The Internet Monk
A Webjournal edited by Michael Spencer
A Guide For The Cussin' Christian
The most detailed examination of the ethics of "cussin'" in the English language.
by Eric Rigney
SPENCER NOTE: This is a really cool article, and would be a great piece to forward to non-Christian friends to show them that some Christians do think through issues and come out differently than the typical TBN preacher.
Summary: In these articles, Eric Rigney returns from a long sabbatical to show us he has finally gone off the deep end. In a two-part descent into madness, he tackles both radio preaching and bad language. You may be surprised which one he’s in favor of…
Hello again! If you read Part I of this fool’s errand and have returned like a dog to its vomit for another helping, I must commend you for being a good sport. If you are just joining us, well … welcome, and please don’t slash my tires.
To recap, I attempted last time to lay the groundwork for the idea that cussing is not necessarily a bad thing. I am not the first person to argue this point, of course, but usually the debate is relegated to the fringes, safely and quietly withheld from mainstream discourse. I think this is a shame. I think that it is a subject that is representative of the idea of freedom in Christ, and the responsibility inherent in sincerely and responsibly – and freely – exercising that freedom.
It is with this in mind that I have labored to fashion the following lists, entitled, cleverly enough, “Poor Reasons to not Cuss” and “Good Reasons to not Cuss.”
A small disclaimer before we get started: These are by no means exhaustive lists, I assure you, and they are not infallible edicts handed down from the throne of grace. They are simply the curious and highly subjective meanderings of one odd but loveable soul.
Having said that, let me say you should feel free to print these up and frame them for hanging in your home or office.
Poor reasons to not cuss:
You shouldn’t cuss because the Bible says it’s wrong.
This is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Believe me: I love the Bible and I believe that it is profitable for all good things – if it tells me to do or not do something, I believe it is for my own good, and to do otherwise would be simply foolish.
Which is why I hate to see it used as a club as much as it is. And this is one area in which the club has nasty spikes with poison tips. The fact is the evidence that cussing is a sin just isn’t there. Or at least if it is, I haven’t been able to find it. So I say this with as little sarcasm as I can muster: will someone please direct me to the list of forbidden cuss words in the Bible? Seriously. I will gladly accept any hate mail that shows me the error of my Bible-reading ways.
Now obviously the language itself was completely different in Biblical times, so I am aware that there could not be a list of modern forbidden words in Scripture. However, if cussing is such an issue, why is it not addressed as such? Why did Paul not provide a list of illegal words for the Corinthians to avoid? Or why did he not say, “Refrain from cussing”?
Of course, some people claim that Paul did address the issue. He instructs us in Colossians 3:8 to get rid of, among other things, “filthy language from your lips.” What about that? Doesn’t it clearly mean that cussing is forbidden?
Well, no. What it does forbid, specifically, is “filthy language.” I will address this more momentarily, but let me for now assure you that I am not arguing against what the Bible commands here. It certainly does behoove a Christian to refrain from subject matter which is disgusting and foul, as such talk is potentially belittling and denigrating, and does not usually build others up. Ideally, the Holy Spirit directs us as to the specifics, and every Christian should be honest with himself about just what is filthy.
But this says nothing about cussing, which is not necessarily filthy, which I’ll argue further momentarily. It is ludicrous to say that modern society can arbitrarily decide which specific words (regardless of their intended meaning and context) fit into the category Paul is addressing here.
I know the Easy Guide works better – we want God to tell us specifically what to do at all times in every situation. That’s why legalism and pious browbeating are so popular – if we have a checklist all laid out for us, obedience becomes a matter of simply checking off items on the list. The more items we check off, the holier we are.
But to use our common sense, our right dividing of the word, and the sufficiency of the Holy Spirit to guide us… Well, the appeal is just not as great. That requires us to think, and surely God can’t want that! So, as with many things about which we must make choices in life, we don’t get an easy, checklist answer to “To cuss or not to cuss?” – we must instead use our common sense and conscience, as directed by the Holy Spirit. This scares people and makes them angry, which is why this topic is so unpopular.
