Growing up as a conservative Christian, I knew that one of the most important things a Christian can do is…to not say curse words. After all, the Bible says:
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)
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. (Ephesians 4:29)
and Jesus even said
And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:10-11)
As if that weren’t enough, there was also the ever-looming fear of “not being a good witness,” which basically meant that if someone who was not a Christian saw a Christian doing something bad, the probability of them ever loving Jesus dramatically decreased.
And okay. I can appreciate the dedication to detail that my conservative Christian upbringing inspired. God knows I have taken that intense introspection and run with it. (“God knows,” there’s another piece of the puzzle, to be dissected at the end of this post.)* But I decidedly disagree with what I was taught as a kid.
A Brief Self-History
When I was a teenager, I loved to cuss. It felt so good to be so bad. And undoubtedly, a big part of this linguistic phase was rebellion. As I mentioned, cussing is pretty much the most obvious way to rebel against conservative Christendom. But there was already some logic ticking away in my brain, and I couldn’t make things add up.
I remember one fight in particular. I was in the car with my mom (the car was our favorite place to fight), and I was passionately explaining why cussing didn’t matter. “They are just SYLLABLES, Mom! Just sounds coming out of my mouth! ‘GOOP.’ Whoa, did I just cuss?? Could be, if we suddenly decide as a society that ‘goop’ is a naughty word. THIS IS DUMB.”
Soon thereafter, I kind of re-focused my life on Jesus (what we call “re-commitment” in the conservative world). And along with learning to love myself, forgive others, and stop asking God to kill me, I gave up cussing. It felt like a package deal at the time, like “cleaning up my life, better stop saying ‘shit’!”
But this was not to last, mostly because I met people who cussed and who loved Jesus desperately. And I noticed that some very articulate and intelligent people cussed. And I started to believe that cussing had a real purpose (aside from the simple joy of a good crunchy word in your mouth).
As a counselor, one of my absolute favorite things is to work with little old church ladies who open up about a lifetime of abuse and neglect. Without fail, they have solid backbones and dry eyes as they assure me they know, “God is good. Everything happens for a reason.”
My favorite thing in the world is to lean forward and say, “God IS good. And I have no doubt that he has used these things for some kind of redemption, but that does not change the fact that life can be really shitty sometimes.”
These little old ladies blink a couple times at someone in a place of Christian authority using an inappropriate word…and then start giggling. Most of them wind up saying, “You know, it IS shitty.” And then the floodgates open, and some of them are able to cry, and all of them feel safe to talk about the things they thought might be off-limits.
So that’s my foundational reason for why it’s okay to cuss. Curse words are necessary to express our deepest feelings, whether rage, disgust, disappointment, or ecstasy. They’re not inherently bad, but I do think they’re powerful. But wait, I haven’t explained why they’re not inherently bad.
What Does the Bible Teach?
Look back at those Bible verses. Does it say anywhere that there is a particular list of words that are off-limits? No. Instead, the focus is on the power of words and the necessity to use them wisely. I find this verse far more helpful in understanding what the Bible teaches about cursing:
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:22)
Last I checked, “fool” is not a curse word. Yet Jesus says those who use it might be headed to hell. Clearly he’s not referring to someone shaking their head and saying, “Wow, I was such a fool.” I believe he’s referring to the aggressive, hateful way we sometimes speak to people.
Here’s where I say that there ARE some curse words I won’t use. I don’t like “bitch” or “bastard” (unless used carefully for humor, but CAREFULLY) or especially their more aggressive cousins that I don’t even want to write here.
The reason I don’t like these particular curse words is because they are insulting. They strip a person of their human dignity. But so do “idiot” and “worthless” and “cry-baby.” I FIRMLY believe that God cares desperately about the words that come out of our mouths. But I think his interest lies not in a particular set of words but in how we use any words to either build up or tear down the people that he lovingly created.
What Does It Mean to be a Good Witness?
Alright, so even if the Bible is (at least) ambivalent about curse words, what about that age-old fear of being a bad witness for God?
I mean, I kind of emotionally throw up at the WEIGHT of this responsibility that borders on self-importance. When I think back on the skits I watched at youth group conferences of teenagers dying in car crashes, going to hell, and wailing at their Christian friends, “If only you had told me about Jesus!” I want to throw things across the room. This is so dehumanizing (for them), paralyzing (for us) and limiting (for God). Does it matter how we present ourselves to the world? Of course. But I don’t think there ever comes a time when our actions take a person’s responsibility for their own soul out of their hands and into mine.
And anyway! What does being a good Christian witness even mean? I was taught that it revolved around all the things I should NOT do: cuss, drink, show cleavage, listen to Top 40 hits, etc. I was told that if I just stopped doing things that “the world” did, then people would notice something different about me and want to know the God that had changed my life.
Zero people did this. On the other hand, I did have one very important person in my life flee from my self-righteousness and the God it supposedly defended.
If there is a Christian/world divide (and I become increasingly convinced that it’s not that easy), I think it lies along the things that we DO. In the Bible, we are constantly told to “bear one another’s burdens,” “love one another,” “submit one to another,” “let your speech be always with grace,” and “be unified.”
When I take a step back and think, “What would really wow the general population?” I can’t help but imagine that a group of people who have managed to redistribute their money so that no one is in poverty, who take time to listen to each other’s problems, who do whatever they can to meet each other’s needs, who extend forgiveness and grace and mercy instead of hate, distrust, or judgement….I mean, WOW. I would be bowled over by that kind of people!
Maybe there’s someone out there who thinks, “Everything bad in my life has something to do with cursing and drinking and immodesty. I wish I could find a group of people who don’t do any of those things.” That’s super possible, actually! But I don’t think that’s the general need out there when it comes to people longing for something more than what the world offers.
In Summary, Because God Knows* I’m Not Good at Summarizing
I don’t think cursing is wrong. I think words are useful, fun, and creative, and so long as you are not dehumanizing a person through insults, they’re pretty much fair game. If you disagree, totally cool. I will never force a person to say something they don’t want to say. But as for me…I’m going to use curse words. I mean, there are few positive memories so incandescent as when I successfully translated a sentence into Greek and shouted, “I’M SO FUCKING SMART!” with an ecstatic smile.
And I just don’t think that’s a sin.
* I was also taught that saying “God” in almost any way outside of a prayer was a sin (aka “taking the Lord’s name in vain”). Because of this, I grew up thinking of creative ways to avoid saying “oh my God” like “oh my goodness” or, for a while, “oh my stars.” But the older I’ve gotten, the more absurd this seems. Isn’t this taking God OUT of our conversations?
After all, “oh my God” is expressing surprise and the desire that God will be with you through it.
“God knows” is…like, really great. God does know.
“Thank God” is also exactly what we OUGHT to be saying, right? Am I crazy? Why do I feel crazy?
I recently discussed this with a Greek friend. In Greece Christians have no problem saying, “Θεέ μου” (“my God”). Instead, they avoid saying “Lucifer” or “Satan” because they think that’s a bad name to have in your mouth.
THIS MAKES SO MUCH MORE SENSE TO ME. Okay, done.