Profanity, defined in the Oxford English dictionary as blasphemous or obscene language (commonly known as swearing or cursing), is unavoidable and pervasive in the modern world. From movies and song lyrics, to schoolyards and offices, profanity is all around us.
As modern Christians, what stance should we take on the issue? Are we to ignore the use of profanity? Actively avoid it? Chastise those who use it? Is it ever acceptable for us to use profanity ourselves? Why has profanity become part of human interaction, and what advice does the Bible provide about its use?
WHY DO WE SWEAR?
The use of profanity is commonplace across cultures around the world. The Association of Psychological Science’s Perspectives on Psychological Science published an article by Timothy Jay (2009) on profanity. According to Jay’s research, people swear on average from 0.3% to 0.7% of the time. Jay notes, “Swearing is like using the horn on your car, which can be used to signify a number of emotions (e.g., anger, frustration, joy, surprise).” Jay’s article discusses a wide range of swear words including sexual references, blasphemy, slurs and vulgar terms. These words range from the mildly to the extremely offensive. Clearly, then, the use of profanity is deeply ingrained in our culture. There are many types of profanity, and many applications. People don’t swear for just one reason, they use profanity to express a wide range of emotions. Jay asserts, however, that the majority of swearing (up to two-thirds) is used to express frustration, anger or surprise.
Many people around the world use profanity when dealing with pain. Why is this? The psychologist Richard Stephens conducted an experiment in 2009 in which a group of volunteers were asked to place their hand in ice water for as long as possible while repeating a swear word of their choosing. The experiment was then repeated with the participants repeating a common word with no vulgar meaning. The results of the study showed that the volunteers were able to withstand the freezing water far longer when they repeated the swear word. Stephens put forth the theory that the use of profanity triggers a strong emotional response that helps to downplay threat (in this case the pain from the cold water). When suffering pain, using profanity seems to distract us from the present situation. The meanings attached to some words we consider swear words are powerful enough to dull very basic instincts such as pain.
Another example of a situation in which people often use profanity is when trying to exercise a feeling of power and control. In his article Hell Yes: The 7 Best Reasons for Swearing, the psychiatrist Neel Burton writes: “Swearing can give us a greater sense of power and control over a bad situation. By swearing we show, if only to ourselves, that we are not passive victims but empowered to react and fight back.” The power of profanity to shock others allows us the illusion of control over a situation in which we feel threatened.
Researchers believe the use of swear words is on the increase. The psychologist Kristin Jay, along with her husband Timothy, carried out research in 2013, in which data was collected from a group of American adults who had been asked to record each instance they heard a swear word in public over the period of a year. This data, when compared to the results of a similar study from 1986, showed that the frequency of swearing had increased over time. In an interview, Kristin Jay pointed to the media as another possible reason for this marked increase in the use of profanity: “We see changing speech standards in the media we consume…The media we used to consume were much more sanitized, and we had fewer things to choose from and less control over what we exposed ourselves to.”
IS THERE A CHANGING CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE ON SWEARING?
With profanity becoming so commonplace in society today, have modern Christians become more accepting of its use? What are their views on using profanity themselves? How do their beliefs shape those opinions? To answer these questions and others, six Christians were interviewed for New Identity Magazine. Their answers show the wide range of opinions Christians have on the issue.
PROFANITY AS AN ACCEPTED PART OF LIFE
Meet Crissy and Emily. Crissy is a 26-year-old student nurse, who became a Christian three years ago. Emily is 28 years old, a lifelong Christian, and works as a secretary. Both women say they encounter profanity on a daily basis in their college or work environments and have come to accept it as a part of daily life. While not particularly offended by profanity in the media or used casually by others in conversation, they are offended and upset by others using profanity directed towards them to demean or belittle them. Crissy says before becoming a Christian she often used profanity. She admits to occasional slip-ups but believes that God is compassionate and wants us to repent and persevere with our Christian life. Emily believes that many Christians can be hypocritical, swearing on a regular basis, but holding strong views on other issues they believe are incompatible with their faith.
Both Crissy and Emily assert that the use of profanity is never compatible with the Christian life. Crissy is of the opinion that “it only stirs up anger and wrath, and doesn’t produce any good fruit out of the conversation.” The two hold firm in their belief that the Bible strongly prohibits profanity. Crissy quoted Ephesians 4:29 (ESV) to back up her view: Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
Crissy and Emily’s views suggest that there is a realization among some Christians that profanity is not going away. They would prefer that others didn’t use it, but have come to accept it. The message they give us is that we should focus on our own behavior, and how it relates to our beliefs, rather than being brought down by the words of others. The two women are an example of Christians who choose to let their beliefs guide their actions. They believe they can accept how others act without sacrificing their own moral code. Our next interview subjects had very different viewpoints.
USING PROFANITY AS A CHRISTIAN
Daniel is 36 years old. He works as a college history professor and has been a Christian most of his life. Patrick is 33 years old, a lifelong Christian, and a PhD student. Neither man is offended by or uncomfortable with the use of profanity, and, in fact, both use it regularly, despite their Christian beliefs. Daniel cites his local culture as one reason for his acceptance and use of profanity: “I’m from New Jersey, that’s how we talk.” Patrick says he does use profanity, but tries not to swear habitually “as I think it betokens a lack of creativity and imagination.”
