic upbringing. Maybe this generation needs to spend some time in therapy so we can get over ourselves. I think this mentality also surfaces in how shallow our churches are becoming–forsaking the traditional for the hipster. We’ve exchanged a costly grace for cool … cloaked ourselves in the language of culture and called it a day.

    Anyway, good thoughts. Cheers …

  11. I don’t think James 3 is refering to profanity. But I do think we need to be carefull about cursing in company get offended. Most people I know don’t get offended at all. (By the way, the f-bomb in Over the Rhine’s “Changes Come” is one of the most beautiful and theologically accurate descriptions of the world I have ever heard.) Perhaps Christians need to be more bold in describing the truth about the world, like Paul does in Phil. 3:8.

  12. @J

    Is cursing really only seen as being wrong because of religious false moralism? I think there a reason other than this that kids shows on tv don’t have their presenters dropping f-bombs every few sentences.

    Also, you seem to separate not cursing and showing love to neighbour. What about showing love to your neighbour by not cursing? If cursing might cause a brother or sister in Christ to stumble, don’t curse. Love triumphs over our freedom.

    You’ve quoted Paul by saying “Eat the meat”. What about when Paul says that “if food makes my brother, I will never eat meat”?

  13. I talk about this on my blog at http://emergingquaker.blogspot.com/2009/08/is-profanity-demonic.html in the context of Dorothy Day who thought the f-word was demonic because it twisted a God-given act of creation.

  14. I agree completely.

    It is not about simply determining which words are bad or in what contexts such words are appropriate, but it is a matter of acknowledging that we are different. We claim to be undeserving recipients of God’s eternal grace, so we should live differently from those who are not aware of the eternal consequences of sin.

    Peter tells us to “live such good lives among the pagans that … they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” It’s not about avoiding the bad; it’s about doing more good than the world will understand. The way I see it, swearing is a simple thing that often does more damage to people than good. So why bother?

  15. I don’t have much to say on this, other than that I curse, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with cursing, so long as it is used in the proper context. At home and around my roomates, I’ll curse, because none of us are offended by it. I may curse A LOT. I’ll never curse around my parents, because I know it would make them uncomfortable. I curse at work when patrons aren’t around, but so do my co-workers. We keep cursing to a minimum when patrons are around, though, because it could be offensive to them. My point being that I don’t think it’s a Christian’s duty to downplay their cursing significantly. It is a Christian’s duty to be aware of the world around them and think about the consequences of their actions on other people. If, on a given day, NOT saying the f-word will enhance your Christian witness, then DON’T say it. And you can’t take for granted that not cursing will enhance your witness. In some cases, people may actually shun you and think you think you’re better than them because you’re too good to curse. Something to think about. However, this is not to say that cursing is in and of itself bad. It just means, just like with everything else in life, it must be used in moderation and in context with the world around us.

    And your final line I think is a little over-the-top. “What ever happened to the good little Christians who always said darn and dang and butt and shoot? I kind of miss them.” You know to some people darn, dang, butt, and shoot are all offensive. I’ve met them, I grew up around families where something like “shut up” was on par with the f-word. Or even something like “Darn it!” People have different standards, and those standards evolve. Whatever happened to the good little Christian girls who wore their dresses down to their ankles and didn’t show a spot of skin that wasn’t the neck, hands, feet, or face? I see no reason to continue the illusion that anything whatsoever about cursing is somehow bad or wrong. I think it’s simply part of our evolving language. And besides, “crap” is considered, still, by many Christians to be offensive. So is “gosh” or “golly.” I should know, my mom was one of those people.

  16. Isn’t God more concerned about the loss of restraint in letting a curse fly from our mouth? Doesn’t a well-placed profanity show our limited vocabulary? C’mon people, let’s work harder on being an effective witness without comprimising God’s truth. Admit when you fail, but don’t plan failure by choosing to accept unwholesome talk as a regular part of your Christian journey.

  17. @ Dec- Cursing isn’t wrong so there’s no reason to worry that it will cause someone to stumble. One may make a point that it’s about politeness. But my point is that you may not like someone belching, but to say I shouldn’t belch because it may cause someone to stumble is a pointless point. Of course I may not burp because I love my neighbor though. Sure.

    But Paul is saying that the meat is fine to eat in the passage. One would only resist if someone was so immature as to allow this meat to taint their conscience. If you think that you shouldn’t eat the meat or curse, then don’t. I however think it’s a matter of just growing up and recognizing there’s nothing wrong with it. Hence, eat up. But I would recommend discretion on where and when you exercise your freedom.

  18. words to crunch on, i like it.

  19. Christians shouldn’t curse, period. (Yes, even if you FEEL like it, you shouldn’t do it.) :D

  20. I find it strange that so many Christians think it is okay to cuss. “there’s an acceptable time”- like when? When you stand before “Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead”are you gonna boldly drop the f-bomb? If you say yes, then I pray for you.
    Do i think a christian who cusses will go to hell? Absolutely not but if you talk today like you did before you were saved then I have to wonder how you live.
    Only God can tame the tongue so if we are still cussing ….hmmm I am very sure that God wouldn’t come down here dropping the f-bomb with you.
    As Christians we need to stand out from the crowd. So often we are tainted by what the world does and because we are so set in old ways we refuse to let them go. My friends who are NOT saved, curse less around me automatically out of respect for me. Make the world respect you not affect you.

