The Bible, Swearing, and Redeeming the Profane

Almost two months ago I wrote a post about the often misquoted axiom, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” In that post I uttered one of the 7 words not allowed on radio (at least public radio). I used the word because it captured my feelings more accurately than any other word I could think of.

Boy did that trigger some reactions.

I don’t know why you felt the need to swear to get your point across. It gave the good, thought provoking article a distaste.

However, the language you used was not necessary; therefore I could not “share.”

I can understand a believers emotions and all the conflict involved, but this mans language and ignorance is an embarrassment.

Any supposed Christian writer who uses profanity and foul language to prove their point isn’t very Christ-like.

Those are just from the comment section. The emails were a little more harsh and hurt more than I would like to admit. Honestly, it took a lot in me to not reply to each and every one of these critiques about language. I didn’t respond to any of them and I realize that putting your thoughts out on the internet opens yourself up for criticism – especially when you’re writing about religion. I just never imagined the number of responses and the force of those responses because of one word.

It shouldn’t surprise me though. Christians place a high value on morality. As we should. Morality is important. Part of what it means to be holy and sanctified is to be a moral. However, morality isn’t the end of all of being a Christian. The goal of Christianity isn’t to make moral people. The goal of Christianity is to become like Jesus. This is a subtle but vast difference. For Christians to say that Jesus was moral is easy after two thousand years of interpretation are applied to the stories of Jesus. But if you were a first century Jew you might not think so. Jesus seemingly broke the sabbath, didn’t require his disciples to fast, hung out with drunks, and let a prostitute clean his feet with her hair. Jesus blew the moral sensibilities of his contemporaries out of the water.

Being like Jesus is extremely difficult because, on the one hand you will be moral, but on the other hand it is so much more than being moral. Imitating Christ is difficult to define, which creates problems because we like to define and categorize. How does one measure if you are like Jesus? Morality is much easier to measure. You are either moral or you are not. You either lie or you don’t. You either sleep around or you don’t. You either steal or you don’t. You either use profanity or you don’t. Morality is easy to track. Being like Jesus is much more difficult. Heck, we can’t even agree on whether he is Republican or Democrat let alone whether he would swear or not. How in the world do we track being like him?

So we emphasize morality. We give out purity rings, burn Metallica CD’s, avoid rated-R movies, banish dancing, wash our mouths with soap, and refuse to be around people who don’t do these things. Being moral is evidence of one’s declaration of Jesus as savior.

And I wonder, have we become more moral than the Bible?

In Philippians 3:8 Paul writes:

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowingChrist Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ. (NIV, emphasis mine)

The word translated “garbage” in the NIV is the Greek word skubala. It is an emphatic word that is rarely translated into English with the force it has in the Greek. The Greek word is vulgar. It literally means excrement or dung and can refer to human or animal excrement. Literally it means “shit.” In its rawest form this is what Paul is saying. He is trying to drive home for his readers how much he disregards the human accolades he has. In a day and age in which garbage and refuse are useful for composting and other things, this reading of the word skubala is appropriate. It drives home Paul’s point – these credentials mean nothing.

Let’s honestly ask ourselves, would the evangelical Christian world let Paul speak like that? Would his book make it past the editor? Would his album get published? Would the Christian bookstore put it on the shelf?

In 1 Samuel 20:30 Saul rages against Jonathan his son and calls him a “son of a perverse and rebellious woman.” Saul is in a rage because Jonathan lied to Samuel about David’s whereabouts while Saul was trying to kill David. Soon after this exchange, Saul hurls a spear at Jonathan trying to kill him. Don’t forget that Jonathan is Saul’s son (I challenge you to find a soap opera with better plot lines).

Now, “son of a perverse and rebellious woman” is the literal translation. But once again the force of the phrase is lost in translation. Put yourself in the scene. What is Saul implying here? What would someone say in English if they were in a similar situation? Just finish the sentence. “You son of a …..” Right.

This is why I love the Bible. The Bible does not try to pretty up the facts. It is raw and edgy and reports history as it is. For me, this makes it extremely believable. I can relate to it. I cannot relate to a world in which the only frustrated speech allowed is Ned Flanders gobbledegook. We can substitute all the approved words and nonsensical sounds for words we label as profane, but often times the sentiments behind those words is nothing different. Words mean nothing without the sentiment behind them. And if the sentiment is the same, then why not use the word? Or saying it another way, you can be just as obscene and profane using words considered to be decent.

Read Ezekiel 23. I won’t even quote it here. But read it (if graphic sexual imagery triggers things for you then please do not read it). Ezekiel is relating Israel to prostitutes and uses some of the most explicit language you can imagine.

Ezekiel 23, Song of Solomon, and other passages like them are rarely, if ever, read in church. Our moral sensibilities keep us from publicly reading certain portions of the Bible. Some of us don’t even know they are in there because they have been brushed aside in an attempt to forget about them.

The point is this, the Bible records the very raw human experience and uses language that matches our experience.

Please do not hear me advocating the frequent public use of profanity. I am not. People who feel the need to consistently decorate their speech with censored words drive me nuts. However, I think we walk the line of legalism when we create extra-Biblical rules for Christians to follow. I wonder, in our efforts to become good moral people, have we come up with rules that the Bible would fail to live up to?

I know what you are thinking. Yes, the Bible does speak about swearing and cursing. However, careful reading of the text and context shows this has to do more with swearing oaths and pronouncing curses on people than it does about our modern understanding of cursing.

Some will point to Colossians 3:8 and say, “Well what about Paul’s command not to use “obscene language.” But we have to wonder what he was really talking about. Is the obscene language the words we use, or the intent behind them? Is he talking about language that degrades, dehumanizes, and abuses? This seems to be more in line with the anger and malice that are also warned against in this list.

It could also be something else entirely. In fact, the Greek the word for “obscene” is two words. The first means “disgraceful, shameful, dishonest,” and the second means “oracle.” It might be helpful to think “false prophesy.” Well, that changes things doesn’t it? Under this definition obscene language belongs to those who falsely prophesy in the name of the Lord. Think charlatan televangelist here. Personally, there is nothing more obscene than the filth that comes from their mouth.

I wonder what damage we do when we make it wrong to rightfully name a situation as profane? Does it make the person wrong and ashamed for wanting to name it as such? Does it lessen our longing to see the kingdom of God reign on earth? Do we minimize the pain and injustice of situations?

My goal in writing this post isn’t to argue for swearing. My goal is to get us to think beyond morality when we approach the Christian faith. Being Christian isn’t just about being moral. Yes, morality matters. But it isn’t the starting point. Nor is it the ending point. Starting with morality leads to legalism and a salvation based on what one does or does not do. Ending with morality leads one to empty religion that does not embrace the human experience. Being Christian is about being fully human and fully alive. It is about embracing the whole human experience, the raw and the profane, and placing them before the feet of the one who makes all things beautiful and letting him redeem and restore.

After all, that’s what the Bible does.