Matthew 5:33-37 is another popular passage supposedly addressing this issue, and when people use it to “prove” their point about cussing (usually with an air of superiority that indicates that the matter is settled), I get so annoyed I want to wish upon them one of those really painful zits right under the nose. We’ve all had the verse hurled at us (or perhaps have been the hurl-ee): “Do not swear at all,” the author cautions, “either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king.”
Again, I say, “Amen!” You may be surprised how easy – natural, really – it is to totally agree with the Holy Scriptures and still think cussing is not necessarily wrong. If you back up just a couple of verses in this passage (I know, I know, context is so much trouble and is such a party pooper), it becomes clear that the author is talking about oaths, specifically. He is talking about a specially-binding, particular promise, one using God or his created things to back up what you are guaranteeing. The author tells us in no uncertain terms that to use God and His creation to settle your argument or guarantee your human arrangement is just plain wrong.
Good stuff. What I can’t understand is how this has come to be the champion verse for those who favor a complete and total refrain from cussing. How does this passage have anything to do with saying a cuss word? Yeah, someone could use a cuss word when they swear, maybe to emphasize their point or show how serious they are, and some people certainly do. But the oath is what is wrong here, the act of swearing in the name of God and his creation, not the specific words used to make the oath – you could just as easily sin in such a way, but using the word “couch” or “pachyderm” or “marsupial.” It is not the words that are important – it is the act itself that is the sin.
But alas, not everyone is convinced. I once had a friend argue that the Matthew passage does apply to cussing, because, he said, cussers constantly embellish things they say, a fact which this passage laments and warns against. According to my friend, the heart of this passage is one of speaking plainly, and peppering your speech with cussing embellishments is thus counter to what is commanded. Hmmm. I guess that could be true, but where does that leave us? Wouldn’t the logical conclusion of that reasoning be to outlaw adjectives and adverbs, for fear that we might not speak plainly in our haste to be more descriptive? Should I never again say that I am “very tired” or that I have a “brown dog”? I don’t know, but to me it seems that my friend had to travel pretty far to make Matthew’s admonition fit his theory. If the man was writing about oaths, let’s let the verse be about oaths. That’s speaking plainly, if you ask me.
B. You shouldn’t cuss because those words are just wrong –
I mean, look at their filthy meanings!
Well, okay, I will sort of give you that one: the literal, original meanings of cuss words are usually pretty raunchy or insulting. You have your defecation, your fornication, your eternal punishment, and a smorgasbord of otherwise sordid actions and bodily functions. Not exactly a Miss Manners primer of politeness and good thoughts, right? So isn’t this the proof, the proverbial smoking gun, the final straw that settles the issue? If their meanings are so filthy and crude, shouldn’t we avoid saying them under any circumstances?
Well, again, no – not necessarily. Let’s face it: meaning is what we’re talking about here, and what we mean when we say a word is far more important than what the word itself is. This concept is not really all that foreign – we use words this way all the time. Here, I’ll show you. Quiz: when I say, Will you pass me that pot?, do I mean a) Hand me the cooking implement, or b) Don’t bogart that doobie?
The answer, of course, is: It depends.
How about this one: Is he out of the closet yet? Does this mean a) Does he realize that we’re done playing hide and seek?, or b) Has Kevin Spacey finally embraced his inner self?
Again, it depends. It depends on what you mean by “pot” and “out of the closet.” The fact is, the meanings of those words are determined by what the speaker intends – not the other way around. A good thing to remember: people are in charge of words. Sounds simple, but it slips the mind easily.
