So who determines what makes a word a ‘bad’ word?

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This was a question one of my sons asked me this past weekend while we spent a few days at the Carolina coast (aka ‘the beach’).  It also happened to be biker week, which we kind of came to that conclusion the closer we got to Myrtle Beach.  We finished a great seafood dinner, loaded up our Yukon XL to head back to the condo, popped the sunroof and rolled down the windows to enjoy the warm salty rumbly air and as we passed another restaurant (nightclub would probably be a better description) at a crawl surrounded by Harleys, someone was on the PA-system and in the seven seconds we were within sound range we heard several vulgar words spoken.

Hence the question?  My immediate answer was God and society.  Was I right?  The question has been rolling around in my head with the left over exhaust fumes since then.

I reminded my boys that one of God’s ten commandments has to do with words.  Actually at least one more deals with words (the one about bearing false witness against a neighbor) but I was referring to not taking the name of the Lord God in vain.

What does that verse mean?  When we say ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ it should never be in a flippant trivial way.  It should only be in the context of speaking in an honorable and reverent way to or about God or Jesus.

A mentor recently out of the blue shared with me that I periodically use “gosh” or “golly” in my speech. I knew this but never gave it much thought – something I just picked up along the way.  He asked me what those words mean?  I didn’t quite know how to answer him, starting to feel a little defensive but also intrigued . . . did I know the definition of those words?  I had to admit that I did not and then did the next sensible thing – Googled them.  You know what?  They are substitutes for the word ‘God’.  I was taken aback and appropriately so.  Same would go for the word ‘geez’ or the phrase ‘dad gum’.  After thinking about it for a few days trying to convince myself how hard it would be to banish those seemingly ‘harmless’ words from my vocabulary – I decided that God and his son Jesus Christ are too important for me to even unintentionally trivialize their names or even substitutes for their names.  So I asked God to help me in banishing even those words from my vocabulary and I’m working at it.

So God makes it clear that we are not to use his name inappropriately.

What about other words?  Who decides if d**n, s**t, h**l, g*y and other words that I won’t list but you know what I’m referring to are okay to be used?  Some folks I know use them regularly in their speech. Others use them only when they are mad, pushed into a corner or when they hit their proverbial thumb with a hammer.  Are these words to be part of our everyday vocabulary – especially as professing Christ followers?

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NGU at Erskine – 2013

Of course there isn’t a verse in scripture that provides a list of words (in Greek or Hebrew of course) and says “Don’t use these words!”.  Believe me, I tried to find it and it is not in the Christian Bible.  So what does the Bible say about words and communication?

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  Psalm 19:14

“Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!”  Psalm 141:3

“Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right, for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips.  All the words of my mouth are righteous; and there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.”  Proverbs 8:6-8

“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

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”  Luke 6:45

John Piper wrote a great little article on this very subject and I love what he says – “In the end the battle for purity in the mouth is fought in the heart, because “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” If you don’t like what comes out of your mouth, listen carefully this morning, because the apostle Paul is at pains in this text to clean up your mouth from the inside out.

So if a person takes the name of God in vain, or trivializes the realities of hell and holiness, or turns sexuality into vulgarity, or makes words into weapons of one-upmanship and meanness, then we can say for sure, “There is a rottenness inside the tree as well as outside.” If the fruit is bad, the root is bad.

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Woodruff High School pre-game huddle – 2013

If we see this, we won’t be as surprised with what comes next in the text. It is not what you might expect. We might expect Paul to admonish us to clean up our language. We might expect him to talk about words that are not vulgar or rotten or corrupt, but are pure and wholesome and creative and clear. But Paul doesn’t do what we expect.

Instead of proposing clean language, he proposes a whole new way of thinking about language. Instead of saying, “You don’t need dirty language to communicate your intention,” he says, “The root issue is whether your intention is love.” In other words the issue for Paul is not really language at all; the issue is love. The issue is not whether our mouth can avoid gross language; the issue is whether our mouth is a means of grace. You see he shifts from the external fruit to the internal root. He shifts from what we say to why we say it. That’s the issue.”

I would encourage you to read his article that goes into much more detail and provides a strong scriptural basis on these thoughts at http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/make-your-mouth-a-means-of-grace

So am I going overboard with all of this?  I don’t think so because I don’t think Christ would think so.  What I say and the words I use matter – and I’m giving you permission to hold me accountable to my choice of words.

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One thought on “So who determines what makes a word a ‘bad’ word?

  1. Laura

    I quote Ephesians 4:29 as I introduce myself at the beginning of every school year, science camp, workshop, etc. that I teach. I want my students to realize that this concept is not just my personal guideline for what may be spoken in my classes, but it’s God’s standard. I think that athletes, especially, will be challenged by the admonition to only use words which are edifying. Doing so will make them “peculiar” indeed — avoiding cussing, smack-talking (is that what it’s even called anymore?), baiting, etc. are all so commonplace these days on the field or court. And it also comes into play so often in the telling of jokes. A “joke” at the expense of another person is not edifying. These things are acceptable in much of our society, but they ought not be part of the life of a Christian.

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