Both Daniel and Patrick agree that the Bible prohibits profanity to some extent. Daniel points out that the meaning of profanity has changed since biblical times:
Modern culture and society has the very concept of “profanity” meaning “offensive language,” but ancient languages were quite different. Oaths or references to pagan gods are referred to in the Bible but are culturally specific…by a strict reading of the New Testament, curses, oaths, and using the Lord’s name in vain are considered sinful, whereas scatological or sexual terms are used in a frank and straightforward manner.
Patrick referred to several passages in the Bible that prohibit the use of profanity, such as Colossians 3:8 (ESV), which reads, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”
The main difference in attitudes concerning profanity between Daniel and Patrick is over the issue of whether it is ever compatible with the Christian life. Patrick says, “Like most Christians (like most people) I try and stick to my own moral compass, picking and choosing, and I believe I can swear and still be a good person.” Daniel adds a different opinion: “Call me a hypocrite – I am human (hence in need of Christ). ‘Compatible’ is a loaded word. I say Christians should never offend, unless it is with the Truth (as we see it), not through word choice…”
Patrick’s and Daniel’s opinions point to a trend for some Christians to increasingly question the interpretation of the Bible, and how the teachings relate to modern life. Both men are well educated and work in higher education. This may explain their tendency to make their own decisions on how they should behave as Christians. They believe that some issues are not clear-cut, and that we are required to use our own judgement together with the advice we find in the Bible. Our final two interview subjects hold more traditional views that are in stark contrast with these two. They believe the Bible contains strong and conclusive teachings against the use of profanity, which as Christians we must follow.
STRONG FEELINGS AGAINST PROFANITY
Alice is a 94-year-old housewife and Christian of 60 years. Jennifer is a 65-year-old Christian Charity worker, who has been a Christian for 43 years. Alice believes that the media normalizes and encourages the use of profanity and that swearing has become a way of life for the younger generation. She is very offended by and uncomfortable with any profanity, whether in the media or in daily life. Jennifer echoes these views and says she actively avoids profanity in the media by carefully choosing the movies and TV shows she consumes.
Both women say they believe that the Bible strongly and directly prohibits profanity and that swearing indicates a lack of discipline and self control. Alice feels particularly saddened by profanity because it “grieves the Holy Spirit.” Jennifer considers swearing by Christians a strikingly bad example to set, particularly the casual use of blasphemous phrases. Living in London, England, she is part of a multicultural society and observes that other faiths are much stricter about not using profanity. Alice referred to Matthew 15:11: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.
Alice and Jennifer’s views on profanity are clear and easy to relate to for many Christians. Both women feel the media has a large part to play and are saddened by how pervasive swearing has become in most areas of life. They believe that a Christian must follow the words of the Bible as closely as possible and demonstrate their beliefs through their actions.
WHAT ELSE DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT PROFANITY?
The verses provided by the interview subjects throughout this article suggest that profanity is strictly and directly prohibited in the Bible, but is this the full story?
Certainly there are many verses throughout the Bible that speak against profanity. Take Ephesians 5:4, which reads: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” Similarly, Psalm 10:7 says, “His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.”
What about the instances in the Bible our interview subject Daniel referred to? In his article for Relevant Magazine, “What the Bleep Does the Bible Say About Profanity,” author Preston Sprinkle argues:
But religious people have been covering up obscene language in the Bible for years. Jewish scribes in the middle ages, who copied the Hebrew Old Testament used as the base for all English translations, edited out some vulgar words and replaced them with nicer ones. For instance, God originally prophesied through Zechariah that women in Israel would be raped by wicked, invading armies. The word God inspired is shagel, and according to Hebrew linguists, shagel is an obscene word that describes a sexual act.
It’s clear, then, that the Bible is not totally bereft of words that could be considered vulgar. Why does the Bible contain this kind of language when elsewhere there is such heavy reference to the prohibition of profanity? Sprinkle argues that:
The biblical prophets sometimes use offensive language, but not to produce shock for its own sake…God’s messengers used vulgar images to shock their religious audience out of complacency…So how do we reconcile Ezekiel’s filthy tongue with Ephesians 4:29? “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Does this outlaw all forms of vulgarity? Not exactly. The word for “corrupting” (sapros) literally means “rotten, decaying, unwholesome.” The whole point is not to forbid certain words that are labelled “cuss words” by its culture, but all speech that does not “build up.”
As Christians, however we feel about the use of profanity in our daily lives, whether we choose to tolerate it, use it ourselves, avoid it at all costs, or simply ignore it, we should consider its effect. There are many reasons for the use of profanity and its increasing use. Opinions of profanity range from profanity as a personal choice, which stands apart from Christian beliefs, to the belief that Christians should steer clear of profanity and set an example for others.
Whichever position we take on the issue, the teachings of the Bible provide some common ground. Matthew 5:22 reads, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” This passage concludes that the heart of the issue is the intention with which profanity is used.
While the Bible contains language which could be thought of as vulgar, its intention is never to demean, to destroy, or to corrupt. This message of the Bible is clear–as Christians, our words should be used to encourage, to give grace, and to rejoice. They should build others up, rather than knock them down. As Christians we must strive to reflect Christ in all we do. Our language is a big part of us, and we must be aware of the effect it has on others. Despite differences of opinion, perhaps we can all be humbled by the advice laid out in Colossians 4:6: Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.