A brief time of confession here, since it is my own vile depravity that causes this to burden my spirit. For more years than I can recall I have spoken flippantly and killed time with loose speech, biting sarcasm, and endless joking. This has often times gotten me into trouble, and despite my desire to be the sage person who is listened to when their mouth opens, I might very well be the person people just ignore as he keeps talking. This is, to my shame, a defining aspect of my life. On the occasions where I do hold my tongue and remain silent, usually people assume that something is wrong. Many times this is actually true, again to my shame. The wisdom of Solomon that has been a source of humiliation and also of want is found in Proverbs 10.19 "When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent." This is not the main cause of my current reformation though.
Christian liberty opened new speech for me years ago. A sentiment that has been crucial in both my Christian liberty and my verbal depravity has been that there is no word, defined as a curse word in our context or not, that is in and of itself sinful. The sin, in my view, has always been in the intent of the heart and the sensitivities of those who have been present. While I still hold this to be true, I have realized a new danger. When ones tongue is unbridled and loosed to swearing of any and all forms becomes normative, that person can be find himself sliding further and further into profane, perverse, crude, and vulgar language beyond the, aforementioned "permissible" words. The worst part is that, in groups of friends who cling to similar standards, corruption spreads and builds off of each other. Private jokes, comical references, and even salutations and nicknames for each other can become corrupt and perverse. Innuendo or just plain vulgarity can become the norm, and this is where I rudely awoke to find myself not too long ago. Even within a group of Christian friends, and even intermixed with serious topics, edification and honestly seeking to help build each other up, such loose speech flourished. Careless joking with a friend even stirred up an old sin that had laid dormant in my life for years. If was after this incident that one of my peers I esteem the most made the statement "(I wonder if Paul thought of this situation when he instructed that there should "be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude jesting"...)". This was the waking point for me, and this is what has brought this topic to my attention.
Ephesians 4 and 5 share some very good observations on the subject, as well as Colossians 3, and of course the classic James 3 passage. The main texts I have in my focus right now are the following:
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...Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. - Ephesians 4.29, 5.4
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth...And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. - Colossians 3.8, 17There are five types of speech in these texts that are condemned: corrupting talk, filthy talk, foolish talk, crude talk, and obscene talk. In contrast, there are three types of speech that are commanded: speech to build up (or edify), speech to give grace, and speech that gives thanks. These five warnings and three admonishments are a good tool to determine if our speech is worldly or holy. This is the root of the problem. This is the truth that must temper the mentality that there is no inherently sinful word (which I do still believe is true). The usage and the connotation and the offense makes it sinful. Using the above guidelines we can start to determine if words ought be spoken.
There are a few more warnings that we can use to master our tongues with. Let us consider what the scriptures teach about how we ought to live for a moment. "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy" (Lev 19.2). There is no question the Christian is called to be holy, but there is also a real sense in which we are to cut out what causes us to sin, "And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away...And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away..." (Matt 18.8-9). We are told by Paul to "cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light" (Rom 13.12) and to "put off your old self, which...is corrupt through deceitful desires" (Eph 4.22), Paul also admonishes us with "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" in Philippians 4.8. Here we see clearly it was in the mind of Paul, along with the mind of Christ that we are to make every effort to flee from sin and what causes us to sin. We see in the Ephesians and Colossians passages cited above there is positive and negative commands. Even our Lord Christ Jesus, who told us to cut out our eyes and cut off our feet if they cause use to sin, gave us a positive command to sum up our life. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 22.37-40). We must replace corrupt thinking with holy and dignified thinking, such as is described in Philippians 4.8. There is always a getting rid of something bad (negative command) and a putting on of something good (positive command).
There is also a real connection between our thought life, the desires and passions of our heart, and then the words and actions that come from us. The scriptures teach us that we are to "not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom 12.2). Through this renewal of our minds our lives and our desires change from their conformity to this world, and we learn the character of God. This is crucial because our Lord taught quite plainly on the subject when he rhetorically asked "How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt 12.34). So we can see that this fleeing from sin and fleeing toward holiness is paramount in our Christian life, and our speech, being the overflow of our heart, is the natural measuring tool of whether or not we are practicing Godliness as we ought, or practicing worldliness as we ought not. Is my speech glorifying, making light of, or even obsessing over lust, malice, hatred, violence and other forms of wickedness? Is my speech edifying believers, bringing glory to God, pouring out our thanksgiving for all of the blessings he has done in my life, or showcasing and pouring out grace and mercy as they have been lavishly poured on us?
In closing I really want to stress I am not focusing on a list of words we cannot say, a list of jokes we cannot say, and a list of nicknames we cannot use. Language changes with every generation, and there are words that were once obscene that are no longer obscene in our culture. The scriptures don't prohibit specific words at all. They warn against and prohibit various types of speech. As we are all different in our sensitivities and we all as Christians have liberty, we also must be sensitive to the spirit and sensitive to those around us in determining what words we choose to use. I really desire that we speak much more deliberately and much less flippantly. I desire that we strive to not get as close to the world without being tainted by the world, but that we strive to get as close to God in order to become like God in his holiness! Embrace your liberty, and bind it with charity and holiness.