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On Cussing and Cursing

August 24, 2006

In English the words once meant the same thing.  But in common usage (it seems to me) cussing refers to the use of obscene words considered inappropriate for polite company, while cursing means speaking evil of someone, putting them down. 

I really wish I could let this issue go, but I can’t.  I remain bewildered and troubled at how many people strain out the gnat of cussing and swallow the camel of cursing.  Cussing is defined by cultural standards and is not that big a freakin’ deal.  Cursing people is a terrible sin that is rebuked by God on page after page after page of Scripture. 

It is not my desire to promote the widespread use of profanity.  See my earlier post on this matter.  But I must show you that the Bible does in fact use strong language that most of us would consider inappropriate in polite company.

2 Kings 18:27 But Rabshakeh said unto them, Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?

Ezekiel 23:3 They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; there their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosoms handled.

Philippians 3:8 Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung

The BAGD Greek English lexicon gives this rendering of that last phrase: “It’s all crap.” 

What, you ask, about Colossians 3:8? “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”  The word for obscene talk is literally “shameful words”.  Now, I ask you, what makes a word shameful?  Is it not that it expresses anger, wrath, malice, or slander?  Look at how the NASB translates this verse, “But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.”  Must a word be obscene to be abusive?  Are all obscene words abusive?  Is Paul’s use of “crap” in Philippians 3:8 abusive?

How about Ephesians 5:3-4 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

Again I ask, how do you decide which words are filthy?  Words that glorify or make light of sexual immorality are filthy.  Those words don’t have to be four letter words.  You can make light of sexual immorality in very refined language. 

The word for crude joking is “eutrapelia”  If you know a little Greek, you know that the prefix “eu” means good, as in eulogy, or euphemism.  Why then is this word for jesting translated coarse jesting?  The context requires it, but it is worth noting that the word was usually used in earlier Greek in a postive way.  It just means “wit”.  Calvin writes, “The Greek word eutrapelia is often used by heathen writers in a good sense, for sharp and salty pleasantry in which able and intelligent men may properly indulge.  But as it is exceedingly difficult to be witty without becoming biting…Paul very properly recalls us from it.”  We must be careful about using our wit for the evil ends of cursing others.

I know, I know, I’m so totally busted.  I am beginning to pray regularly for God to change me in this regard.   And this is why we must not let the Pharisees dumb this verse down into just a prohibition of potty words.  I want the real holiness of a tongue that blesses others and is a fountain of life, not the counterfeit holiness of a tongue that seldom says the seven dirty words.

Marc Driscoll is a pastor who sometimes gets into hot water for saying words that some regard as profane.  One angry reformed blogger responded by calling Driscoll a theological lightweight and that no one (including John Piper who invited him to speak as his conference next month) would be paying attention to him if he didn’t have 5000 people coming to his church.  Now I ask you, would that statement be any more sinful if he had called Driscoll a freakin’ lightweight?  I don’t think so.  And what is he insinuating about John Piper’s discernment by such a comment? 

He didn’t use any profanity, but that kind of talk is freakin’ reprehensible.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2006 10:53 am

    Interesting points.

    I’m trying to figure out the significance of you substituting freakin’ for f***ing. Is it simply that there’s a profanity filter built into the wordpress system, or are you “straining the gnat” by changing it, or is it something else?

    I thought there was a specific word for when people say gosh, darn, and heck in place of their alternatives, but I seem to be wrong. Is there any difference between the two in actual use? Perhaps in the level of offense taken.

  2. August 24, 2006 11:04 am

    Although I argue that there is no absolute prohibition of the use of any word, I still maintain that most of our uses of obscene words are inappropriate because they

    1) curse people
    2) blaspheme God
    3) make light of sexual immorality
    4) express anger
    or violate the catch-all rule
    5) Love is not rude.

    So I don’t want to use the words here and unnecessarily shock my audience, many of whom might be offended by the word. I guess I still am straining the gnat, at least here on the blog. But my main point is don’t swallow the camel, with or without the F-word. More coming tomorrow.

  3. August 24, 2006 11:07 am

    Here’s the post about “Love is not Rude”

  4. August 24, 2006 11:12 am

    I guess it’s partly because it’s easier to avoid cussing than it is to avoid cursing. With cussing, there’s a specific list of words that you know you shouldn’t say. With cursing, there are an infinite number of ways to sin, and the discipline required is more of a discipline of thought rather than a discipline of mechanics.

    But either way I think we’re better focusing on edifying speech and what that is and how it’s done than on the other things.

  5. Oddball permalink
    August 24, 2006 2:41 pm

    Regarding #4, are all expressions of anger wrong, regardless of profanity?

    What about #3? Is it wrong to use a word like “screwed” as slang for getting a raw deal?

  6. August 24, 2006 3:20 pm

    Regarding expressions of anger, I have come to believe, though I could be wrong, that we are always sinning when we speak in anger. I get this from Psalm 4:4 In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. and James 1:20 the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Perhaps you could argue that Jesus spoke in anger to the Pharisees, so maybe it’s theoretically possible to speak in anger without sin. But we’re not Jesus.

    Regarding #3, I hesitate to judge such things for others. I think it depends much on your intention and your audience. Connotations of words vary between subcultures.

  7. blondie permalink
    August 24, 2006 4:44 pm

    First, Is anger always wrong?

    Second, this cussing/cursing thing. I grew up in a household that never cussed and rarely cursed others. It is hard to wrap my mind around the concept that those words are okay to use. We didn’t use them because they were considered “filthy language”, we didn’t use them because we did not hear them in our home.