Of course we don’t just allow loaded words and phrases like the ones above to have multiple possibilities for meaning. We routinely allow other, less connotative words and phrases to have more than one meaning too. Take, for instance, “book”: a thing you read (this one is steadily becoming archaic), a slang law expression meaning “to hand down a sentence” or “to check into a jail facility” (as in, “Book ‘em, Dan-o), or what one does when he calls his travel agent. Or how about “run”: what you do when a pack of hungry dogs are chasing you, what steroid-deformed baseball players score a lot of, what you do with a program on your computer, or what your nose does when you eat hot wings. The list continues: what about “lock”? “Rap”? “Creep”? “Crank”? “Stump?”
I could go on and on, of course, and no one reading this will find such a simple concept all that enlightening or fascinating – it’s about as revelatory as an hour of C-Span. Everyone knows it: we constantly and without hesitation or even much thought allow words to have more than one meaning, based on the context and intent of the speaker.
So my question is: Why don’t we allow words that are traditionally regarded as cuss words the same flexibility? After all, people certainly do not always mean the same thing when they cuss. Take, for example, the word “sh*t.” In its base, literal context, that word means defecation, as in, “I stepped in dog sh*t.” Due to the vulgarity of this meaning, I suppose the argument could be made that a person should not say that word. But what if I wake up in the middle of the night, stub my toe on the door jamb, and yell, “Oh, sh*t!” What do I mean then? I mean, “Ow, that hurts!” I am neither talking about, referring to, nor thinking about defecation. “Sh*t!” literally means the exact same thing as “Ow!” Curiously enough, however, “Ow!” won’t land me in the doghouse with most of my Christian brothers and sisters nearly as fast as “Sh*t!” will. What a bunch of sh*t that is!
Another good example is the word “d*mn.” Now, in certain contexts, this could be among the worst insults. If I say to someone, “D*mn you,” while feeling hatred or animosity toward that person, I have done wrong. It is not my place to assign anyone eternal perdition, and to wish for someone to be damned is surely an affront to God and His grace. But is that always what d*mn means? What if I am at a hockey game and a puck comes sailing off the ice and misses my head by bare inches. I feel the breeze part my hair, take a half-second to realize I somehow just avoided a fun trip to the emergency room, and turn to my friend and say, “D*mn, that was close!”
Where is the harm? Just whom am I damning to eternal hell? Where is the sin in this expression? What I am doing is expressing excitement and shock and fear and relief. I am saying, “Wow, that was close!” I am simply replacing “Wow” with “damn” – the meaning is exactly the same.
Perhaps things would become clearer if we removed ourselves from the realm of the spoken word for a moment. How about that infamous, most-lambasted of all digits, the middle finger? What does it tell us about this issue? I am reminded of a Seinfeld episode whose conflict begins when George becomes convinced that his waitress is flipping him off when she takes his order. As expected, this particular case of neurosis steadily escalates until, by the end of the show, George corners a man after chasing him in his car for hours and hours, thinking that the man has also flipped him off. When he finally catches up with the guy, he discovers that the whole thing is a big misunderstanding, perpetrated by the fact that the man is sporting a cast on his hand which forces him to keep his middle finger locked and in the upright position at all times.
This is a very funny episode, of course, mainly because it makes a point we all recognize: it’s all a misunderstanding, based completely on the fact that the man did not intend for his middle finger to mean … you know. See, the middle finger is a great example of the concept: it is only offensive in certain contexts. Given gall-less motivation and intent, the mere act of uplifting the middle finger is as benign as Roscoe Coaltrain’s old hound dog Flash. Unless you accompany the gesture with an intended insult or curse, it is just harmless.
So my question to my friends who insist that words like “sh*t” and d*mn” are wrong without exception is this: the next time someone uses their middle finger to rub their eye or gesture at a chalkboard, will you gasp in shock and challenge them to a duel?
I know, I know, the whole thing seems ludicrous, and I feel silly even arguing about it. This is easy stuff, folks – rocket science it ain’t!
