In a gym change-room private conversations are public, so I heard everything these two men were saying. They were talking about car rims, and as they spoke, they quoted catalogues, dimensions and makers—they were clearly enthusiasts. They were also profane. Somehow these two were able to lace a very short conversation with a startling number of curse words. As they painted the air blue with their words, I had two thoughts: (a) they obviously don’t know I’m a preacher, and (b) they sound really stupid. I know that’s not very charitable, but lets be honest, swearing has a diminishing affect.
My aversion to cussing is due to good breeding, or so I thought. There was a short list of words that were strictly forbidden in my home, and apart from a few occasions, I willingly complied with my parent’s prohibition. So you can only imagine my shock when I came to the States and heard fellow seminarians drop the ‘cr_p’ word. I was mortified! “D_mn, these guys are supposed to be devout, how the h_ll do they get away with that kind of speech?” So much for good breeding. Apparently, there is not complete agreement in the English-speaking world as to which words are deemed profane. What offended me was common to others, and my common speech was an offence to many.
What then? Do we shrug off this matter as a cultural peculiarity and endorse all speech as proper? I think not, and I feel vindicated in this because the apostle Paul clearly limits our vocabulary. “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” (Ephesians 5:4, ESV). And if we missed that, he repeats himself in Colossians 3:8, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” The mouth that confesses Jesus as Lord should not utter profanity.
That being settled, we must now define profane speech. Some words need no defense; their vulgarity is so evident that even the coarsest individuals recognize them as obscene. Words and phrases that take human acts and functions, things determined by God as good, and corrupt them are profane. They make a mockery of what was designed for holiness and debase that which should point to God. We must not speak in this way.
Other words are disputed. I see no reason why ‘h_ll” and ‘d_mn” are deemed unsuitable, but I choose not to needlessly create offence, so I refrain from using them as exclamations. Honestly, I have not missed them. The English language is a rich mine that has plenty of colorful, clean words. But what becomes clear is that apart from the obviously obscene, the work of compiling a dirty list is hard to do. And I will refrain from recording such a list, but I will offer this as a guide to right speech. If the words in your head honor God and encourage your neighbor, give them voice. Otherwise still your mouth and maintain the peace with silence.