    I tell my kids that the english language is so broad, there are so many other options than the boring old words that everyone knows. Why are you more of a man because you say “#&!*$%*” instead of “ouch!” when you slam your finger in a car door?

    My neighbor calls it colorful language. She used to apologize to me when she cussed or cursed someone. Now, she just talks freely and once in awhile bashfully looks at me after an explicative. In my mind I know my language or hers is not what keeps us in or out of favor with God and that has made our interaction more comfortable. If I whinced upon every cuss word she used it would not give her a desire to know Jesus.

    But now when my christian friends sit in my kitchen and cuss repeatedly I am offended. Again there is no more favor for me or that person because of what is being said…..but it takes effort on my part not to sin in my thoughts and so to then curse that person for their language. (So, then maybe the undertone of what I was being taught growing up was that those words are filthy language and should not be used.)

    In the end it does not matter, because if I sin against you by thinking that it was wrong God will deal with me on it. And if you get convicted for using that kind of language in my home, then God deals with you. :-) It all works out in the end.

    But then, what do you advocate teaching our kids? That obscene language is okay for them to use? No, they would never be able to discern when it is appropriate and when it isn’t. This wasn’t verbally taught in my home. It was caught. So, what do I teach my children. That there is no word in the english language that is off limits to them? That seems so foreign to me.

  8. August 24, 2006 7:06 pm

    For whatever reason, and in spite of my libertarian views on cussing, I can’t remember my children ever using obscenity in front of me. Surely they have on the playground, but they are savvy enough to keep it out of the house. Even kids are evidently able to pick up on the social conventions and so they break them out of willfulness, not ignorance.

    If my child ever did let an obscenity fly, I can almost guarantee it wouldn’t fall into the very small category of acceptable use, like Paul’s “crap”. They would most likely be cursing someone. So I would rebuke them sharply. But when I did, I wouldn’t just say “Don’t ever use that word again!” and wash their mouth out with soap. I would aim for the heart and try to get them to see just why what they said was so unacceptable. Just giving them a list of words never to use seems like a short cut we’d be very sorry for taking. I want to raise kids who think these things through with me.

    If your Christian friends who cuss in your kitchen offend you, let them know. But have a better reason for why it’s offensive than just “that’s a dirty word”. They probably shouldn’t cuss in your kitchen. But get to the heart of their anger, rudeness, lack of love, cursing of people, etc. I don’t think I would cuss in your kitchen, just out of respect for you. (I hope I never have! :-) )

  9. August 24, 2006 10:17 pm

    One of my friends taught her 7-year-old son to curse- but only to gain attention from passerby in case of an attempted kidnapping (or other emergency). She figured he was much more likely to gain the kind of response she wanted out of other adults by saying “I don’t know this *****,” rather than “He’s not my daddy!” or other, milder words.

    But what really intrigued me about the whole matter is that her son, while perfectly willing to cuss in front of strangers should the need arise, refuses to cuss in front of me. Their house is filled with profanity and angry words and unkind language, and probably his aversion to cussing in front of me is just because he has never heard me cuss, but I certainly see it as one way of spreading light into the dark places of the world. If no one else in the family understands that Christians are separated from the world (or that I am different from them), the little boy does, if only because I don’t use profanity around him ever. *shrugs*

  10. Oddball permalink
    August 25, 2006 4:01 pm

    I’m not convinced that all expressions of anger are sinful. For example, I heard a story this morning on NPR about CBS deciding not to censor the cussing from an upcoming 9/11 documentary. They made the same decision not to censor their recent broadcast of Saving Private Ryan, and a national “family values” group went berserk. Fortunately (in my opinion) the FCC ignored their complaints. I find it ludicrous that they would consider the cussing to be the most traumatic aspect of either film. If I thought my kids were mature enough to handle watching one of them, the language would be the least of my concerns. Moreover, if I’d been at D-Day or stuck in the collapsing World Trade Center, I think I’d let out some expletives without any remorse.

  11. Egana permalink
    August 27, 2006 3:34 pm

    Strong words to communicate strong emotion?

    We need some sort of articulation, not just AAAAAAARHGLLLLLLLLRHAAAAAA!?

    That’s very interesting. intriguing…

    When we hit, we need an object? when we speak, we need articulation?

    Could these infrequent, spontaneous expressions of fear, or awe, or wander, or pain, or disgust, etc. be outlets for that “fight or flight” response? The need to express, to communicate?

    I don’t know… my mind is following several different paths at once… to disparate to type here…

  12. blondie permalink
    August 28, 2006 12:31 pm

    I’ve been hearing God remind me of his words. 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 “Everything is permissible–but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible–but not everthing is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.”

    So, all words are permissible…..if I’m seeking the good of others I won’t be offended by words that are said.

    God never lets me get away with anything.

    and Isaiah543 you have never said anything in my kitchen that was offensive. you have body language that announces when something “choice” is coming though, you set it up and check to see that no little ears are around to hear you say whatever is next. :-)

  13. Kelly D permalink
    April 19, 2011 4:40 pm

    Thank you for this post! I’ve been listening to Driscoll the last couple of months and have only recently read that some think he is wrong to preach the way he does. That left me torn because listening to him, although that I have never cared for potty jokes, I don’t see how that is being unrespectful toward God. If preachers didn’t change with the times, then I guess we would still being seeing men say “Thou” and “Thee” from the pulpit and not when they are quoting from the Bible.

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