But good ol’ tradition gets in the way, as it is wont to do, and when people blindly believe that something is true, even in the face of logic and reason, no good will follow. I submit as proof of this the fact that many of my fellow Christians will tolerate someone hating another individual, even wishing them harm, as long as they don’t cuss while doing it. I could angrily and hatefully say to you, “Daggone you, you stupid idiot,” and I am not sinning nearly as much (if at all) as I am if we are goofing around and I say, “Hey, cut that sh*t out!” The vitriol of the first instance is overlooked, while the good-natured gist of the second case is condemned as sinful. I must confess that I simply do not get it.
Well, maybe. Much like number 2 above, this is only true given the right circumstances. I will comment on this further below, but for now I will just say yes, if you are in the company of someone who is genuinely offended by your cussing, you should probably not do it. It’s just not something that is worth alienating or offending people over without good reason.
But this still is not a reason to never cuss at all. What if, for instance, I am in the company of those whose sensibilities are not offended by cussing? If I cuss when I am alone with my wife (who is generally not offended by cussing), am I doing wrong? Of course not – no harm, no foul. The solution here is as simple as it gets – rather than preclude cussing in all instances, be as sensitive to and respectful of the feelings and convictions of those around you as much as possible. When such factors are not at issue, live according to your conscience. Easy, huh?
GOOD reasons to not cuss:
When God’s name is involved.
For me, this is a biggie, an absolute, a nonnegotiable: any expression, word, phrase, or thought that uses God’s name irreverently, without good reason, or to punctuate a non-God-related sentiment is out of bounds. Period. There is no compromise or exception. God’s name is just too set apart and special to throw around carelessly or disrespectfully.
This is one that the Bible is vocal about – we are specifically commanded not to use God’s name in a vain or meaningless way. Yet here I find a striking irony: many Christians who will not under any circumstances say “sh*t” or “d*mn” (and will condemn those who do) will think nothing of using God’s name as a punctuator or verbal enhancement a dozen times a day without so much as a second thought. Often they excuse themselves from this blasphemy by the fact that they do not use the word “d*mn” after His name. What a weak and checklist-bound excuse for blasphemy.
Tom Jenkin, my high school drama coach and one of my greatest heroes, summed it up pretty well, I think. One evening some friends and I were working on a play set together in the chapel at Oneida Baptist Institute, where I attended middle and high school. As we were moving the podium and other pulpit furnishings to make way for the set, a friend of mine began to “preach,” banging his fist on the podium and throwing in a lot of thee’s and thou’s. I thought it was pretty funny, as did the other kids, but I didn’t notice Mr. Jenkin paying attention either way – he was busy moving things around and setting things up the way he wanted them for the play.
Things were going nice and smooth … until my friend threw in the name of Jesus in the middle of his “sermon.” When that got a laugh, he was encouraged and started peppering his act with the name, throwing in a healthy dose of gasps and superfluous “ha!”s, until, out of nowhere, Mr. Jenkin abruptly grabbed him by the lapels and pulled him from the stage.
We had no idea what was happening, but like good teenagers, we had to gather around to see the show. And I’ll never forget what happened next. Mr. Jenkin pushed the surprised and terrified student up against the chapel wall (not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to get his attention), put his face about a half inch away from his face, and said something I doubt any of us have ever forgotten: “I’d rather hear a thousand ‘f*cks’ than one insincere ‘Jesus.’”
B. When it could turn people off to Christianity.
I really hate what the word “witness” has come to mean in the world of Christianity (a good example of how language changes and evolves). Ostensibly, it means how one’s life reflects the life of Christ and/or Biblical principles – specifically, how well you represent Christianity, which directly correlates to how many people you can “win to Christ.”
Blecch. Basically, this is a sign of human arrogance – where do I get off thinking that I am in any way in charge of someone else’s eternal destiny? If that is the case, then I am in trouble, because I will consistently fail at “winning” anyone. As human beings, our best efforts, even the ones we consider successful, are flawed and will always fall short of God’s glory. That’s why we have grace – God is in charge of souls, not me (thank God). So, while my personal goal as a Christian should be to be more Christ-like, this idea of doing that for the purposes of recruiting and “winning” people is ludicrous, and, I think, hard to find evidence for in the Bible. In fact, the Bible has far more to say about our private lives and holiness than any public manifestations.
