“Why do you curse?”

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The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, 1852. From wikipedia

Working for RUF has been a dream come true for me. After more than ten years of looking forward to vocational ministry, the past three months have been some of the best of my life. Work has kept me busy, but it’s a good busy. I feel like I’ve been doing more reading and research as a college graduate than I did as a student. That’s not a complaint; I’ve always enjoyed the process of research. Now, all of my studies are focused on Christ. Whether it’s outlining a sermon or planning a Bible study lesson or finding an answer to a student’s difficult question, I’m spending a ton of time with my nose in God’s word.

Just because I’m spending a ton of time in the word doesn’t mean I have all the answers, though. On the contrary, I’m realizing how little I actually know. This past Monday, I decided to do something different with my Bible study. Since many of my regular attendees had a mandatory meeting for the President’s Leadership Program (a CNU-exclusive scholarship and study program that a ton of RUF students are involved with) I thought it’d be a good idea to meet up with whoever could make it and have a time of reflection and prayer. We’d do the classic “highs and lows” of the past few weeks and then work through a guided prayer outline I had thrown together.

Before we got to prayer, though, I wanted to ask my students what they thought of the Bible study so far. We’ve been working through the life of Abraham in Genesis 12-24 and I wanted to make sure nothing was slipping through the cracks. I didn’t expect anyone too many questions from the small crowd that night. Over the course of about an hour and a half, I was asked all of the following questions:

  • How can we be assured of our salvation?
  • In Genesis 6, what does God mean when He says He’ll limit the age of men to 120 years? Don’t people live past that in Genesis 11?
  • Who are the “nephilim” and the “sons of God” in Genesis 6?
  • In Mark 3:28-29, what does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? Is there an unforgivable sin? I thought God could forgive all sins?
  • What is the difference between the current heaven and the new heaven described in Revelation 21? Is current heaven not perfect?
  • How often do you doubt?
  • What’s the deal with denominational differences? How do I know which one is right? What happens if I’m wrong?
  • How do I deal with the fact that I was lucky enough to be born in a family that just so happens to believe the one true religion? I could have just have easily been born and raised in a muslim family, right?
  • Should women wear head coverings in church or not? How can churches just disregard 1 Corinthians 11?
  • What is communion? What is its purpose? Can a non-believer partake in communion? Does God not forgive non-believers who take communion?
  • What does baptism do? Who should be baptized?
  • If a good tree produces good fruit, how can Christians sin?
  • How can non-believers drive out demons and heal the sick in the name of Jesus, but still not be saved?
  • What kinds of doctrine and theology matters are important enough to determine whether one is a true Christian or a heretic?
  • Is Genesis literal? How old is the earth? Is evolution true? If the earth is billions of years old and life did develop over millions of years, does that mean death existed before sin?

Some of these questions weren’t too difficult for me. Most, however, threw me for a complete loop. I had hardly expected any of myself students to ask anything, much less release the deluge of quandaries that nearly drowned me on the spot. It was overwhelming and exhilarating. I haven’t had a stockpile of hard questions in a long while, so this all gave me plenty of fat to chew. The list above has been the bulk source of my research topics for the last several weeks.

If I can bring myself to take the sources and notes I’ve compiled as answers and write a coherent response, I might publish a post or two for some of the more interesting questions. One particular question, though, deeply convicted me. At the end of the night, one student raised her hand and innocently asked me “Why do you curse?” I froze for a second, shocked that a college student would ask that. After a moment of thought, my answer was simply “because I’m a sinner and it’s a bad habit and I shouldn’t and I’m sorry.” I could tell my response made her feel guilty, as if she had publicly called me out. I wasn’t at all offended and actually respect her courage to ask that question. As soon as the study ended and I got home from driving students back to campus, I sat down and wrote a more thorough response.

I’m honestly so thankful for the question. I think it’s one more Christians need to ask each other and themselves. Christianity is a whole-life deal. There is no part of the Christian’s life that is out of God’s reach. Our language is included in that. So, Brielle, thanks for asking.

(before I get into my answer, a quick content warning: I give lots of examples of “bad words” that might offend you)

“Why do you curse?”

In short, because I’m a sinner and it’s a bad habit and I shouldn’t and I’m sorry. This is in reality a far more complicated question (as you may have guessed; there’s never a simple answer with me). Let’s first make sure we know what we’re talking about when we say cursing and what the Bible says about it.

Coarse language…

Romans 5:4 bans “Filthiness or silly talk, or coarse jesting.” This could include using crude words, but the language speaks more directly to the meaning of what’s being said, not just the words used to say it. Measure your humor, check your speech and not just your words: is the content of your speech “fitting” to one who is a child of God? Note how this is contrasted to thanksgiving. Is your language ungrateful or mocking or sarcastic? Why is it not thankful and humble and honest?

