The junior high boys swore under their breath, and I looked at them wide-eyed and appalled. I slapped their hands, half-chastening, half-flirting, said, “You shouldn’t say that!”
Once, the skinny youth group drummer, fed up with my judgy stares, challenged, “Where does it say in the Bible that you shouldn’t swear?” And I went home and combed carefully through my concordance, searching for scriptural justification for my moral high ground.
To my surprise, the word “swear” was only mentioned with regards to vows. And though there were a number of verses about words of malice and slander, about corrupting and foolish talk, about gossip and anger and carelessness, there was nothing specifically about curse words.
I wrote it out anyway, this vague list of Bible verses related to words, language, the mouth. I used my neatest handwriting and filled two sides of a sheet of notebook paper. And when I handed it to Skinny Drummer Boy during youth group that Sunday morning, his jaw dropped, like he couldn’t believe I was for real.
So committed was I to swear-less speech, that I made it all the way into my 20s without uttering a single “curse word.” I even endured the heart-wrenching end of my first serious relationship without uttering so much as a dammit.
But then my life spun a little bit off its hinges, and I was reeling in the darkness. And as I tried to navigate my way through it, I found that darn it was no longer the honest response. Shoot didn’t really cut it. Where the heck are you God wasn’t really what I wanted to say when I screamed into the quiet.
The right words were the ones that I wasn’t “supposed” to say, and they cut to the heart of my pain like arrows. They said it exactly right.
I learned somewhere that the Greek word the Apostle Paul uses in Philippians 3:8 can be translated as shit. He’s trying to create a jarring perspective between the things he has lost and the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ.” As in, “It’s all just a bunch of worthless shit compared to what I’ve gained.”
It makes sense to me that he would use that word. It makes sense to me that in trying to get to the shocking hard truth of it, he would need to use the sharp word. The strong word. The one that’s a little bit dirty around the edges.
And I think that the curse words themselves are not actually the problem. It’s our misuse of them. It’s the way we overuse them, throw them away. It’s the way we lob them angrily at one another like grenades. We do this over and over, and we turn them into blunted, powerless things. And that, most of all, is the problem.
The dictionary definition of profane is to treat something with abuse, irreverence or contempt, and so I would argue that a word only really becomes profanity when we forget the weight of it. When we let our mouths run three miles ahead of our brains. When we are careless and abusive with it.
Any time I use a four-letter word to hurt another person, it is profane. When I let it drop carelessly from my lips in frustration or irritation, I am using it irreverently.
I am really good at recognizing the difference when I’m writing. The typing slows me down, causes me to think, allows me to decide whether this is really the right word here, and if it is the right one, to use it boldly. In my speaking I rarely give it that kind of thought, and words fall profanely from my lips before I can stop them. (Now that the kids are starting to repeat every.single.thing, I’m going to have to start myself a swear jar.)
But, here, I think is where we miss it: it’s not just curse words that can become profane. It can happen to any word. It’s possible, I think, even to make God-talk profane.
When we say the easy thing instead of the true thing. When we slouch into Christian cliché instead of listening. When we give the easy answers, dismiss one another’s pain, idly make promises that we have no intention of keeping — all of that is language abused, defiled, tossed away.
And upon hearing of a friend’s cancer diagnosis, I might go so far as to suggest that it’s more profane to say God never gives you more than you can handle than it is reach across the table, grab her hands, whisper the word fuck.
In the end, the best last word I can find about the whole thing is Colossians 4:6: Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
Not a command so much as a blessing. We are all living these fragile lives, and there are no perfect words. Just grace, seasoned with salt…and maybe the occasional four-letter word.
May the God who made the mouth, the heart, the wide complex world and all its language give us the courage to speak it true, to speak it in love, to hold our words like glass.