Cursing, Swearing, and Vulgarity

Introduction

A Christian's speech reveals more of his inward character than any other action. In fact, it often betrays our true, inward man:

"Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things." (Matthew 12:33-35)

One may try to conceal his thoughts, but eventually, his words will show his heart, because our words proceed from our hearts. It is for this very reason that we have so much trouble trying to control our tongues, just as James says:

For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. ... But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh. (James 3:2-12)

Even though we may try to be mature, we often slip and speak in ways, which we know to be wrong. "Why does our tongue slip?", you may ask. Since we speak from our heart, only a perfect heart can speak perfectly, which is what James explained above. Only a person who has complete control over the thoughts of his heart can ever expect to achieve mastery over his tongue. However, does that mean we should give up on this seemingly hopeless task? Certainly not (Philippians 4:13). If Christians' hearts are truly being transformed into something not of this earth, then our speech will reflect that growth and metamorphosis (Romans 12:1-2). Furthermore, if we have been truly baptized, then we have put to death the old man and his wicked ways, which necessitates that we have truly repented. Therefore, we may stumble, but we must continue to try to do better (Romans 6:1-6; I John 2:1-6). Consequently, our speech should manifest a person growing to have his mind entirely focused on the world to come.

The Bible discusses at least four categories of inappropriate language:

The last category will be reserved for a future study, but in this article, we wish to consider the first three categories of speech, which is unfitting for Christians.

Cursing and Reviling

Cursing and reviling generally refer to speaking evil of someone. Cursing is an intense form of language, where one typically invokes God or other supernatural forces to call evil down on someone else. It is an expression of hatred, which is the primary root of the problem, but it also manifests a loss of self-control, which is also in error. Such language often brutally and violently injures the recipient, which is the intent, whether by deliberation or neglect. Several passages clearly condemn such language, and the hatred that it reveals, as unfitting for a Christian:

"But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca! [empty head - editor]' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:22)

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

Not only do these passages condemn such behavior, but they indicate the eternal consequences of it - an inheritance of hell fire! It is hard to find God's disapproval more clearly expressed in Scripture. Yet, the same Scriptures also indicate that one can repent and find forgiveness for this sin. Please do not forget that the apostle Peter "cursed and swore" as he denied Jesus, but yet he found forgiveness (Luke 22:31-34, 54-62; Mark 14:70-71), so there is hope for those entangled in such sin.

Reviling is a related, but possibly less intense form of language, which indicates a berating, abusive, insulting disposition. It may not necessarily express hatred, but it certainly expresses frustration, superiority, arrogance, and even contempt. It may be considered less extreme only because it does not necessarily wish ill upon the recipient. As an example of this, the words, which we are often tempted to say as a person cuts us off in traffic, would be considered reviling. Further examples would include: "chewing someone out", "letting them have it" verbally, giving someone a "tongue lashing", and name calling ("Idiot! Moron! Airhead!!", etc.).

Friends may sometime call each other names in a teasing way. Or, in a different situation, the same words can be used to express frustration and hurl insults as an effort to retaliate. Clearly, we all know the difference between using such language in fun versus using it to hurt, and therefore, we should not confuse the two in order to justify what we know is inappropriate.

On other occasions, companions may confront each other, and as emotions run high and desperation ensues, similar name calling and insults may take place. Resorting to name calling is never appropriate. Admittedly, Jesus did use the labels, "hypocrites", "fools", and "blind" to rebuke the Pharisees (Matthew 23), but such harsh language was only used in the best interest of the Pharisees, who had hardened their hearts until they could not be reached by even the most blunt of warnings (Matthew 23:37-39). Since Jesus may be the only person mature enough to completely "tame the tongue", we should exercise great caution in utilizing such judgmental language. If ever we employ such tactics in a final rebuke, only to find such labels to be the cornerstone of our argument (in other words, stringing one name after another in long chains), or if we fail to base our arguments on factual, historical evidence (unlike Jesus' solid basis - Matthew 23:6-9, 14, 16-23, 29-36), then we must recognize that our rebuke has turned into a personal assault. We must beware using an occasion for admonition as an opportunity to vent our own personal wrath and condemnation, because it will not achieve the desired goal - repentance (James 1:19-20).

Like cursing, reviling is also clearly condemned in the Bible:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. (I Corinthians 6:9-11)

Therefore, let us each be careful not to show arrogance and contempt to our brother by cursing or reviling him.