Having said that, however, I think that bringing shame to the name of Christ is another matter entirely – that should be avoided at all costs. And since we are instructed to avoid even the appearance of evil, cussing may not be the best option for Christians, at least in certain situations and around certain individuals. The reason for this is that most people place cussing in the “wrong” category. Even people who do not even believe in such concepts as “right” and “wrong” are aware that cussing is considered to be a taboo activity in which those professing to be good, moral, upstanding people do not participate.
As a result, if you are a Christian who believes (like I do) that cussing is not necessarily wrong, yet you do it around non-Christians who think that it is something that true Christians don’t do, you run the risk of staining the name of Christ. And while I do not believe that I am responsible for someone else’s eternal destiny, I do think that I could be held accountable for being irresponsible with the marvelous trust God has given me through His son.
This has always been an issue I struggle with a bit. When I was younger, in fact, I went through a period when I was doggedly determined to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, as long as the Bible did not specifically forbid it, and anybody who didn’t like it could get over it. I was free, I reasoned, and no one could staunch that freedom or otherwise infringe upon my right to do whatever I wanted to do with it. I wouldn’t say that I had a bad attitude, per se, but rather one of youth-driven and stubborn independence. I considered myself (along with Paul) to be a slave to Christ only, dedicated to His service and glorification alone, ready to do whatever was required to further His kingdom and become like Him. But as for pleasing people – forget about it. I just did not give a flying flip what anyone thought about anything I did, as long as God was okay with it.
The problem was, God wasn’t okay with it – my attitude, while all right in a strictly-speaking kind of way, was all wrong as far as the spirit of love. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna get all sappy – it’s just that the flaw with such a philosophy should be readily apparent: it is, in an odd, ironic sort of way, as legalistic as any radio preacher staticing his way over the choppy FM waves in the middle of the night. My beef with legalism is its rigid and blind insistence on following a code for the sake of following a code, ignoring any other aspect of thinking and reasoning on the subject. And yet here I was, legalistically and blindly following a strict code (albeit self-imposed) and, also like a legalist, daring anyone to challenge me on it.
Fortunately, I eventually awoke to the incongruity of my thinking and grew up a bit – but not before I had alienated many of my friends, and, I’m sure, driven off some who may have been considering Christianity as a viable alternative to bland and meaningless life. And while during that particular period of my life, cussing wasn’t the issue, the principle remains the same – it could have been the issue. And for some people, it is. But like any non-necessary activity, if it is doing you or someone else harm, giving it up is not a bad idea. After all, as Paul points out, we should not use our liberty as an excuse to sin.
On a related note, we should also remember that our responsibilities as Christians are not just to the “lost,” but to each other. I have known people who will not tie their shoes a certain way if it means Joe Schmoe might not come to their church and sing a praise chorus 43 times, yet they will think nothing of treating their fellow Christians like pan-scrapings. Why is that? It seems to me that the Bible is just as clear about Christians’ treatment of each other as it is about our treatment of non-Christians. Therefore, if my cussing hurts or offends another Christian (I am not talking about the proverbial “professional weaker brother,” but genuine hurt or offense), I should not do it in their presence – it’s a matter of respect.
And speaking of respect…
C. When to do so would be rude.
This, to me, may be the best reason for refraining from cussing most of the time. In fact, I think this is probably how the whole “cussing is a sin” theory came about – because “bad language” is so vulgar. After all, most cuss words are representative of things we don’t talk about in polite company: bathroom activities, sex, Hell, private parts. Notice that none of these things is sinful (at least not without the benefit of human corruption). When my dad used to hike his leg and fire of a cluster of machine gun percussion on the orange plastic chairs at Burger King, I don’t think he was sinning – he was just rude (and thoroughly embarrassing to his teenage sons).
