What the $#!+…Christians and Swearing

A number of days ago a friend and I parted ways. It was rather abrupt but I’m not all that disheartened, some friends are just friends for a season. What gets to me though was the nature of the parting. This individual swore in a comment on my facebook status. No big deal, I removed the comment and asked this party to keep it clean on my page. The response sent my mind reeling and my heart searching for a reasonable position on believers and swearing:

Do you think those fishermen in Jesus’ day sanitized the way they spoke?

I don’t know, did they? Does it even matter?  First, swearing isn’t a primary theological issue, obviously. (If it’s not obvious to you that this isn’t a primary issue, go read your Bible now. Seriously.) This isn’t even a secondary or tertiary issue or fourth-order issue. It’s like a hundredth-order issue. There are some great reads for you here and at The Gospel Coalition if you would like to learn more about open handed/close handed issues (read and watch these for swearing). Second, this isn’t my first battle on the topic either, it’s my third; I find myself stuck in this pendulum that swings between sides on this issue. The first was when I worked at a warehouse in Cherokee, IA as a 17 year-old fresh out of my homeschool bubble. The second was over the course of my two year stint working seasonally at Hard Rock Casino/Live during my junior and senior year of college. Now I’m two years out of college and it comes up again, weird.

In my circle of friends there are a few that occasionally swear. There are also some who swear regularly. Right now it seems to be trendy for my generation of believers (oftentimes second generation believers) to be sold out for God and still be “allowed” to swear. This leads to some questions: How should Christians approach and respond to swearing? What should our stance be? Freedom in grace? Abstain from the appearance of evil? Wholesome talk? Encouraging? Permissible but not beneficial? I firmly believe we should evaluate our stance on swearing and not allow culture to define what is permissible to speak but rather be intentional and in control of what is spoken.

I’m going to share with you my working theology and intermingle some Scriptures that I’ve mulled over regarding this swearing issue. This question is more of a matter of fruit produced and the intent of the heart than a “what can I do as a Christian?” issue (Ephesians 4:29, Luke 6:45).

Let no corrupt 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. Ephesians 4:29.

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. Luke 6:45

When considering the place of swearing in my life I like to take a step back and consider the situation and audience objectively. Will this bring them encouragement? Will they feel refreshed, renewed, or preserved by what I am speaking (Colossians 4:5-6)? Will this word(s) show them love or will they be jarred, left to wonder what was going on in my mind (John 13:35)?

Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt… Colossians 4:5-6

By this they will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35

Most often I cannot see a beneficial response to swearing. I actually feel like I’m giving in to peer pressure. But I believe there’s something deeper to consider and that’s what Jesus brings to our attention in Luke 6:45: out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (paraphrase). If what I am saying is swear words, what am I thinking? What evil is pervading my heart if the sludge that becomes visible is repulsive? I understand the tongue is restless and is impossible to tame (James 3:8), but not trying to tame it seems like a sin of omission to me.

Could I swear? Sure; but like Paul I would argue that not all things build up. Am I loving those around me by swearing? Am I representing Christ well (to my utmost?) when I swear? Is it for the glory of God? Would Christ swear?

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1: 23

Bottom line, I don’t swear. I think it’s ugly, gross, and wasted verbiage. Is that a biblical mandate? Not an important point. Although it is permissible for me to swear (for what are words other than meanings we assign to consonants and vowels?), for the sake of those I am trying to reach and for some weaker brothers and sisters in the faith (to whom swearing might be a stumbling block), by the power of the Holy Spirit I strive to refrain from swearing. Furthermore, I try to be intentional with every word I speak and not allow myself to be swayed by culture–even and especially Christian culture.

Do I still interact with believers (and unbelievers) that swear? Absolutely. Why? Because this ISN’T a deal breaker. My love for them and my passion for making much of (glorifying) Christ in my life outweighs this hundredth-order issue. People matter, not my opinions. Duh.

What are your thoughts on swearing? Please share, I am eager to learn other views.

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9 comments

  1. I’ve pondered this for a while as well. I think in some situations swearing can actually be useful. Some examples being for emphasis or for a lesson. One quote that comes to mind is “”I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” -Tony Campolo. I try not to swear as well, and I do the whole swearing in my head thing far more than I want to, and am working on limiting that. I don’t think that it should be a regular thing, and can have some adverse effects. Looking at 1st Corinthians 8, I think we can adapt that to swearing. Verse 13 says “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” The chapter talks about food offered to idols, but the lesson in it I think is the thing to look at here. If it is going to cause someone to stumble in their faith, it would be best to avoid it. I choose not to for other reasons, though they’re similar to yours.

    1. Will, I love that Campolo quote–I was introduced to a very similar sermon in high school, which my mentor used to talk to me about swearing. That sermon/conversation plays a key part in my current view. This whole issue is a hard to define what is reasonable and appropriate and maybe harder to live by. My desire is for us to actually stop and consider what we are saying, rather than allowing our words go unchecked.

  2. “Crap” and “s***” are both four letters in length and mean *exactly* the same thing: poop. Cool. So, from a technical perspective, it really doesn’t matter what you say… “Crap”, “s***”, or their shared definition: “poop”. It’s a matter of your heart-attitude at the moment, because that is what will determine whether you use the word in a constructive or destructive way, as it is with any other sort of language or communication.

    Why some people are offended by “s***” and not “crap” is absolutely beyond me, but the simplest solution is to respect their beliefs. And when in doubt, be conservative with your language. Though we make it out to be rocket science (side note: it seems that we as Christians tend to do that with our lives as a whole, as well…), it’s really not.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly: words are just words. Why our culture assigns offensive value to one and not another is beyond me. But like you said this is our cultural context and if someone is offended by the “offensive” word, then I should show the love of Christ to them by holding my tongue.

  3. I really like this post. I’ve thought about this often in the last few years, and I came to a very un-articulated conclusion in my head that was similar to this. It’s much nicer to have the verses and theology regarding swearing blatantly laid out. Thanks for this Ryan!

    1. All glory to God–I’m glad he has brought good out of this.odd situation! I’ve been meaning to articulate my view for a while, but always got stuck. But God brought about the words recently after the comment and Scripture flooded my mind. Glad the post helped you get closer to forming your own working theology on swearing Lauren!

  4. Hey Ryan,

    I felt like you laid a foundation for discussion in your post, but really started to hash out your thoughts in the interactions with commenters.

    As I’ve gotten older I’ve felt more and more that swearing (the use of cultural defined “swear words”) is more of a personal conviction issue and not one the Bible really delves into deeply. For example: I can use swear words without falling out of line with Ephesians 4:29. If someone does something awesome and I compliment them by saying, “man, that was f***ing incredible!” I’m using my language to build up the recipient.

    At this point in my life, I think I’m most comfortable saying that the use of swear words isn’t something that the Bible condemns, but rather the way we use our words in general is what the Bible speaks on. As such, I don’t really see any difference between s*** and the sanitized crap or “god damn it” vs “gosh darn it.” Ultimately I feel that it is our intent with these words that really matters. You can build a person up while dropping the f-bomb in conversation just as easily as you can tear a person down without using any language you wouldn’t use in front of your pastor. I think it’s important to consider two things: the intent of our words (what are their purpose) and the audience receiving them.

    -s

    1. Thanks for bearing with me and helping me grow as a blogger S. I appreciate your comments, and especially your view. It is one that I had not considered. Purpose and audience…solid point, thanks.

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