For most people out there this is a nothing issue. “Words are just words, just don’t be a douche bag” would be a cultural mantra that I accept to a certain extent. But like with any area of life, whether it be big & cosmic or mundane &ordinary, Jesus’ Heaven-On-Earth reality does inform every area of our lives. We are called to be a passionate people of love with a whole new community in mind. And in communities people talk- so what about swearing?
I have found myself asking the questions: Is swearing rebellious against God? Is it ever okay to swear? I am not claiming to be an expert on the topic whatsoever, but just a Christian who is having a look at the scriptures. So let’s begin with the scriptures that specifically talk about swearing in the way the original writers talked about and go from there:
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. (Eph 4:29)
Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech (1 Peter 3:10)
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. (James 3:9-10)
By examining these scriptures in their context it is fair to say that God certainly is concerned by a type of swearing, but He isn’t concerned with what most Christians mean by swearing. When most people think of swearing they think of particular words such as sh*t of f*ck. But in their context, these verses talk about using words in a way that bring condemnation and belittlement of God, someone’s worth, or something God finds worthy (such as His beautiful creation or God-given sexuality). That type of swearing is wrong, because were meant to build up each other in the faith and look at every person as someone to whom Christ died for, and we are to honour God and God’s good creations. So in this culture and time there are certain things we shouldn’t say because it will do exactly this: tear down what God has given worth too. Our words do have power, they do build up or destroy; they can have constructive power or destructive power (Jms 3:4-6).
Notice though that I have not referred to any words but rather the direction & intension of the words used. And that’s because, If by swearing we mean that isolated words are wrong and should never be used I can’t agree that that’s what the Bible means by swearing. I do think there is a world of a difference between calling someone a sh*t-head and using the word sh*t in a harmless joke between close friends- or perhaps even, using the word sh*t to describe a sh*t situation! The devil is a “sh*t-head”, sin really is a “Sh*t” thing, and sometimes there are moments in our life where when we are pouring out our heart to our best friend there might only be the words “I am really going through a sh*t time right now…”. There are also examples where the apostle Paul uses harsh blunt statements to make profound Godly points: “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:7). It might not sound provocative on the surface however in that verse Paul uses the greek word “σκύβαλα“ (pronounced “skubala”) is a vulgar word. Paul would not have said it in mixed company unless he expected a reaction. So when there are moments we use strong language I don’t think God’s first instinct is looking down at us going “tut tut”, but firstly is rather looking at our intention and direction behind the words and statements we make and use, not the very words themselves.
However there are certain words that, given the culture we find ourselves in, might be wrong. You might be in a culture or sub-culture where particular words are damaging. Wisdom says “I might not swear simply because the people group I find myself in do not appreciate these words that they consider to be bad language”. And there are plenty of examples where this might be the case: around children or the elderly, around a professional workplace and more. Sometimes there really is no point or meaning behind using particular words you know that people simply don’t mesh with, so why use them?
(In saying that I once heard a preacher use the word sh*t in his sermon to make a provocative point to a conservative group of Christians: the preacher said “30,000 children died in Africa while you were sleeping last night, and none of you give a shit. What’s more amazing is that most of you are shocked I used the word sh*t but not shocked over the fact 30,000 kids are dead”. And of course Paul’s use of the that vulgar word in Philippians that I spoke about earlier would have been used as a shock-factor given the audience his letter would have been read out to. But it should be noted that this type of shock factor isn’t normative in every chapter of scripture and so we can’t use these rare examples as precedence for normative language whilst speaking to peoples who don’t respond well to swearing).
However there is the flip side: You or I might find yourself in a culture or sub-culture where words used in your culture, that are deemed as swearing in your culture, might be the appropriate and acceptable way to communicate to one another in the different culture. To say that their words are “wrong” because your culture deems them wrong is assuming your culture is somehow the measuring stick of all other cultures, but that’s (to put it bluntly) very arrogant. The only culture that stands above all cultures as the ultimate measuring stick is the Kingdom of God; and in His culture swearing is any word or phrase that’s demeaning to God, others, and creation, but it’s not the word themselves. It’s in these cultures we must echo the words of Paul when it comes to our engagement to those outside faith “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some…I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor 9:19, 22-23). I can’t see a problem with swearing in this context (Or should I say, what our culture considers swearing), given we aren’t doing the life-sucking swearing God speaks of. It’s important that “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.” (1 Cor 9:21) but not compromise and actually become ones without the law; to fulfil the age old tension of being in the world but not of the world.
In writing all of this I must say though that we must not be mastered by anything- anything that has mastered us other than God has become a god, an idol, in our lives. So it can be with the words we use: do we control our words or do our words control us? If it is the latter then we must change. In this context it might be healthy for some people to avoid words that had been associated with their sinful swearing from their past. What I mean is, by the way of example, if someone has been an alcoholic in the past they might refrain from drinking in the present, but not because drinking is inherently wrong, but because drinking for them might lead them back into alcoholism; that serving as an example it might be with someone whose had a ‘truckers mouth’. However that comes down to the individual of what’s wise for them to do in their given life journey with God. In saying that, I do believe as a general principle we must keep a close eye on anything we say, simply because our tongues are very hard to control according to God’s word (Jms 3:4-6) so perhaps as believers we must caution the words we use more wisely.
In conclusion, like with any nuance and non-black and white issue that’s presented before us we have to ask ourselves the following: Does this action help me love myself and others more fully and freely, and does it allow me to love God more deeply and with more of myself? And with answering that question we must then live accordingly. Do our words we speak bring grace to a given situation or context? I pray that we be wise with our words no matter what the context and like with anything, whether it be eating or sleeping or talking, we do these things to the glory of God.