Blaspheming and Swearing

Just as cursing and reviling manifest disrespect of our fellow man, blaspheming and swearing express irreverence and contempt for God. Blasphemy is a more extreme expression of profanity, characterized by speaking evil of God. This may be accomplished in many ways, some more obvious than others. However, blasphemy is clearly condemned. Under the Old Law blasphemy was punishable by death (Leviticus 24:11-16). The New Law does not demand the immediate sentence of death; however, it is still condemned:

Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. (Colossians 3:5-8)

"Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man." (Matthew 10:17-20)

Blasphemy may involve more than just saying bad things about God. It also includes speaking evil of His works and the product of His hands. Please recall that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit occurs when one rejects or dismisses the Spirit's work of revealing and confirming truth, attributing it to other non-divine sources (Mark 3:10-12, 22-30; Hebrews 11:26-29). The Pharisees recognized that by claiming the power to forgive sins, a power reserved for God, was a form of blasphemy (Luke 5:20-26). In a similar way, whenever we judge those who were made by God and seek to serve God, we are judging the One by whose hands they were made, by whose law they strive to walk, and by whose mercy they persevere (James 3:8-10; 4:11-12; Romans 14:3-4; II Peter 3:9). Finally, when we complain about rampant wickedness or an apparent injustice, which God allows to persist, we are again speaking evil of God by criticizing His judgment. Therefore, we must be careful not to blaspheme, because we may do so subtly, in ways that are not immediately obvious to us.

Now in regards to swearing, when one swears or takes an oath, he calls God into witness, adjuring Him to testify to the truthfulness of a statement. Although rarely stated, but always implied, one swears against the penalty of calamity. It is commonly accepted that God will not testify verbally, directly from heaven; therefore, the form of witness must be providential, which act of God may fall upon ourself or something we cherish. The thought often implied in an oath is something like, "If I am not telling the truth, then may God strike me dead!". Obviously, one would not heap such disaster upon his own head, unless he really believed he was telling the truth, or unless he believed that God did not care and would not do anything about his lie.

Whether one irreverently puts God to the test by his trivial oath, or if he simply calls out God's name in frequent, light, or unholy manner, or if he attempts to back out on his oath to God, these forms of swearing and blaspheming are all clearly condemned in Scripture. Under the Old Law, such language was referred to as "taking the Lord's name in vain" and bore the penalty of death (Exodus 20:7). One must be very careful in how they approach God, whether by calling on His name, worshiping Him, or invoking Him as witness:

Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil. Do not be rash with your mouth, And let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes through much activity, And a fool's voice is known by his many words. When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed -- Better not to vow than to vow and not pay. Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger of God that it was an error. Why should God be angry at your excuse and destroy the work of your hands? (Ecclesiastes 5:1-6)

As we learn from the above passage, trivial oath taking is a dangerous venture. God will hold us to our oaths. Yet, swearing can become so trivial that people may not even realize what they are saying. Have you ever known someone, who began ever other exclamation with the phrase, "I swear ...!"? Christians are admonished to speak consistently, such that our word will be sufficient without having to swear:

"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37)

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your "Yes," be "Yes," and your "No," "No," lest you fall into judgment. (James 5:12)

Therefore, let us take great caution when invoking the name of God, because He sees, He hears, and He will act, and He will judge in His own time.

Vulgarity and Innuendo

The final category under consideration is vulgarity and innuendo. Again, we are considering both an extreme and milder form of the same sin. Included in this category are: dirty jokes, sexual implications and undertones, filthy language referring to bodily functions or anatomy, and other inappropriate topics, which should not be publicly or lightly discussed. Whereas vulgar speech contains direct and explicit references, innuendo contains hints, winks, gestures, facial expressions, and other subtle forms of communication, which quietly express vulgar thoughts. It is this subtle vulgarity and crude speech that makes up the vast majority of "adult humor", which often sails over the heads of innocent and naive children. It is this language that causes adults to wrinkle their mouths and snicker softly as another hints at explicit themes without actually articulating them. As before, we find that the Scriptures strongly condemn this type of language:

Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. (Ephesians 5:1-4)

But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)

A Christian is to have his mind set on higher, nobler, spiritual things. Therefore such communication should not be appealing to him. Neither, should it be something upon which he dwells and is therefore even able to imagine, much less utter. Whether spoken directly, or implied through innuendo, the ideas actually communicated by this "filthy language" are the same and are therefore in error.

