What’s wrong with swearing?

At school, almost everyone does it, including teachers. I heard about a local school where teachers told their students to make sure they use gender-neutral swear words! It used to be that swearing was on the BBC only after the 9pm watershed, but not now. It’s there on Radio 4 in the evening. In fact, no one had used the “F” word on British TV until 1965, when theatre critic Kenneth Tyan said it during a live broadcast. It resulted in 4 motions in the Houses of Parliament and an apology from the BBC!  

Now, of course, language changes. The Authorised Version of the Bible uses words that I’d consider inappropriate today e.g. “pisseth against the wall” (1 Sam 25:22), and “bastards” (Heb 12:8). Shakespearean English is fruity. The language of some of our theological heroes, like Martin Luther, contains lots of filth. Look up a Hebrew lexicon and you’ll notice all kinds of words describing male and female genitalia, that are more obscure in English translation. A careful study of the vocabulary of a chapter like Ezekiel 23 would make lots of us blush. So, we shouldn’t underestimate the effects of a prudish Victorianism on us. We mustn’t sanitise the Bible, and clean up God’s holy word. 

Writing a list of banned words is a fool’s errand. The Bible doesn’t give us such a list. So, I can’t tell you that to utter such and such a word is automatically sinful. But does that mean that swearing is OK? Is this just an area of “Christian liberty”? 

Definitely not. There are plenty of words that Christians shouldn’t be in the habit of using. For example, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place” (Eph 5:4). The Bible is crystal clear on the importance of pure speech. Christians are not to be potty-mouthed. 

Jesus encourages great care in the words that we use: “on the day of judgment, people will give an account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt 12:36-37). 

Then, there’s the question of self-control. Can you stop? I remember a youth leader sharing that it was his inability to stop swearing as a teenager that God used to convict him of his sin and lead him to Jesus. He was scared to realise that he couldn’t stop swearing; it dawned on him that he wasn’t the good kid he liked to think he was. 

For Christians to simply stop swearing is hardly the goal for Christian speech, but it’s definitely a good start. To work in the office or the warehouse and not swear will immediately make you stand out. And that’s not nothing. The gift of speech is one of the things that makes us God-like, and distinguishes us from the animals. Jesus Christ wants to sanctify our tongues. Sure, we live in a sinful world, and need to express moral revulsion and hatred of sin, but we’re called to do it in a holy way. Mencken (no Christian!) points out “thousands of excellent nouns, verbs, and adjectives that have stood in every decent dictionary for years are still unfamiliar” to lots of us. Why not try using them?

If this is a struggle, start praying about it. “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” (Psalm 141:3).