Cursing others…

Romans 12:14 tells believers to “bless and do not curse.” To curse is to declare evil and pronounce ill will against. Think like a witch’s curse for a cultural comparison, or God cursing Sodom and Gomorrah for a biblical example. Look to Luke 9:51-56. James and John wish to destroy the Samaritans because they didn’t provide lodging to Jesus, but Jesus rebukes them. The rest of Romans 12 draws the same conclusion; Christians have no authority to speak curses against others. 

Is there a case for using foul language in the Bible? Well, not really, but Paul gets close. In Philippians 3:8, Paul considers his “spiritual resume” of sorts—his pharisaical qualifications—to be σκύβαλα (skybala). This greek word best translates to “refuse” or “manure.” Paul is almost saying “shit”, but it’s probably closer to “crap” in connotation. Such language isn’t hyperbole, but it is dramatic: it’s a fair analogy that’s meant to open eyes. See also Isaiah 64:6, where our “righteous deeds” are compared to “dirty rags”, which were literally the ancient version of used tampons. That’s pretty disgusting, but again, it’s a fair comparison. 

So, is it okay to use words like shit, damn, ass, bitch, fuck, etc.? Well, probably not, but again, maybe. Let’s try to develop a series of questions to determine if it’s appropriate to use a “bad word.”

(1) What is the content of your language? Are you shaming, mocking, insulting, or hating others? Are you expressing gratitude?

(2) What is the context you find yourself in? Are you surrounded by people who would be highly offended if you used “bad words”? Be aware that some words in some contexts are appropriate, while others are completely off-limits. 

(3) Are you aiming to communicate truth in an honest and dramatic way? What is the best possible way to do that? 

(4) Is your language fitting for an ambassador of Christ? Are you modeling a redeemed life?

Personally, I never use words that exclusively demean women. I hate words like bitch, slut, skank, cunt, hoe, etc. I consider those way worse than shit. I grew up in a house that used shit to express frustration or panic, never to demean. Of course, the word was only “appropriately” used in extraordinary circumstances (the basement flooded, there’s a snake in the backyard, the car dies right before a road trip). I’m not excusing all (or even any) of our usage of the word, but there were definitely times when no other word would have expressed what we felt more effectively. Because it was a bad word that was never otherwise used, it carried more weight. There are other ways to add weight to our language than to be profane, though. I love how Paul uses the phrase “By no means!” to express total rejection; it’s a more socially acceptable “hell no!”

Just as a last note, look to 2 Kings 2:23-25. “Baldhead” is certainly not the most vulgar or creative insult, but it was so offensive to God that he sent she-bears to maul the kids who mocked Elisha in this way. God is far more concerned with the heart than the words, though both matter. James 3:1-12 speaks right to the core of the issue. The tongue is a dangerous weapon and a powerful tool. Be careful how you use it. I know I need to be far more measured with my words than I often am. Sorry for setting a poor example. Many of my friends use foul language liberally. Most of the shows and videos I watch are even worse. Paul is right, “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor 15:33). That’s not to say that my friends are horrible immoral people. People just tend to emulate those they spend the most time with. Picking up words and phrases is included in that.

I also tend to assume that because I’m on a college campus surrounded by young adults who are a part of possibly the most vulgar generation America has ever seen, words like shit and damn are commonplace. Seriously, profanity has never been more prevalent in regular vernacular. Middle schoolers have always had foul mouths, but the presence of a teacher or parent would often censure their language. Now it seems that adults don’t bat an eye when children swear. Maybe the curmudgeon inside of me is coming out with more “Back in my day” hogwash when in reality the current times are no worse than the past. That’s something I can’t answer. What I do know is that people today curse a ton, and I am no exception. That’s wrong of me. I still represent Christ both as a Christian and an RUF staff member. I can do better. 

Let me know your thoughts on foul language. Do you use it? Do you think it’s wrong? Is my understanding totally off? Am I a hypocrite? Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

1 comments on ““Why do you curse?””

  1. Dear Pat,

    Granddad read all of ths article to be about 10;30 LAST NIGHT. YOU MUST BE GREAT ON TAKING NOTES OR YOU COULD NOT HAVE REMEMBERED ALL THOSE SERIOUS QUESTIONS RAISED. WHAT A CHALLENGE. And what a hell of an answer (as I say to Mike “joke son!) you gave them on wht makes us curse. Personally,, when I utter some mild words, ‘m usually disgusted or frustrated with myself. I’m sure the attendees enjoyed and ppreciated the whole evening.. We did.

    Love you, Grandma


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