Slang and Euphemisms

Like the sexual or foul innuendo implied by veiled statements, slang and euphemisms also convey inappropriate ideas. Similarly, they are couched in more socially acceptable, or politically correct language. By definition, a euphemism conveys harsh words or thoughts in a softened form. For example, instead of speaking of a loved one's death, we may say, "He passed away". Similarly, instead of saying, "Oh, my God", one might say, "Oh, my gosh". In so doing, they are merely substituting words so as to blaspheme or speak vulgarity without technically uttering sin. Regardless, the idea has been communicated. In fact, even the world recognizes the conveyed meaning. Let us examine some of the more common slang expressions, as defined by Webster's dictionary:

More could be listed, but these are sufficient to make our point: Many common slang terms are merely euphemisms, or softened substitutes for blasphemous language. Unfortunately, some people may not be aware of the origin of these words and are therefore unaware of what they are really saying. The lesson is that we should be careful of the language we use to express surprise or displeasure. In fact, it would be wise to consult a dictionary to see what we are really saying. Even if we do not realize what we are saying, great damage and offense can be generated, because others understand what these words mean. For additional consideration, if one regularly and irreverently exclaimed, "Oh, my God!", but did not know there really was one true God, would that make it any less blasphemous? Although ignorance may cause us to sympathize with such a sin, it does not however change the fact that the words are blasphemous, even if the person was unaware of their significance. Ultimately, it is the idea communicated to the minds of other people that makes these words blasphemous, whether or not that was our intention.

Finally, please consider that Christians do not need such words, or any substitutes, to express extreme wrath or mild displeasure. Please recall that "outbursts of wrath" are not to typify God's saints, while "self-control and patience" are supposed to characterize Christians (II Peter 1:5-6). Therefore, we should not allow ourselves to imagine that we must find some word of exclamation.

The Solution

Most of the passages referenced above were not primarily intended to address the topic of a Christian's speech. Most of these passages focus on the transformation of the inner man. Our words are just one way that we manifest the content of our heart and innermost thoughts. Therefore, one will ultimately masters his tongue, not by a strict adherence to a code, but rather by strictly conforming his heart to the pattern of Christ. Our hearts must change before we can realistically expect our words, which come out of hearts, to change. Consequently, we must first focus on these passages' appeal to our heart. If we completely accept them, by purifying our heart of lustful, rebellious, arrogant, selfish thoughts, then we should have no trouble in bridling our tongue. Therefore, let us reexamine some of the above passages in their broader context to see the primary emphasis, which reveals the solution to controlling our tongue:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, (Colossians 3:1-10)

This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. ... Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. (Ephesians 4:17-5:4)

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (Galatians 5:19-25)

One of the practical ways that we do this is by ridding ourselves of negative spiritual influences. Who, or what influences you to think irreverent, vulgar thoughts? What pressures are exerted on you to speak in a way that is not fitting for a Christian? Does your selection of television shows exhibit godly speech? If not, change the channel! If every channel is offensive, then turn the box off. In so doing, you may feel like you have cut off your hand, or plucked out your eye, but that is far better than the alternative (Matthew 5:29-30). Are your friends constantly speaking perverse things? If so, then ask them to change. If they refuse, then find new friends (II Corinthians 6:14-7:1). If it is books, internet, radio - whatever the source of the negative influence, we must remove it from our lives. Mature Christians do not allow temptation to grow to full strength before resisting it. They eliminate the stumbling block before it has an opportunity to trip them (Romans 13:14; I Thessalonians 5:22).

However, if we remove all the negative influences, but we do not fill our lives with positive influences, then the negative influences will return, and the end will be worse than the beginning (Luke 11:24-26). Therefore, we must dedicate time to Bible study, prayer, meditation, spiritual fellowship with like-minded saints, good works, and other positive influences. Paul offers this command as follows:

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy -- meditate on these things. (Philippians 4:4-8)

Conclusion

We have examined three categories of inappropriate speech for the Christian, which is condemned by the Bible: speaking evil of others, speaking evil of God, and speaking vulgarity and filth. Not only is this language denouced in Scriptures, but it further warns us that this type of speech may cost us our soul. Ultimately, I personally doubt that our language will be the primary reason that some people will face eternity in hell. I doubt it will come to that. Because our speech manifests our true heart, it is safe to expect a person with a filthy, irreverent mouth to be guilty of far more devastating sins. Therefore, if we struggle with this sin, we should examine our own hearts, while we still have the chance, and find the root of this evil thought - and then cast it out! Furthermore, we must fill that hole in our minds with noble, spiritual, and holy thoughts.

Please do not forget that our words will ultimately judge us on the last day:

"For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:34-37)

Our words not only manifest who we are, but the Lord will use them as a basis for determining who we really are, and assigning the appropriate reward!

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1994 by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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