I recently had a conversation with some friends about foul language: what defines foul language and why it is bad. I thought it would be profitable to share some of our conclusions and my own thoughts on the subject.
What defines foul language? There are few rules in the Bible that are culturally defined; adultery is adultery, no matter what your culture says about it. Language is different. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “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”, he meant to them something different than it does to us; few of us curse in Greek. Nearly everything God commands is the same throughout every age: adultery is adultery, period. This issue of foul language, however, works a little bit differently.
The simple fact is that words have meaning. These meanings have changed over time and have been corrupted, to be sure. However, they have meaning to people, today. Every culture has words that are regarded with esteem, and other, crude language. Some words have originally true meanings that were not foul (one such word appears in the King James Version 90 times – I leave it to you to figure out which); others are simply crude words used to describe things in a crude way. In either regard, they are not words that in our culture “give grace to those who hear”.
Especially in our Southern-Bible-Belt culture, it can sometimes seem that foul language is a cardinal sin, worthy of capital punishment, or at least a good whippin’. However, as one of my friends pointed out that night, it does not matter how “clean” your words are. You may never say a single foul word in your life, but you will still violate the principle Paul gives us. On the other hand, someone who struggles with saying foul words could still impart great grace with their words. Neither is excused, but the one who acknowledges it is still better than the one who does not.
(As a random thought on the side, let me ask you, dear reader: is it stranger to you when a young lady utters a foul word than when a man does? It is to me, and I think it is because of the simple stark contrast between a beautiful appearance and a rotten tongue. I have often been tempted to say to such a young lady, “You know, such ugly words should not come from such a pretty face.”)
Why is it bad? The real question being asked here is, “Why does it matter?” First, because of all that I have said before. Words have meaning; they are like vessels that carry something to the recipient. We decide whether the vessels we send out smell like manure, are loaded with poison, or carry healing balms. As a writer, I understand that one small word can change the entire meaning.
More than that, however, it is because our words have great power. Proverbs 18:21 tells us that, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”. James alludes to the tongue as the spark that can start a forest fire. When we speak, write, or use language of any sort, we are always either communicating life or communicating death. The reason foul language, biting words, or a deceitful tongue are so wrong is because they are imparting death to the hearer. It is as though a deadly miasma is proceeding from your mouth, and all within inhaling distance are catching it.
C.S. Lewis reminds us in his essay “The Weight of Glory” that everyone we meet is an eternal soul. Absolutely everyone, from that man who cut us off in traffic to the sour-faced cashier at the grocery store, will live on in eternity. They are on their own journey, either progressing towards life or death. Whether they may only enter into our lives for a short frame, or they will be beside us for many years, we will are either a help or a hindrance. We either bring them up to life in Christ, or down to death. This is why language is so important, because of the destruction it can cause.
But the emphasis is not just negative. Sure, death is in the power of the tongue; but so is life! What a miracle it is, that we can impart life and grace to listening ears! Our words could be the spark that burns down their idol temples, that are a breath of fresh air in a miasma ridden world. By the grace of God, our tongues can be used to bless. That does not mean that our words will never hurt; but when they do, it will be done like a gardener’s pruning: only to bring about more and more life and fruit.
It is an oft repeated maxim, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Too often those closest to us are the victims of our cutting words, and we the unsuspecting assassins. It seems that often any type of sin can be excused so long as it was “in jest”. Let us begin with those nearest to us: parents, siblings, children, lovers, or friends; then, we shall work outward to bless the whole world. Instead of a sarcastic insult, insert a kind compliment or encouragement. It may be an unexpected treat, like finding a dollar in your pocket. Unlike the dollar, however, it will be worth far more.