by Alex McFarland
Magic Mountain, an amusement park in Southern California, is known for a roller coaster named X. Coincidentally, I was there to speak at a youth event when I overheard an X-rated conversation between some teens who were part of a church youth group. Later that day, the conversation prompted me to address the issue from the stage. I asked, “How many of you struggle with using bad language?” Many hands went up. I followed up with questions we’ve all probably considered at some point: Is it wrong for a Christian to use curse words? If so, why? And what makes profanity, well, profane?
Entertainment is full of swear words, sexual innuendo and scatological slang. In a recent study of prime time TV, Parents Television Council identified more than 11,000 expletives – twice as many as were used a decade ago. Indeed, in our coarsening culture, some young people can’t recall a time when f-bombs weren’t part of “normal” discourse. Kids use it because they’ve grown up hearing profanity and having it reinforced by the media. And somehow it becomes a personal habit that even Christian teens may consider acceptable in certain situations.
I’ve heard people argue that words are just sounds to which we attach meaning. But to deny the power of language, one must argue the point with what? With words. And those combinations of letters and sounds assume that meaning will be conveyed, heard and grasped. You assume that your listener understands what you’re saying. We can’t get around the fact that words contain meaning.
Words also yield consequences. For proof that language matters, consider that we have an entire lexicon associated with their misuse: fraud, slander, libel, perjury, harassment, defamation. For those who deny the objective nature of language, I suggest that they don’t test their position by publicly making a joke about harming the president or jest about explosives while riding on an airplane. A U.S. Marshal will be summoned to quickly help them grasp that, yes, words have meaning. The ways people abuse words have social, legal and even spiritual implications.
All to Jesus I surrender
The Bible reminds us that our words should honor God and benefit others. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” James 1:26 warns us to keep a tight rein on our tongues, while Colossians 3:8 says, “Rid yourselves of all things such as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips.”
Regarding use of profanity by believers, some contend that since Christ makes us free, how we say things doesn’t matter. While salvation sets us free from the penalty of sin, freedom doesn’t equal license. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that Christians have an obligation to pursue holiness (Ephesians 4:24; Titus 2; 1 Peter 1:5 and 2:24).
Indeed, God’s ownership of believers extends even to the words we use. According to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 we’re mere stewards. Jesus Christ owns us, including our minds and mouths. Spiritual maturity requires that we yield everything to God.
Judged by the words we use
All Christians should submit their vocabularies to the lordship of Christ, in part because God is always listening. His grace is perfect, but if words didn’t matter, Jesus wouldn’t have said, “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).
Profane means “unholy” or “unwholesome.” Some types of speech are literally unholy. Spouting certain four-letter words can hinder spiritual growth, harm relationships with others and undermine our credibility as bearers of gospel truth.
Christians possess an advantage by having a pure well of words from which to draw. Years ago, as a new believer working my way through college, a superior took note of the fact that I didn’t tell off-color jokes or use foul language like others in that workplace. Not only did this create a witnessing opportunity, but I was promoted to a level that no 21-year-old had ever held in that company. My boss later told me that my habit of avoiding profanity led him to promote me.
Every communicator has thousands of words at his or her disposal. In the quest for individuality and self-expression, there’s no shortage of raw material. So, talk! But do so only in ways that speak well of ourselves, of others and of the Savior.
Alex McFarland is heard weekdays on Exploring the Word on American Family Talk Radio. He is author of 13 books on the Christian worldview, and is founder of Truth For A New Generation, the nation’s largest annual apologetics event.