Before, you start reading, I am going to warn you explicitly and nicely.
I will be using the “F” word several times. And not a bleeped out version of it. There is a reason for it. This is a very serious explanation of words and how we use them. I am concerned that people are making many mistakes with their speech. We get bent out of shape about the innocent words, and we overlook the really dangerous ones.
So, if seeing the “F” word in print bothers you to the point of distraction, please don’t read further. I post here a sanitized summary of what the Bible says about these things:
Cursing is all about sending verbal harm to others
Taking the Lord’s name in vain is about empty religion
Swearing has to do with taking oaths to guarantee you’re telling the truth.
Cussing is a verbal response to intense emotions inside.
More than any other point I am making, understand this. No word is bad in and of itself. No word. It is the context, purpose, and heart condition that makes a word wrong.
Again, read no further if your purpose is to be outraged that I am using the full version of the “F” word.
Heidi grew up in a bar–literally. Her parents were bar owners in a small town. She grew up hearing every profanity you can imagine. By age 15, she was an alcoholic and used language that would make a longshoreman blush. She married another alcoholic and for years they lived a raunchy life. At age 40, two days after his birthday, he died of a heart attack.
In her distress, Heidi talked to a member of our church who comforted her. During this season of comfort, Heidi asked questions about God. When she got answers which convinced her Jesus loved her and could help her change her life, Heidi wanted to be a part of that. She surrendered her life to Jesus the Messiah. And she did change.
Within months, she was no longer medicating her emotions with alcohol. On Sunday evenings, we had a sharing time when people could talk about what God was doing. Heidi came one week. I will never forget her testimony that Sunday night. No one who was there will forget the words she spoke:
“God has set me free from my shame and alcoholism. I feel fucking great these days. God took all the shitty junk out of me and replaced it with fucking great love. Man, I love God so much!”.
Then she sat down. I want you to imagine the look of horror on some of the faces in our conservative little church. I hadn’t a clue what to say. Then, one of our grandmothers started to laugh uproariously. And others began to applaud. What an amazing night. What these church people saw was pure, unaltered joy, wrapped in the humanity of deep emotion. She spoke a language of intensity, not of profanity.
Now for another perspective. Karla had grown up in church. There was a lady in their church who had hurt her verbally many times. Karla gathered two of her friends with her in a prayer group. They began to pray about this other lady. Months later, Karla told me what they prayed that day. It went something like this:
“God, bless our sister in a special way. She is causing other people a lot of pain. Would you bring pain to her life so she can know what we all feel and so she can somehow change her wicked heart. In Jesus’ name.”
The lady they were “praying” for started to get sick a few days after the prayer meeting. Not only did she get sick, but she kept getting one virus after another. After a couple of months of continuous illness, the doctors said they didn’t know what had happened, but her immune system was shot. That’s when the Prayer Group came and asked me if they had contributed to this. I explained to them that their words were curses. They had cursed this woman.
Yes, their words were a curse. Often, cursing is thought of as people dropping a “fuck” here and there. That is not necessarily cursing.
The Bible mentions curses over 200 times. A curse is something out of our mouth which wishes harm on another person. And whether you believe this or not, curses do work. Balaam had the power to curse other people and his curses happened. Jesus cursed a fig tree and it withered and died. I don’t think most people realize how powerful their curses are. We sometimes make jokes about curses. We tell our children “I hope you have children as awful as you are.”
Really? Is that what you want for your children when they get married and have children?
Understand that it is out of the overflow of our inner soul that the mouth speaks. When we have bitterness and hatred, our words often flow with curses. And those curses have effect. Romans 12:14 has the antidote: “Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them.” Paul gives this instruction because people have always wished harm on others. It is the natural thing to do when you’re hurt. But God does not desire we curse others. We can call them on their shit, we can go to the police, we can exclude them from our lives. Those are all legitimate responses. But to curse another person wraps your life up in that curse. Who wants that?
People also don’t understand swearing. Swearing is not using profanity. Swearing in the Bible has to do with taking oaths. Here is what Jesus says about it in Matthew 5:33-37:
“33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city ofthe great King. 36 Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”
Swearing an oath was used as a manipulation technique to convince others you were telling the truth. We have trouble believing other people at times. In many cultures, people believe if you swear an oath based upon a strong spiritual force, that force would bind you to the oath.
