Before I begin, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not providing an argument or justification for swearing like a sailor. Your momma raised you better than that. Thank you. ***
"Macaroni and cheese sucks."
Some of you are aghast right now. Jaw to the floor, or hands to the mouth, or face red like a tomato, or all of the above. I'll bet that somewhere close to 99% of the people who read that statement and were offended find offense with the idea that I think macaroni and cheese is an awful abomination of a dish created in the bowels of Hades and my gag reflex kicks in every time I think of it.
But how many people were offended that I said the word "sucks"? If you grew up in the house I grew up in, sucks was a deeply offensive term. Soap-in-the-mouth kind of offensive. I know an entire generation (or two) of people that doesn't blink when this word is uttered nowadays. I also remember my friend's mom once saying at a youth group meeting, "That pisses me off." We all freaked out. When I went to college, I met dozens, maybe hundreds of people for whom pissed was a part of every day vocabulary.
What's the deal?
How can a word be so bad in one place and not another? How can a word be reviled at one time and be accepted only a few years later? Doesn't the Bible say not to use such "naughty" language?
And why did the adults who so strongly rebuked us as kids for using "naughty" language always seem to let slip said language when stubbing their toe or when in the company of other adults and unaware any children were listening?
I want to make a case for a shift in focus when it comes to "bad" language.
For most of my life, I've been (not literally) given a list of words not to say. These are our "cuss words." The ones that NBC bleeps out on late-night talk shows. The ones that you sheepishly omit when belting out the lyrics to the latest Katy Perry song. The problem is, it seems to be an ever-shifting list with words constantly being added and taken off, dependent upon time passing, the company surrounding you, or where you find yourself located. Ultimately, the appropriateness of any given word is slave to so many subjective forces that even the "holiest" of priests can find themselves in hot water for a word they've uttered.
What does the Bible really say about this?
Well, to start, cussing is never mentioned.
Swearing? Yes. Cursing? Yes. A little context is required, though.
James 5:12 mentions swearing: "...do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your "yes" be yes and your "no" be no..."
...and Matthew 5:34 in some versions also mentions swearing; the ESV says this: "Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth..."
A grasping of the context tells us that this is about letting our word be good and not relying on some kind of oath to back up what we say. Not quite the ruling on "sucks" that we're looking for.
Let's take a look at several verses that mention cursing:
Psalm 10:7 His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.
Psalm 59:12 For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter.
Romans 3:13-14 Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive." "The venom of asps is under their lips." "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness."
Romans 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
James 3:9-10 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
These are some great verses. If you look at what they're saying about cursing, they all have one or two things in common: the mention of lying or deceit and/or cursing people. When these scriptures mention cursing, they refer to lying, dishonesty, deceit, and venom toward people.
In the cases of any of these verses, the issue of cuss words in the sense that I'm referring to isn't really tackled. Now, there is an abundance of verses about avoiding perverse and coarse language, and those are not to be taken lightly. There are verses on idle and senseless talk, and we can debate all day about what falls under that category: talking about the game, talking about TV shows we watched, talking about the latest technology, the latest fashion, the latest car? I had a long conversation with someone the other day about the rocket-propelled flushing of one of the toilets in the middle school...am I in trouble?
So...What's the deal?
I have to ask this: What's the difference between someone yelling, "Oh s***!" when they drop something on their foot and yelling, "Oh poop!" or, "Oh gosh golly dear!" I wonder if God would differentiate his perspective between those three responses. I wonder if he marks one down in his book as "Check. Definite sin," and the others as "Let it slide. Those were appropriate and holy split-second responses to pain."
I have to laugh when people get themselves all worked up when they hear a cuss word. I laugh because usually those same people have simply replaced those cuss words with substitute words. Instead of "sucks," we use "stinks." Instead of "damn," we use "darn" or "dang." Instead of "hell," we use "heck." Instead of "s***," we use "poop," "stuff," "bull," "crap." And then I have to ask: What's the difference?
And I have to ask as well: What does God really look at?
Every indication to me says that God looks at the heart and intention.
It seems to me that God's focus is less on specific wording and more on purpose.
Take James 3:9 for example (see above). The tragedy that God wants us to see through that verse is not the use of one word vs. another, but rather one intention vs. another: it's a tragedy when we curse and tear down people made in the image of God rather than blessing them and bringing life with our words.
Matthew 12:44 and Luke 6:45 both say that out of the overflow and abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Our attitude toward people will be reflected in our speech toward those people. We have the power to speak life to people and about people, and we have the power to tear them down and belittle God's creation.
The same is the case with verses like these:
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.
Proverbs 12:18 There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
I've known several people whom I have never heard utter a single cuss word but have not grasped the concept that the manner and intention of their speech damages people. I've known people who are "rough around the edges" but are the most encouraging and uplifting people I know. Now you tell me: who among those two types of people really understand the true power and value of the tongue?
What would you remember most about someone? That they used the word "ass" every once in a while, or that they cut you down and criticized you at every turn? Unfortunately, I recently was with a person who will be remembered forever by the people who worked with him as an extremely negative and discouraging person, and he did all that without the help of a single cuss word.
Now this is no reason to justify playing fast and loose with our words; several Proverbs speak of the wisdom of having control of our tongues. We also have a responsibility to not be offensive for the sake of being offensive and presenting ourselves in the best light. There is certainly a danger in believing any word is okay to say. Yelling "Goddammit!" or "Christ!" when you spill your drink is probably a bad idea. And by probably, I mean there is a commandment about taking the Lord's name in vain, and I'm sure God's not happy that you've associated His name with bad events that unfold in your life. I don't want to be someone who cheapens the name of the Creator of the Universe by using it trivially.
There is also a danger in raising people to care so greatly about avoiding this word or that word and declaring that God cares greatly about it. The danger is that you will miss the point. Too many people get so blinded and consumed with trying to follow a rule that they miss the true heart and intention and meaning and power and extent of what God wants.
If we focus our energy solely on trying to uphold a list of words not to say, we are expending our energy in the wrong way. The true power of the tongue lies in being true, being honest, and bringing life and encouragement to every single person around us, helping everyone see the beauty of God's grace and creation in themselves and all around us.