I Love Jesus, But I Cuss a Little. (A.K.A. Why I Think It's OK for a Christian to Swear)

Monday, July 8, 2019
Stained glass window of Jesus

Explicit Beginnings

I’ve always been enamored by swear words. I remember as a child sitting on the little armrest hump seat, a brother on either side of me, in the backseat of my father’s Cadillac, asking for permission to swear.

“Go ahead” said my father, probably figuring I’d utter a sheepish “dammit” and be satisfied. But no. I let it out. Every curse word I’d ever heard, plus the ones my older brothers were whispering into my ears on either side, I let out a barrage of swear words to my little hearts content.
Then I turned it into a song, belting out my new lyrics “shitfuckdamnhellshitfuckdamnhell…” to the tune of the Lone Ranger theme song while my dad and brothers went slack jawed. So, I know my affinity for the f-word started young.

I also know that it offends some people’s sensibilities. Through the ebbs and flows of my writing career, I’ve even gotten the occasional email questioning if my faith could really be genuine because of my use of strong language. Can a Christian swear? Are cuss words a sin?

I believe that a faithful Christian can employ swear words. Not because I dismiss the authority of scripture in favor of grace or modernity. But to the contrary, because I believe that the tall orders in scripture about how we should speak to one another is so much more than a directive against a few strong words.

What Does the Bible Say about Our Speech? 

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Ephesians 4:29
The word translated here as unwholesome, sapros, means rotten or corrupt. It’s also used in Matthew 1:17: “Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” It means rotten. Are swear words rotten and corrupt?  I guess that’s up for discussion.  But to make this verse about cuss words is to lose a powerful admonition about speaking in a way that builds people up, that meets them in their need, to speak in a way that is fresh and full of life instead of decaying and full of death.
But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.

Colossians 3:8
Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

Ephesians 5:4
The word used in both these verses can be translated as shameful, indecent.  Are you and I guilty of saying shameful things?  Of course we are.  But rarely do they start with the letter “f”.

Truly Rotten Words

 Every time I’ve said “It’s OK” whenit’s not, every time I’ve said “God will only give you what you canhandle” to someone whose world has just been shattered, every time Igossiped or lied or tore someone down when I could have built them up, everytime I frittered around the real issue instead of diving into the awkwardnessand pain of real life, every time I allowed anger to override my awareness ofanother human’s deep value in the sight of God, those things were rotten,shameful, and wicked. Those moments were truly vulgar and profane. And most ofthe time they didn’t include a single cuss word.

Friends, let’s not let ourselves off so easily.
I believe that to read those verses as a prohibition against a short list of arbitrary words is intellectually dishonest. And honestly, purposely letting ourselves off the hook in order to avoid a much taller order. The bible is not instructing the Christian to avoid a short list of taboo swear words, but to flavour our every interaction with an acute reverence for the intrinsic value of each human being.  

But These Words are so offensive!

The f-word, as a verb, is admittedly very aggressive sexual language. Honestly, I would feel uncomfortable using it in a sexual way.  But it is also an adjective, used as an intensifier. And it’s not new. The f-word has been used as an adjective since at least 1528, when a monk scribbled the words “Fuckin Abbott” in the margins of a manuscript copy of Cicero’s De Officiis. The word fuck has been divorced from its sexual meaning for nearly five centuries.

Cuss words are not innately offensive (adjective. 1. causing someone to feel deeply hurt, upset, or angry, 2. actively aggressive; attacking.) They can be used in aggressive and harmful ways, sure. Just as very offensive things can be said without a single cuss word. I know you have examples in your own life where someone uttered a soul shattering sentence made up of otherwise benign words. It’s not the words, but how we combine them.

In fact, I don’t teach my kids that swear words are bad, or that a Christian ought not to use them. They are just words. And like most any word, their meaning depends on the context in which you use them. I don’t want to teach my kids to arbitrarily restrain themselves by the customs of our culture, but to assess right and wrong using scripture and the Holy Spirit inside them. I tell them instead that any word is bad if used to hurt people, and that for now they should probably abstain from such words because they don’t want to get in trouble at school.

But wrong? Or bad? No. I won’t let them off thateasily.  Speaking in a way that is good and right is more complicated thatabstaining from a short list of taboo words.

Jesus Wasn’t Nice, Y’all

Some Christians feel that cuss words are inappropriate because they aren’t Christlike. Jesus certainly didn’t go around saying what he meant, making people uncomfortable and offending their sensibilities, right? Except that He totally did!

Like when Jesus said that in order to follow himyou must drink His blood and eat His flesh and people started taking offbecause oh my gawd, right? It’s a rather graphic way tosuggest that we must take Christ into our innermost being, that we willcelebrate the sacrament.  Jesus didn’t chase after them, “Wait guys,it’s figurative, come back!” He let them go.

Or when he called the pharisees serpents, fools,white-washed tombs. When he turned to his beloved disciple and said “getbehind me Satan!” I don’t bring up these examples to suggest we can benasty to people. Jesus knew people’s hearts, we don’t. So we must take greatcare with our words. But let’s not sanitize our Jesus into a nice guy whoalways spoke in soft and gentle words. He was perfect Love in a human body, buthe wasn’t nice.

Can a Christian Swear? The Point is this.

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Colossians 4:6

We are called to speak with grace.

And censoring our language according to some arbitrary rules is a cheap counterfeit for actually taming our tongues to speak love and grace into each others lives. Friends, I fail at this every single day, but rarely with words that rhyme with duck.

I love words. I love strong words that don’t leave people wondering what was meant. My heart soars over well crafted prose with a certain cadence to them. I love passages written with intensity and purpose. And I love the f-word.

So-called swear words can make people uncomfortable. But writers have never been on a mission to make people comfortable. My favourite writers are the ones that can make me squirm in my seat and sweat and cry and punch pillows and pump fists at the air. No, we want to make you swell up with something, to feel something, to be uncomfortable. And it takes a whole gamut of words to accomplish that.

There are words I won’t use. 

Words that are always, regardless of the context, demeaning to groups of people. Words that can only hurt and tear down. I’m not advocating for a free for all with our words. If anything, I’m suggesting the opposite. Our words matter. All of them. They hold blessings or curses, life or death. Every sentence we speak, whether it includes an expletive or not, needs to be drenched in reverence for the intrinsic value of every person.

Our words are the vehicle that carries our message, and if that message is not one of love and life and hope, it is one of death.

So may our speech be powerful and humble and gracious. May we speak words that build one another up, call one another forward, speak truth and love into each other’s lives.

Friend, can I say this one thing in love?  Can we seek to be offended by the things that offend our Lord?  Not strong language but words of injustice, inequality, hate and violence spewed in His name?

And may we choose our words really fucking carefully.

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