Jesus makes it clear we do not and should not get involved in these kind of oaths. They are evil because they seek to manipulate others and they bind you up to promises you probably should not make. I think of Jephthah and his daughter. In Judges 12, he swore a vow that if God gave his army victory over the Ammonites, whatever came out of his house first would be sacrificed to God. His daughter was the first one out of the house.
What did he think would come out of the house? And did he really kill her? We don’t know for sure, but that is certainly a possibility. Child sacrifice was practiced in the Ancient Near East during that time.
The problem with swearing oaths is diminishing. We don’t usually manipulate that way any more. You do find it in some cultures that are more superstitious.
In the Ten Commandments, in Exodus 20:7, we are told not to take the name of the Lord in vain. The phrasing in Hebrew means “to carry the name of Yahweh like an empty container.” The implication is to speak Yahweh’s name without any reverence or thought.
In their day, this would be another way of saying “empty, thoughtless religion.” Jesus makes this even more clear in Matthew 6 when he warns people,
“6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
I remember a guy named Earl Albert Simpson who would “take over” our prayer meeting every week. He prayed long eloquent prayers, full of scripture and theological words and concepts. I remember he would use the word “Lord” every sentence–he sometimes used it several times. His long drawn-out prayers exhausted the rest of us and discouraged anyone else from praying.
This is taking God’s name in vain. It is the empty repeating of the name of God because you think there is virtue in it.
It is also claiming that God is found in something God has nothing to do with. I get incensed these days when people do this. People will see evil, corrupt, diseased, violent, and very perverse events, and then they will bring God into it. Here are a few statements some people make in those moments:
“God has a purpose for this.”
“God works all of this for his pleasure”
“God wanted another angel” (after the death of a child)
“God is judging our nation for sin” (after a disaster)
“God wanted all those children dead” (one well-know preacher said that God wanted all those children dead or they would be alive).
These statements are taking God’s name in vain. You are carrying God’s name into a situation in your own container, for your own purpose, to justify your own prejudices and biases.
A religious life that claims God does evil of any kind is perverse and taking God’s name in their own container.
Finally, let’s talk about cussing. Is cussing evil?
Normally, after I point out to people they are wrongly using verses related to swearing, taking God’s name in vain, and cursing, they fall back on the standard in Ephesians 5:4:
4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
The Greek word here for “obscenity” is eischrotes which refers to shameful talk. But it probably means shaming talk. Shaming others or speaking of things which bring shame on yourself or others. The guy who talks about screwing 50 women in a year or the woman who talks brazenly about her drug use, or the teen who brags about beating up a child in the playground are entering into eischrotes. Also, shaming other people, putting them down, calling them names–are all examples of eischrotes.
Coarse joking is exactly what it sounds like. It is every variation of sex joke you have ever heard. On top of that, it is speaking about sexual things with a flippant, careless attitude, not recognizing the sacred elements of the sexual act. It is treating sexuality as a meaningless thing instead of a gift for showing love to our partner.
So, what about cussing? And what about the word “fuck”? Is it okay?
It depends. Fuck used as course joking would not be biblical. Fuck used to curse someone else (i.e. “fuck you”) is completely inexcusable. If you used it to refer flippantly to the act of love between partners, I don’t believe this honors God in any way.
However, there is another category. And that involves emotional release.
I know many conservative Christians who have told me that cussing helped them get through hard stress. When they were in great pain–emotional, physical, sexual, relational, spiritual pain–they found that cussing gave them relief. They were completely surprised to find that they were not immediately convicted by the Holy Spirit or even felt one bit bad about it.
One young lady, struggling with the after-effects of a brutal rape, told me that the ability to exclaim “fuck this shit” out loud began the process of healing for her. She never said it to anyone else, but saying it to herself was freeing.
Great emotion requires a release and a response. Saying “Oh poop” probably won’t accomplish it. Saying “crap on a stick” is not going to get the purge started.
I do think we need to be aware of our surroundings and our context. Even in writing this essay, I realize that I need to keep it away, potentially, from people who are not willing to accept this yet. I also know that saying “fuck” in front of crowds is just showing off. I don’t need to be Sam Kinison to get my point across. And children are often not ready to handle any emotional outburst, let alone cussing.
But if you can cuss without cursing, cuss without swearing, cuss without putting God’s name in your own container, I think you will find it to be one legitimate form of emotional release.