Really, that’s what cussing is: the verbal equivalent of a loud, obnoxious fart. Not sinful, just not appropriate in a host of situations. Therefore, there are certain people I will not cuss around, even though I don’t think that cussing itself is wrong.
Now here is where I am usually accused of hypocrisy. Someone will always gleefully point out that I really must think cussing is wrong if I will do it around certain people but not others – isn’t that the very definition of hypocrisy?
Well, not really. All of us do lots of things around certain people that we will not do around others. I dare say most people would not walk up to their Sunday school teacher and pass gas, belch, and adjust their crotch (their own, not the teacher’s). That would be considered very disrespectful and socially unacceptable. Yet those things are not wrong – it’s the context that is wrong here, not the actions.
same principle applies to cussing: I will cuss around some people
(specifically, those who are not offended by it and are not likely to be
turned off to Christianity as a result of it), but not around others
(those who are offended by it
and/or may be turned off to Christianity as a result of it).
This is not hypocrisy – it’s respect.
Bad manners, while not a moral issue, should be avoided whenever
D. When children are present.
There are two reasons to avoid cussing around children. The first one relates to point number 3 above: children are simply not mature enough to grasp the idea that some things are okay when done alone or around certain people, but not okay when done around certain other people. The concept is just too complex for most children, and chances are they won’t get it. The results could be disastrous: as I mentioned earlier, there is a moral stigma associated with cussing. If I cuss around my child, and she learns the words from me and says them elsewhere – at school, at church, at a friend’s house – she could get in trouble or be ostracized or alienated. And cussing is not a freedom that is worth my child having a harder life than she will already have when it comes to pleasing everyone. She’s never going to please everyone, of course, and the sooner she learns that, the healthier her psyche will be – but the heat she will receive from others for cussing (and the reputation that comes with it) could do an equal amount of damage to that same psyche.
The second reason to not cuss around children is that they may feel conflicted about mom and dad’s seemingly conflicting messages. See, chances are good that she will be bombarded (at school, church, etc) with the message that cussing is wrong no matter what. And while I may not agree with this theory, I do not want to put my daughter through the cognitive trauma of trying to reconcile dad’s Christianity and his apparently sinful language. So rather than trying to drill that reconciliation into her head, I choose to refrain from what I consider harmless language in her presence. Don’t worry – kids will hear the language enough without your help, and their journey to what they think is the right thing to do in this area will likely be a healthy one with a healthy outcome if we will allow them to make it.
E. When you are angry.
Anger is an oddly powerful thing: it can
turn even the most ordinary activities into sinful enterprises.
Even highly moral activities can degenerate into sin if we do
them out of spite or wrath. It’s
not the anger itself which is wrong, of course, but the attitude we take
on while angry or the actions that are born of it.
This is where cussing can be a problem: if I am feeling bad
things in my heart, and I say, “D*mn you,” I am certainly sinning
– but it is the hateful feeling that is wrong, not the word.
Oddly, though, most of my fellow Christians place more emphasis
on the word than the feeling. I
could be wishing you dead and in hell and say, “Darn that guy!” and
many people would probably say that I had not sinned.
But let me change “darn” to “d*mn,” and look out!
Really, both are wrong. The
impetus is simple: in your anger, do not sin.
Language has little to do with it.
F. If you think it’s wrong.
This is the heart and soul of it, really: if you think cussing is wrong, don’t do it. I have no desire at all to convince non-cussers to start spittin’ ‘em out like Popeye drunk on sangria. If anything, I would like to get people to at least think a little more about why they think it is wrong, and to persuade them to allow for the possibility of a difference of opinion. If, after reading my flawed but well-intentioned arguments, you remain unconvinced by my assessment of the morality of cussing, then by all means, hold fast to what you believe! A Christian should always follow his or her convictions as much as humanly possible, and be true to what they believe the bible teaches – to do otherwise would be wrong, no matter what the activity.
Meanwhile, I’m off to listen to the radio. One of my favorite preachers is on in a few minutes, and I think today’s gonna be a helluva good one to add to my collection.