Saturday, June 30, 2012

The morality of cursing

There has been a minor eruption in the interwebz on the morality of cursing.  Specifically, the Christian ethic with regards to the use of cuss words.  Is throwing the f-bomb OK, or unequivocally wrong? 

First, I note that I don't like hanging around foul-mouths. They're often annoying, and, simply put, don't know the trade  But right now I will delve into the morality of it.  Here it goes.

There is no specific verse in the Bible that forbids swearing, only warnings against speaking “dirty and unwholesome” words.   The question then, is whether a cuss word need be a dirty word.  Obviously, there is a substantial amount of material evidence that many acts of cursing are immoral by the Biblical metric, evidence that is so abundant it would pointless to cite.   But if most are wrong, are all?  Consider this verse from Ephesians:

4:29 Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.
There you have it.  The standard by which you judge the morality of your words – any words – is whether it edifies. 

Now here’s the question. Have you ever been edified – encouraged, inspired, built-up – when you have heard a curse word used in one fashion or another? I sure know I have.   Sometimes *crap* and *heck* just don’t cut it.  Moreover, it’s amusing to see many anti-cussing Christians liberally use euphemisms in place of cussing (darn, crap, etc.) as if it was any better.  Well guess what, it’s the same thing. The thought is there, the mental attitude is there, and people know exactly what you’re saying.  Putting a * instead of the appropriate letter (spelling the s-word like sh*t) doesn’t elevate you on some moral high ground.  It may be more socially acceptable, but, and it pains me to have to point this out, acceptability is not morality.  (That doesn’t mean there’s never a place for the * or -.  I still use them, because manners and good-faith still matter). 

Actually, let me qualify that one.  There are two elements to the edification metric.  When you speak, you affect both others and yourself.  The end goal of words is to edify both.  Yelling *crap* when your frustrated is little different than yelling the s-word if 1) your mental state is the same and 2) the effect it has on other people is the same, as per the apostle Paul when he says do not make your brother stumble.  With regards to 1), we must have OWNERSHIP of ourselves, self-control in all things, especially in what we say. If swearing means victory of the flesh over the spirit, the prevailing of bodily impulses over your conscious, then it’s wrong.  There is no action that doesn’t affect one’s character – not one – because even the most trivial thing you do is either an exercise in self-control or indulgence.  And if character is the ability to do the right thing even when one doesn’t feel like it, then character is made through self-control. 

As for 2), there are times when using a euphemism has less of a negative influence than spouting the real thing,  particularly in front of younger, more impressionable kids, much more so than say, if you were with the military.       

So, while the overwhelming majority of cussing is an abuse of the tongue, and is thus immoral, there are times when it produces a positive result.  For me personally, I have many pithy motivators that I recite to myself for the purpose of spurring a specific mindset or action. This is called auto-suggestion, and some of them contain swear words. A particularly effective one runs in the voice of one of my role-models:  

“You got one life to live, why wait tomorrow to start it? Right the fuck now! Today begins, tomorrow continues, and it never ends, until you’ve reached your goal and crossed the finish line, with your hand held victorious.” 

Could I just say friek? Sure, but it simply wouldn’t be as effective.   It wouldn’t produce the same sense of urgency.   In this case, the f-word doesn’t tear people down or represent a cancerous state of mind.  It’s just a word. And like all words, it can be used for good and evil, some just one way more than the other. 
Swear words are extreme tools, be careful when you use them.  In most cases using them is wrong, (not only wrong – they can make you sound like a moron, because most people who cuss liberally are tools),  though in other cases they are appropriate, according to the need of the moment.  But the problem is usually cussing too often, not too little. Many people need to be chastened for swearing too liberally while rarely does one need to be chastened for swearing too little.

Exercise self-control in your speech, maintain a positive and healthy mental attitude, and edify others by your words.  Swearing should be used to fit in that.


  1. There is a difference, I think, theologically from using obscene (or "dirty" or vulgar or unceremonious) speech and actually profane speech, in which actual holy things are profaned. Vain use of "God" or "Jesus Christ" or "Mother Mary" is actually condemned in the decalogue, and ought to be far more offensive than language referring (angrily or otherwise) to feces or coitus or racial groups.

  2. I think you're spot on. Kind of chilling, then, how taking the Lord's name in vain is more socially acceptable than using harsh language.

  3. A grouping of letters does not represent the actual thing itself.
    Meaning and truth is the end-all.
    How many people repeat Pavlovian words ad-nausium, only to not actually have the thing itself which the grouping of letters are ostensibly describing and supposedly representing??
    Only fools do not see that "good words" are at least as dangerous as "bad words".
    One might actually start to believe they have what they have not.

  4. Great point Roy, or that there are even such things as "good" and "bad" words at all.

  5. Morality is a test of our conformity rather than our integrity.

  6. Cursing is actually a little less clear. There’s an admonition not to curse parents in Exodus 21:7 (and repeated in Leviticus 20:9). In Matthew 15:4 Jesus quotes those verses but “curse” is translated as “speaks evil of.”

  7. cursing in any way is not moral for me.