Words Matter: Recovering Godly Speech in a Culture of Profanity

Jon D. Payne
A few years ago, while on sabbatical, I attended an Edinburgh Hearts F.C. soccer match at Tynecastle Stadium with my seven year old son, Hans. We were excited to watch a live Scottish First Division fixture, and to cheer on the home side. The game was enjoyable until the Hearts' defense broke down and the visiting team scored three quick goals before halftime. The crowd suddenly became hostile towards their own team. After each goal explosions of profanity burst forth from fans both young and old. In all my years of attending professional and collegiate sporting events I've never seen or heard anything like it. An older matronly woman sitting behind us (think Aunt B from The Andy Griffith Show) used a flurry of obscene four letter words, joining a chorus of vulgarity all over the stadium.

Needless to say, I was not expecting this kind of an environment. Since then my British friends have informed me that not only are British soccer matches no place for a family outing, but also that the widespread secularization of British culture has severely poisoned the English language. These days obscene talk is as common and ubiquitous as fish-n-chips-- it's everywhere.

The use of vulgar language is not only a serious problem in the post-christian culture of the UK, however. The problem faces us right here in America. Tristan Hopper, in a 2014 National Post online article on swearing, writes that "cussing, it seems, has become very much main stream." On television, in books, and in everyday conversation foul language has become normalized. Hopper explains that the kind of boorish expletives we hear and read of today "are almost non-existent in printed books from 1820 all the way up to the mid-20th century. Then, around 1960, swear words of all kinds undergo a radical surge in popularity." Moreover, "popular music, once a no-go zone for the slightest whiff of profanity-- particularly on the radio-- has become so open to colorful language that four-letter words now grace band names."

It is interesting to note that several U.S. Presidents and Vice Presidents from the 1960's onward are known for their casual and regular use of profanity. Think of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, for instance. And who can forget Vice President Joe Biden's use of the f-bomb (caught on the microphone) when he quietly congratulated President Barack Obama for signing into law the Affordable Healthcare Act.

The Family Safe Media website states that between 2005 and 2010 profanity on television increased almost 70%. One can only surmise how much that percentage has increased since then.

I've been astonished by the amount of profanity that I've encountered in recent months, especially from Millennials and teens. I hear and see it with greater frequency than ever before-- kids on the soccer field, workers in the neighborhood, friends and acquaintances (and their kids) on social media, and on I could go. I'm not the only one who has noticed this steep rise in profanity. A friend of mine recently changed jobs, in part, because her millennial-aged co-workers were using four-letter-words with unsettling frequency.

To be sure, the problem of unwholesome speech is not new. It's been around for ages. I remember on one occasion, while I was young, my parents washed my mouth out with soap after I had used a bad word, teaching me the valuable lesson that speaking profanity is wrong and unacceptable. No, profanity itself is not new. Corrupt speech has been around since the fall of mankind. But the extensive and wide-ranging use of profanity is a new phenomena in our culture. Even some high profile hipster pastors such as Mark Driscoll have foolishly used salty language from the pulpit, seeking to connect with their younger hearers.

As Christian believers, it is critical that we view this modern profanity epidemic through the lenses of biblical truth. Now more than ever, when it comes to our speech, Christians must be decidedly countercultural.

So what does the Bible teach about our words?

No Place for Corrupt Talk

Paul's instruction concerning speech is so relevant to our own context it could have been written last week. "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" (Eph. 4:29). Later he adds, "Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving" (Eph. 5:4).

The Greek word sapros (v.29) could be translated rotten, corrupt, or putrid. It is the same word that Jesus employs in Luke 6:43 when referring to "bad fruit." The point is this: The words of Christ's followers should never be marked by rottenness and obscenity. Indeed, the crude four-letter-words that have become all too common in our culture should never be found on the lips of God's children. Again, the Apostle writes, "Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths." "Filthiness" and "crude joking" have no place in our lives. Rather, as "beloved children" we are called to be "imitators of God", emulating our Heavenly Father's holiness in every part of our lives, not least in conversation (Eph. 5:1; I Pet. 1:14-16).

But rotten speech is more than just profanity, isn't it? It also includes blasphemy, lying, deception, manipulation, boasting, exaggeration, slander, gossip, insults, mockery, complaining, and other sinful kinds of speech. The third and ninth commandments speak directly to these and other sins of the tongue (Exodus 20:7, 16; c.f. WLC Q. 113, 145). "Therefore," John Calvin states, "let us learn to abhor and shun evil language as we shun the plague, when a man's tongue runs over with the language of the gutter" (Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1998; first published 1562), 462.

A Fountain of Life

God created our mouths to be fountains of blessing, not gutters of cursing (Prov. 10:11). He exhorts us to build up others with our words, "giving grace to those who hear" (Eph. 4:29b). How can we do this in a culture inundated with profanity and unwholesome speech?

1. Be intentional with encouragement: Ask yourself every morning during your personal devotions, "How can I be an encouragement to others with my words today? How can I refresh and build up those around me?" Let your words be a conduit of grace and encouragement, and not another means of drawing attention to yourself, your problems, or the deficiencies of others. Be purposeful with your words, so that they "fit the occasion" (Eph. 4:29), thus providing comfort to the afflicted, direction to the lost, correction to the wayward, courage to the weak, hope for the despairing, and blessing to all. Be intentional with your words.

2. Let your conversation be marked by gratitude: The inspired Apostle writes that the conversation of the new man in Christ should not be characterized by filthiness, crude joking, and foolish talk, but with thanksgiving (Eph. 5:4). As an unworthy recipient of God's sovereign grace in Christ, as an object of His extravagant mercy, as an inheritor of everlasting life, and as a cherished and adopted "son" of the living God, you should be one of the most thankful people on the planet. Keeping your focus on Christ and His glorious gospel will saturate your heart with deep gratitude-- gratitude that will evidence itself in your words to others.

3. Let your words be seasoned with Love: First Corinthians 13:4-7 teaches us something of the nature of love. If we are loving with our speech, therefore, our words will be patient and kind, not arrogant, willful, resentful, irritable, or rude. We will also verbally rejoice in all that is true, honorable, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise (Phil. 4:8). Ask yourself right now, "Are my words seasoned with love?"

4. Drink deeply the means of grace: Those who faithfully attend unto the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and earnest prayer every Lord's Day in public worship will be, by grace through faith in Christ, transformed by the gospel (c.f. Acts 2:42). Of course, this includes the transformation of our speech. Indeed, the Holy Spirit sanctifies us through the diligent use of the means of grace, and conforms us more and more into the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29-30; Jn 17:17; WSC #85-88). And when our hearts are changed by Christ, so are our tongues; "for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45).

Dear Christian, words matter. They have the power to build up and to tear down; to bless and to poison (c.f. James 3). Therefore, let us recover, cultivate, and model godly speech in our homes, schools, neighborhoods, communities, and churches. And may we frequently pray the solemn words of Psalm 19:14:

"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer."

Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne is senior minister of Christ Church Presbyterian (PCA), Charleston, South Carolina, visiting professor of practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Convener of the Gospel Reformation Network, and co-editor of the Lectio Continua Expository Commentary Series on the New Testament (RHB).