I started using obscene language when I was eight. All my friends did too, I didn't think it was a big deal. It didn’t take long before I was frequently using every four-letter word in the book! I knew enough not to use them around adults—especially not my parents, teachers, or sister who would surely turn me in.
I’d heard it was “wrong”, but I didn’t know why, after all words were just words, right?
I didn’t know Alan, but I knew he wanted to be a disciple maker. As I drove to meet him a few weeks ago, I pondered his most recent text: “My goal is that we can talk about what it means to be a disciple maker—how they think, how they talk, how they pray, and what their value system is.”
Do disciple makers really speak differently from others?
Flash forward to a couple years ago, as I met with a pastor friend, he threw in a couple four-letter words. I was shocked. I wasn’t bothered by them, but I didn’t expect to hear them out of his mouth.
Did he really speak like that in his personal life?
Whether you call them cuss words, curse words, dirty words, obscenity, colorful language, off-color words, or simply ‘how you talk’, should Jesus’ disciples/disciple maker’s use them?
Everyone uses curse words sometimes, right? So, what’s the big deal? And what other words are appropriate when your hammer misses the nail and hits your thumb? Or when another driver cuts you off? Surely Jesus is more concerned about bigger things than our word choice, right?
Most people have never thought about it, but our words are important. Jesus, Paul, and James all address the issue of obscenity/unwholesome language in Scripture.
Jesus redefines purity for the Pharisees. While the Pharisees were focused on remaining pure by focusing on what went into their mouths, Jesus told them to focus on what comes out (Matthew 15:11-19). In Luke 6:45, he communicates the message by saying, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stores up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
This rationale is what I call the “Principle of Origin”. Our words reflect what’s in our hearts. If we are holy and clean, then our language should be too.
In Ephesians 4:29 and 5:4, Paul communicates about our speech. In the first passage, he says we shouldn’t use unwholesome talk, but only what’s helpful for building others up. In the second he says, there should be thanksgiving, not “obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking”.
Paul’s focus is on the results of our transformation. If, we are disciples, then why would we talk that way instead of building others up and expressing thankfulness to God and others?
James speaks to the incongruity of praising God and cursing with the same mouth. “This should not be,” he says, as he compares it to something that’s impossible in the natural world (fresh water and salt water flowing from the same spring).
When I teach church leaders about this, the conversation typically goes like this:
Q: Who’s to say what’s obscene and what’s not? Aren’t they different in each culture and time period? Are you saying that what’s a sin can change?
A: You’re right, there’s no published and accepted standard about which words are obscene. We have to exercise wisdom and judgement. However, there are a few that are obvious. God desires for us to pursue holiness and purity, not to get as close to the line as possible. A good rule of thumb I heard years back is, if a word is readily used on a national news broadcast, then it’s culturally acceptable.
Q: Sometimes I use the word to fit into with my non-Christian friends, so it’s kind of missional. Would you say that’s okay? Are you saying we should tell them not to use those words too?
A: Jesus teaches us that our language exhibits the true reality of our hearts. We want our non-Christian friends to be able to see the difference Christ makes in our life without being obnoxious or weird about it. Using different language is a subtle but significant way to do that. Several non-Christian friends have noticed and then asked why I don’t use swear words.
I wouldn’t ask my non-Christian friends to stop using obscenity because they don’t follow a master that’s taught them not to.
Q: The words don’t mean anything to me, they’re just words. It’s like a habit now. I don’t think I could stop if I wanted to. What do you think?
A: It took me close to two years to stop using curse words. I know it’s not easy and it’s not an overnight thing. However, God will help you and with commitment you’ll not only be able to stop verbalizing them, you’ll be able to stop thinking them as well.
So, what about you? Does your speech reflect the reality of being made holy, like God is holy? If not, what are you going to do about it?