Part Two: Why Words Matter
In January 2022, I made a chalkboard sign and hung it in my laundry/sewing room. It says “It has been [blank] days since my last “F” word.” I rescinded permission to myself to use that word, no matter how distressed I felt.
I made it 20 days, and then I lost my temper. I kept up the discipline of tracking my tongue until March, and then I got tired of failing, discouraged by the smear of chalk dust that marked my failures, and shoved the sign in a basket of unfinished projects.
I got the board out again this week, as part of this “why words matter” series. One of my core beliefs is that words have power, and yet I have struggled with swearing since high school. I don’t curse at people, but I curse about people and situations, especially when I am very sad or very hurt, and anger steps in as sadness’s body guard. When I first started working the Twelve Steps eight years ago, I gave myself permission to use any word I wanted when I talked to my sponsor, as I was unearthing some really serious pain. I stopped trying to be “good,” in my “shares” with her, as trying to “be good” had kept me from naming pain in the past. It was therapeutic and freeing. But using coarse language has ceased to be a tool and has become a liability and a bad habit. Time to reign it in.
I did a survey on Instagram, and most people (including Christians) said that, yes, they curse; half of those said they were trying to quit. In a second survey, half of the faithful I questioned said they believed swearing was sinning, even in therapy. My favorite response was from one woman says that she swears in therapy so she won’t swear in the world, and she and I would be good friends.
I actually do believe that swearing is sinning most of the time, and is probably not edifying any of the time. I want to point out a couple of things that make cuss words in the mouth of Jesus followers an unholy alliance.
Curse words typically come in two major categories (get ready to squirm, church ladies). One: sexuality and body parts related to sexuality. And two: Holy names and damnation.
What does it mean about a society, when the most aggressive word we can use to express anger towards another person is a vulgar word for sex? Sex, the God-given gift for the purposes of human bonding and creating life, is turned into something violent. Likewise, the body parts involved in this sacred act have become the vilest insults. This is also true in British English, which I learned the hard way, when I used the British word for testicles in front a friend who had lived in England. (It sounded charming when Hugh Grant said it!) Put in this context, I can’t really see following in the feet of Jesus and calling out the “effing” hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Can you?
The second form of swearing is more accurately called cursing. James says, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” Cursing literally means “to call upon divine power to send harm or evil upon.” “Damn you” or “Go to hell,” are the worst things you can say to a person, especially if you believe in hell. To damn an object (like a jammed printer, not that I have experience with this) doesn’t really jive for a Jesus follower either, because it’s trivializing a serious word.
Likewise, when people are most distressed or angry, they call out God’s name, say “Jesus Christ,” or, “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” which is extremely irreverent to Catholic ears and should also be to the evangelical or protestant. I should probably remind us that not making light of the Lord’s name is the second commandment out of the famous Ten. I’ve told many a preteen guest in our house that we don’t use the phrase “Oh my God” in our house, because we think God is real, and we don’t call out to him unless we mean it.
Now, we have a final, smaller category of commonly considered swear words that are poop and poop related products. (Somewhere, my kids are snickering.) And honestly, though these words land in the “coarse language” category that Paul says are inappropriate for Christians, they might not totally rise to the level of obscene. If I drop something heavy on my foot and use the “s-h” word, I’m inclined to think Jesus is more likely to lovingly say, “Yeah, that looks like it hurt” than he would be if I use the “F” word and he’s obligated to wag his finger at me.
All joking aside, all our sins are forgivable and forgiven. But what God’s will for our mouths? Not just to cease using cuss words, but to find a better way to express what is in our hearts. Words are powerful, and we can heal what we can name. Instead of saying, “this situation is so ‘effed’ up,” I’m learning to say, “This is a dangerous/toxic/intolerable situation, and we need to get out/find a solution.”
As I wrote last week in my blog about striking “crazy” from our vocabulary, cuss words may make us feel more powerful in the moment, but they are ultimately dis-empowering. We are mastered by emotion, rather than healed through expressing it. I can weep, go face down on the couch and cry out to God and receive comfort, without having to lose control of my tongue. I can say, “I feel betrayed, abandoned, forgotten, rejected,” which are all strong and accurate words, and Jesus, as he promised long ago, comes to comfort me.
I hope this has brought some conviction to you, my dearests, but no condemnation! Christ died for even greater failings than dropping an f-bomb, and certainly comforts the potty-mouthed as well as those with tamed tongues. There’s no chalk dust when he wipes away your sins. And God not only welcomes your strong feelings, he sent his Spirit to groan on your behalf. Take heart.
For further study, from www.gotquestions.org
Coarse jesting and crude joking do not reflect the new life we have in Christ. God desires to transform us by renewing our minds and sanctifying our spirits (Romans 12:1–2; 2 Corinthians 10:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:3). We are walking temples, dedicated to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Physical body parts that were once dedicated to sin become “instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:12–13). Our mouths are part of our bodies and a significant part of that transformation. From our mouths should come worship and praise, edification and encouragement, truth and blessing (James 3:9–12). Controlling our mouths is part of true religion: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not bridle his tongue, he deceives his heart and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26).