A Case Against Cursing/Swearing/Cussing


    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.

Published in: on January 11, 2013 at 6:08 pm  Comments (9)  
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The Misconception About Weaker Brothers

Since I discovered an online group of Christian writers, there’s been discussion about what ought or ought not to be allowed in Christian fiction. Can writers address difficult topics–adultery, pornography, abuse. Is magic OK? How about cussing and swearing, when the character in question surely would cuss and swear in real life if he or she were in the situation of the fictitious individual. Then there’s sex, or any suggestion of sex, promiscuous or other wise. Can it be shown, should it be shown?

Inevitably someone brings up the idea of not offending the “weaker brother,” a concept taken from Romans in a section of Paul’s letter dealing with not eating meat offered to idols. This is usually understood as a “gray area”–an activity not clearly defined, but one which Paul seems to say it’s better for the strong believer to give up his freedom for the sake of the weaker brother.

From that point the debate may rage about who is actually the strong brother–the legalist or the one enjoying freedom in Christ–and whether or not Paul is giving weaker brothers the right to dictate legalistic behavior to the rest of the church.

This issue becomes a problem because of a great misunderstanding–the belief that eating meat offered to idols was a gray area. It was not.

When Paul first began preaching Christ to the Gentiles, there was a council in Jerusalem to discuss whether they needed to abide by the Mosaic Law. As a result, “the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.”

They examined Scripture, they listened to Peter’s testimony about the Holy Spirit manifesting Himself among the Gentile believers, and they listened to Paul and Barnabas’s witness about the miracles performed among the Gentile converts. In the end, here’s what James concluded:

Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols . . . (Acts 15:19-20a)

Whether James was the final authority or whether he was merely voicing the decision of the gathered church leaders, this decision was the one they passed on to the Gentile churches, delivered by letter. In this communication, they added one other significant fact. Here’s the pertinent statement:

“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols . . .” (Acts 15:28-29a–emphasis mine)

In other words, the church leaders had no thought that this was something they personally preferred. They understood this to be a sure direction from God.

There’s more. In Revelation 1-3 John records Christ’s message to seven churches. To two of them, he chastises them in connection to eating what has been sacrificed to idols. First to the church in Pergamum:

‘But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.’ (2:14–emphasis mine)

Granted the actual eating of that which was sacrifice to idols was something the people of Israel did, but Christ was explicit with the church in Thyatira:

‘But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.’ (2:20–emphasis mine)

There’s no idea here that eating meat offered to idols was a “gray area,” a take it or leave it, depends on whether or not your conscience bothers you or not, issue. It was wrong. Clearly wrong.

So what was Paul going on about?

He was addressing two particulars. First, some people, in order not to eat meat offered to idols accidentally, decided to become vegetarians (See Rom. 14:2). Second, some people decided they needed to research any meat they ate to know if it had been offered to an idol–including what they bought in the market and what they were served when they went to someone else’s house for dinner.

About the first matter, Paul said, don’t criticize each other–the meat eater (not the meat-offered-to-idols eater, because there should not be any believes who would fall in that category) and the vegetarian. One position is not better than the other.

Regarding the second issue, he essentially said, Don’t ask. In other words, it wasn’t their responsibility to go out of their way to find out the history of the meat they ate.

However, if a weaker brother who felt compelled to do the research, told them that the meat they were being served had indeed been offered to idols, then they needed, for the sake of the one who told them, to refrain from eating.

What does that have to do with writing and the subject matter an author can or can’t include in his fiction? Very little. Unlike the issue of meat offered to idols, we have no explicit command about what we are to put in our fiction. We know we are to refrain from coarse jesting, taking the Lord’s name in vain, unwholesome words, but does that mean our characters must refrain in the same way?

Similarly we are to be self-controlled, patient, joyful, kind. Does that mean all our characters are to exhibit those qualities? Add in the fact that we ourselves don’t live the holy lives God calls us to, and it seems logical, then, that our imperfect characters should act imperfectly.

There’s one more thing to keep in mind, though, and it does have to do with thinking about others. I’ve argued before that swearing in literature is harmful to the reader in ways that other “sins” aren’t. As a reader, I “sub-vocalize,” or essentially pronounce the words to myself. I’ve discovered that when I read a novel with considerable swearing and cussing, and I’ve been sub-vocalizing those words for a time, I begin to think them when I’m away from the novel. My choice then, for myself, is to avoid books laden with bad language.

In no way do I want second rate or inferior stories, however. I want what the classics offered–great stories which, for the most part, didn’t require expletives. I believe Christians can write such stories.

Do they have to? This is not a meat-offered-to-idols issue. Otherwise it would have a cut-and-dried answer. Whatever else Christian writers find in Scripture to guide their decisions, I would hope we put to bed the “weaker brother” argument because that’s a different discussion and not applicable to the determination of content in fiction.

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