On Profanity

Profanity: (according to Wikipedia) socially offensive use of language, which may also be called cursing, swearing, or expletives.

Have you noticed profanity becoming more and more commonplace? People have always used offensive language, but it wasn’t always out in the open. People avoided using it in polite company, broadcasters banned it on most television shows, and kids only whispered it behind closed doors with their friends. But lately there seems to be less and less of a problem with it. Expletives grace the covers of books and new media outlets like podcasts have no restrictions. The profane speech that was once frowned upon now elicits shameless giggles and even cheers.

The Atlanta Braves just won the World Series. For an Atlanta sports fan, this has been a big deal and long time coming. We rewrote the narrative (see Superbowl LI and last year’s NLCS among other examples) and claimed a major sports title for the first time since 1995. One of the players we added halfway through the season made quite a contribution with his bat and his personality, profanely proclaiming his prowess as he hit another game-changing home run in the NLDS. The fans loved it.

One of the elite runners I admire won the New York City Marathon in 2017. As she ran the final stretch in Central Park toward the finish line, realizing the gravity of her accomplishment not only for herself but for U.S. distance running, she screamed a triumphant expletive. It went viral and everyone loved it. Overnight the phrase flooded social media posts and became a meme of sorts for strong women everywhere.

Closer to home, there’s a certain race I’ve run three times. It’s a 50K race that fits into a special category in which there are no prizes or t-shirts. It’s a casual, just-for-fun ultramarathon. Race organizers have chosen a colorful name for these kinds of races. At first I didn’t want to say the name because I don’t use that kind of language. But then I heard others use it, even Christian friends, so I told myself to lighten up. It’s not a big deal. The name really wasn’t that bad. So I started using it. But then I thought some more about it. I thought about how powerful language is and how easy it would be to allow other, more colorful words to creep into my vocabulary once I started using this milder one.

As Christians, we’re called to a certain standard in our behavior and with our mouths. Psalm 19:14 says, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Words are important because they reflect the heart. Jesus told his disciples that you can judge a person’s character by his words: “for out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth speaks.” Luke 6:45

So how should Christians respond to a more casual attitude towards language, a coarsening of speech not only in the culture around them but maybe even in their own Christian circles? I admit that I have struggled with how to deal with this. No one wants to be seen as a prude or a legalist, but should a desire to be careful with our words be labeled as prudish? Isn’t it a desire to follow Peter’s admonition: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.'”? Holiness is never seen as ‘cool’ by the world, but shouldn’t it be encouraged by our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ?

Maybe we all need to go back and read James 3 again and take to heart what the apostle tells us about the tongue:

“For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body…the tongue is a small member yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell…no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”

If these words seem over-the-top and shocking to us, perhaps we haven’t understood clearly the power of language. But just look at a social media platform like Twitter which is powered almost exclusively by negative speech! In that case, the keyboard acting as proxy for the tongue truly is a fire and a world of unrighteousness.

Believers shouldn’t be embarrassed into going along with the coarsening of culture, especially in our speech. We should seek to live differently, to speak differently, to live as Paul instructed us, as “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…” Philippians 2:15

The spirit of the age is all about the individual, expressing yourself in any way without a thought for what others may think. The world tells us that whatever comes out of our mouths is an expression of our true selves. But as believers, we’re told who our true selves are, it’s the new self who has been “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:24) We’re told that the Christian life is a continual practice of putting off the old self and putting on this new self. The new self is to do all things in love, thinking of others as more significant than ourselves. The new self takes the place of the old self, the earthly self, which we are called to continually put away and put to death with all its anger, wrath, malice, slander and obscene talk. (Colossians 3:5-10) Holiness and love should characterize all our speech so that we follow Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 4:29: “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.”

Instead of blending in with the culture, let’s aim to speak in ways that are pure, edifying, appropriate and gracious. Such speech isn’t embarrassing. It’s beautiful and glorifies our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 thoughts on “On Profanity

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