  21. The thing that all the people completely opposed to cussing are misunderstanding is that there is *nothing* inherently wrong with any cuss word. It’s a word. That’s all. To someone who has never spoken or heard a lick of English before, “sh*t” would be complete gibberish. Doesn’t this show that it’s just a word? Do you think God put an eternal ban on the f-word? Of course not. Languages evolve over time, they’re not static. Back in the 90′s, “crap” would never be mentioned in polite Christian society. Yet now it’s acceptable vernacular, even by some people who still shudder if you say the s or f-word. Standards of language evolve, which is why it’s important to NOT focus on something so trivial as the word itself, but instead the mindset behind your thoughts, words, and actions. I have friends whom are not the least bit offended (including Christian friends) by me dropping an f-bomb. What purpose would it serve to NOT say the f-bomb in this case? Any? Well you can say something holy about “cleaning up your language” but then that just goes right back to how amorphous and fluid language is. The only reason you would not use a curse word is if it would hurt your witness. Saying “crap” instead of “dammit” or “shoot” instead of “shit” doesn’t make you more holy or more cleaner in the eyes of God, because not even ten years ago crap, in many Christian communities, may as well have been a curse word! They’re freaking words! It’s how your words affect other people, because we are to be aware of the people around us and how our actions affect them.

    As Christians, yes, we do need to stand out from the crowd. Your friends who are not saved may curse less around you out of respect for you, but speaking from personal experience, there are some cases where not cursing would hurt my witness. I’d be looked as a prude or someone whose standards are a little outdated. Now yes, I know this sounds dangerously close to compromising your beliefs in the name of “witnessing” which many people do, but that’s why we have guidelines in the Bible instructing us what we can and can’t do. And as far as cursing goes, NOWHERE in the Bible does it say that we shouldn’t say the f-word. Ipso facto, cursing is not a sin in and of itself (and if theres evidence in the Bible for this I’d like it pointed out), but is just part of the multi-coloredness of our language and to be used wisely along with all your other words and actions.

  22. “It’s a word. That’s all.”

    The pro-swearing argument that curses are “just words” is an extremely poor one in my opinion. Words are charged with meanning and intentions from deep within us, and are powerful symbols which convey a reality.

    If I say the words “I love you” they should be charged with all sorts of thoughts, feelings, emotions etc. They are not just words, and should never be treated as such. Now take the f-bomb. It’ pregnant with all sorts of meaning, most of it unpleasant. It offends the majority of people so much that you won’t hear it on most television channels until night time. If television companies deem a word unsuitable for constant use, what does that tell us? That it’s “just a word”?

    I’m not trying to argue that it’s wrong to swear, nor am I trying to argue that it’s right to swear. My point is that words matter. The Bible doesn’t tell us that swearing is a sin, but if anything, it goes beyond that by exhorting us to be very careful about ALL the things we say. “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned”.

    Is there such a thing as a mere word? Certainly not.

  23. I think you missed my point and came all the way back around to completely agreeing with me. My point in saying that it was “just a word” is only to illustrate how it cannot be wrong to say the f-word, simply because of how we know language works. Yes words can be charged with emotion – and it’s why we need to watch what we say and when we say it. Citing all these standards that exist surrounding the f-word doesn’t actually matter because in twenty, thirty years, these standards will be completely different, and down the line more words will probably evolve that we “shouldn’t” say.

    Consider this: saying “I love you” at the wrong time can be just as harmful, if not moreso, than dropping an f-bomb. I don’t think there’s any use in demonizing the f-bomb or the s-word other than to say that yes, these are words that, in today’s climate, offend some people. So don’t say it around those people. If I’m hanging out with my friends on a Saturday night watching a scary movie and something jumps out at me, I might exclaim, “Oh sh*t!”, and I guarantee you nobody in the room will be offended. It’s all about context. And last time I checked, television companies have nothing to do with the standards we need to set for ourselves as Christians.

    They are just words. As christians, we need to watch what we say, but let’s not confuse being careful of our speech with banning a whole entire word simply because a majority of people find it offensive. It can’t be that simple, because in some countries an f-bomb isn’t the least bit offensive, whereas some other word we don’t even know (yes, in English-speaking countries too) could be even worse than an f-bomb. If we say one of these words that we don’t know in America, no big deal. But over there, it would be a big deal. Context, context, context. The word itself is merely a word.

  24. ok… I have one thing to say and that is the concept of cursing in the James passage has been taken out of context. Topic here is “cussing” or using un-clean language, not “cursing.” that’s a common misunderstanding in our generation that cursing at someone means that you cuss them out.
    To curse someone in that time was to condemn or speak ill of a person. In order to be an effective witness you have to use the scriptures properly. don’t twist them to fit your own desires.

  25. Interesting topic. I’ve recently been struggling with this myself, and basically agree with the thread of comments here, that cussing in and of itself is not bad, but if it for whatever reason might hurt your witness, abstain.

    There’s a passage in the New Testament where Paul talks about how we shouldn’t cause trouble for someone because they set higher standards for *themselves* so they do not fall into sin. I think that passage applies very well.

    Also, we are to be in the world, but not of it, yes. However, something as simple as *not* cussing can destroy your witness by labeling you as someone completely out of touch with reality. Instead of “Hey, what’s up, man?” It’s “oh, great, it’s that guy who thinks he’s the shit.” You completely lose all credibility with your peers.

  26. What is profanity? I was looking for the list of off-limit words and couldn’t find it?

    http://renrutkram.com/2010/05/07/cussing-and-biblical-language/

  27. Pingback: why swearing is dumb for christians | Jen Wilkin

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