Magic Mountain, an amusement park in Southern California, is known for a roller coaster named X. Coincidentally, I was there to speak at a youth event when I overheard an X-rated conversation—between churched teens no less. It prompted me to address the issue from the stage. I asked, "How many of you struggle with using bad language?" Many hands went up. I followed up with questions we've all probably considered at some point: Is it wrong for a Christian to use curse words? If so, why? And what makes profanity…profane?
Entertainment is full of swear words, sexual innuendo, and scatological slang. I recently read a study of prime time TV in which the Parents Television Council found more than 11,000 expletives on today’s most popular shows, nearly twice as many as in 1998. Indeed, in our coarsening culture, some young people can't recall a time when f-bombs weren't part of "normal" discourse. Kids use it because they've grown up hearing profanity and having it reinforced by the media. And somehow it becomes a personal habit that even Christian teens may consider acceptable in certain situations.
I've heard people argue that words are just sounds to which we attach meaning. But such a position is contradictory. To deny the power of language one must argue their point with words. And that combination of letters and sounds requires meaning to be grasped. You have to assume that your listener understands what you are saying. We can't get around the fact that words contain meaning.
Words also yield consequences. For proof that language matters consider that we have an entire lexicon associated with their misuse: fraud, slander, libel, perjury, harassment, defamation. The ways people abuse words have social, psychological, legal, and even spiritual implications.
All to Jesus I Surrender
The Bible reminds us that we should speak in ways that honor God and benefit others. Ephesians 4:29 says, "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." James 1:26 warns us to keep a tight rein on our tongues, while Colossians 3:8 says, "Rid yourselves of all things such as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips."
Regarding the use of coarse language by believers, some people contend that since Christ has made us free, how we say things doesn't really matter. While salvation sets us free from the penalty of sin, freedom doesn't equal license. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that Christians have an obligation to pursue holiness (Eph. 4:24; Titus 2; 1 Pet. 1:13-15 and 2:24).
Indeed, God's ownership of a believer extends even to the words we use. According to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 we are mere stewards. Jesus Christ owns us lock, stock, and barrel. That includes mind and mouth. Discipleship and spiritual maturity require a level of obedience that should find us yielding everything to God.
Judged by the Words We Use
Every Christian should submit their vocabularies to the lordship of Christ, in part because God is always listening. His grace is perfect, but if words didn't matter Jesus wouldn't have said, "I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matt. 12:36-37).
We derive our word profanity from a biblical term that means "outside the temple." Profane means "unholy" or "unwholesome." As we saw in Ephesians 4:29 that some types of speech are literally unholy. Spouting certain four-letter words can hinder spiritual growth, harm relationships with others, and undermine our credibility as bearers of gospel truth.
Christians possess an advantage by having a pure well of words from which to draw. Years ago, as a new believer working my way through college, one of my bosses noted the fact that I didn't tell off-color jokes or use foul language like others in our workplace. Not only did this create a witnessing opportunity, but I was promoted to a level that no 21-year-old had previously held in that company. My boss later told me that my habit of avoiding profanity convinced him that I must be honest, which led him to promote me.
Every communicator has thousands of words at his or her disposal. In the quest for individuality and self-expression, there's no shortage of raw material. So, talk! Comment! Express! Emote! But we should do so only in ways that speak well of ourselves, others, and the Savior.
Alex McFarland is co-host of “Exploring the Word,” heard live daily (M-F) on the American Family Radio network. He is also Director of the Center for Apologetics and Christian Worldview at North Greenville University, located in SC. www.alexmcfarland.com