- Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. (James 3:3, 5a)
People in the Christian writing community know that the use of “certain words” in fiction is an oft debated subject, but recently I began to think about the “why” behind the belief that these words are wrong, whether in fiction or in real life.
First, what words am I talking about? On one hand there is swearing–using God’s name in a perverse way or using the sacred to reinforce a person’s word. Sometimes swearing is accompanied by a curse–an invocation for God to bring harm upon someone. Cursing has also expanded to include “offensive words” spoken in “anger or annoyance.” I generally learned to refer to this latter category as cussing, but the Oxford English Dictionary makes no distinction between the two.
There is another category, however, one that shows up as a synonym to curse: obscenity–“an extremely offensive word or expression.”
So what does the Bible say about these?
First swearing. Both James and Jesus are in agreement that we are not to invoke God’s name or some sacred thing to reinforce the veracity of what we say. “But above all,” James says, “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no.” The Ten Commandments states that no one is to use God’s name in vain: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Ex 20:7).
If anyone wants to quibble about that because it is part of the Jewish law and therefore not something those living by grace need to worry about, they only need to remember that Jesus said the whole law was summed up with the two great commands–love God and love your neighbor. It seems like a stretch to think that God cared about the use of His name once, but no longer does. It’s a stretch to think we can love Him and then speak His name as if it has no meaning.
In addition, Jesus makes the point that blasphemy is sin and goes so far as to say blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven:
Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. (12:31-32)
Cursing is actually a little less clear. There’s an admonition not to curse parents in Exodus 21:7 (and repeated in Leviticus 20:9). In Matthew 15:4 Jesus quotes those verses but “curse” is translated as “speaks evil of.”
Both Peter and Jude specify that false prophets reviled “angelic majesties,” whereas “angels who are greater in might and power do not bring a reviling judgment against them before the Lord” (2 Peter 2:11b)
James tells us not to speak against a brother or judge a brother (4:11). He also says, “With it [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who have been made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.”
Paul says our speech is always to be with grace so that we know how to answer each person. We can also use the commands Jesus enumerated to help determine the appropriateness of cursing someone else.
But what about cursing an object, which of course is really quite meaningless? That brings up the third category–offensive words or obscenity.
Paul is helpful in this area. In Ephesians he says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth” and “unwholesome” literally means “rotten.” Later in the book, he’s more pointed and says, “And there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting.”
Jesus makes a point that we’ll be held accountable for every careless or useless word we speak (Matthew 12:36).
In this category, there is some legitimate debate. Words have meaning, but in languages that are living, those meanings change over time. What once was considered “coarse” or “unwholesome” no longer is looked at as out of the ordinary.
For example, body parts. In times past there were certain words depicting what used to be private body parts, which a person didn’t say in public. Today those same words are the butt of many a sit com joke.
OK, did I just use a coarse expression in that last sentence? Not according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Is standard usage, then, to be the determiner for what is coarse, unwholesome, filthy, and silly? I have to answer for myself, yes. If most people think a word is vile, then I can consider that word unwholesome or coarse or filthy.
I cannot answer for anyone else, however, partly because of the nature of language. I learned from an online friend who lives in Australia that I had used an extremely offensive word in a blog post–offensive to Australians. In the US, there is no double meaning of that word. For Australians, then, that word is coarse. For Americans, it isn’t.
Words change meanings, too. So one generation might use a word in a way that is not offensive to them, but another generation might find it coarse.
Ultimately, a person’s heart determines what will come out of his mouth. Jesus said in Matthew 12
the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. 35 The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. 36 But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (12:34b-37)
It’s a sobering statement, in light of my sin nature.
I’m thankful I have God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ for all the careless words I’ve spoken (or written), but that doesn’t mean I have a license to go and do more of the same.
James says, “No one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.” So are we stuck poisoning each other day in and day out?
Not if God is all powerful, and of course He is. I might not be able to control my speech, but the Holy Spirit can change my heart. That’s what I’m counting on.