The Problem with Profanity

Has profanity crept into your home? This article may help you shut the door on it.
( [email protected] ) Mar 27, 2004 02:37 PM EST

One day a man was in the hospital and had a stream of visitors from his church. Two men had stopped by, when their quiet conversation was interrupted by another patient's peppery language from behind the curtain. Before leaving, the visitors read some Scripture and prayed.

After they left, the roommate loosed another string of expletives and then sheepishly confessed, "If I had known one of those guys was a minister, I'd have watched my language."

"Oh?" the man replied, "You obviously don't understand. They were the deacons in the church. I'm the minister."

I suppose most ministers could share a similar story. There have been numerous times when someone let profanity slip in my presence and would hasten to say, "Sorry, Reverend." To which, I would respond: "I appreciate your sensitivity, but you need not direct your apology to me, only to God."

Without question, the use of profanity has become commonplace in our society. Noted Scottish scholar William Barclay wrote: "There can never have been a time in history when so much filthy language is used as it is today. And the tragedy is that today there are many people who have become so habituated to unclean talk that they are unaware they are using it." Keep in mind these comments by Barclay were written 46 years ago. If such was the case then, what is it now?

Well, it's so bad now the Federal Communications Commission has decreed that use of the "f-word" on national prime-time television or radio is no longer obscene, but decent. Unless, however, the word is used to describe that sacred act God gave a husband and wife for pleasure and procreation.

"Huh?" you say. "You mean the 'f-word' is only considered indecent if it actually describes sex?" That's right. We've come a long way since President Clinton redefined his sexual liaison with Monica Lewsinsky, saying, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is', is." Or oral sex is not sex.

In this culture of relative morals, how is it that one identifies "profanity"? In a book written shortly before his death, TV celebrity Steve Allen railed against foul language and its inundation of today's airwaves. He said it was a breach of common "morality" and manners, though he obviously knew very little about how to define morality or defend it.

The Bible doesn't provide a prohibited vocabulary list, but it does contain guidelines that will assist any person in avoiding speech patterns displeasing to God.

Words become profane when sacred meanings are treated in trivial fashion. This could have many applications such as taking God's name in vain (Ex. 20:7), falsely taking an oath in God's name (Lev. 19:12), or whimsically accentuating one's affirmations with expressions such as "by God." It could also refer to crude expressions like, "Oh my God!" or "Lordy mercy" and "Jesus Christ!" The Greek word bebeloo is translated "profane" twice in the New Testament (Mt. 12:5; Acts 24:6), essentially meaning to take something highly revered and desecrating its sanctity by identifying it with what's common.

The Scriptures also prohibit "filthy" talking (Eph. 5:4), which involves telling obscene stories and coarse jokes. "Filthy" talking is any kind of speech that flouts moral standards. Prohibitions against similar forms of expression would include "lascivious" speech (2 Peter 2:18) -- expressions which are designed to conjure up unwholesome sexual images.

Moreover, profanity involves "cursing," which is to utter a malevolent imprecation upon someone. Wayne Jackson in Profanity -- A Biblical Assessment writes: "It finds a modern vent in such phrases as, 'You go to hell!' or 'Damn you!' It is important to note at this point that neither of these terms, 'hell' or 'damn,' is inherently evil. There is a proper context in which they are permissible. Jesus spoke of that sort of person who is 'a child of hell', and the Great Commission warns that those who believe not 'shall be damned.' It is the manner in which such terms are employed -- i.e, hatefully, vindictively, in a pejorative fashion, that makes the use of them wrong."

Ephesians 4:29 beautifully summarizes these principles when it instructs: Don't use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.

Although many are unwilling to recognize it, the use of profanity is a big deal. According to Cuss Control Academy, an organization in Lake Forest, Illinois -- which incidentally has no religious affiliation and gives presentations on how to help eliminate profanity from the workplace -- "swearing" imposes both personal and societal penalties. For the individual user, it endangers relationships, discloses a lack of character, reflects ignorance as well as immaturity, and creates an overall bad impression. It often turns discussions into arguments and can lead to violence. James V. O'Conner, president of CCA, contends: "Our reluctance to restrain our impulses and to make the effort to be polite is contributing to a coarser, less civil society."

The Apostle James said nature has no confusion in her ways. A fountain has either salt or fresh water. A fig tree bears figs, not olives; the vine bears grapes and not figs. But man, the highest of God's creation, is conflicted. There's something wrong in his inner being. And the fact that he blesses with one breath and curses in the next is evidence of it.

Do you have a problem with profanity? Colonel Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame used to have a problem. He said he could never get control until he turned his life over to the Lord. The secret of a governable tongue is not self-control, but Christ control.

On September 11, 1995, a squirrel climbed onto the Metro-North Railroad power lines near New York City. This set off an electrical surge which weakened on overhead bracket, which let a wire dangle toward the tracks, which tangled in a train, which tore down all the lines. As a result, 47,000 commuters were stuck in Manhattan for hours. Strange how something little, even something as small as a word or certain expressions, can cause a tremendous amount of damage.