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Redeeming Language

June 1, 2008 Series: Redemption

Topic: Gospel Passage: James 3:1–3:12

Redeeming Language: Profanity and Potty Talk

June 1, 2008

Sam Ford


Redeeming Language

When I became a teacher in high school I began to hear students use swear words, especially the F-Word (THE WORD) as an adjective, noun, verb, in both positive and negative contexts.  They used the "B-WORD" to describe friends, hoochies, and everyone in-between.   Anytime I'd tell them to clean up their mouths, they would apologize or act surprised as if they didn't even know they said it.  Apparently, it had become so much a part of the vernacular that they began to use it as part of their everyday speech.  There were no more "bad" words. 


Do you remember learning your first swear word? I remember learning about swear words in elementary school.  I didn't know what they were exactly, but I knew that they were "bad" and that if I every heard anyone swear, they were someone to be avoided.  I didn't really know exactly what happen if you said them, but teachers and parents made it sound really bad.  Everyone learns the words at some point and for some reason we all want to say them.  In order to avoid "bad words" we'd abbreviate them with S-Word, A-Word, B-Word, and F-Word.  My parents did not swear, in fact they were quite strict with what we could say.  I remember my parents never really told us what words we couldn't say with one exception, "Shut-up." (So we learned to say UP-SHUT).  Then, as we got older, we would get a little closer saying Darn-it instead of Damn it, Shoot instead of S$%& and, Geez instead of Jesus, and maybe even Frick or just "F" instead of THE WORD.  Ironically, as parents, we breathe a sigh of relief because my son can call his brother a Frickin Toot Face or Butt-snarf and yet not use a truly "bad" word.


Today's sermon is not about redeeming profanity and freeing you use those words on "your list" that grew up believing were wrong.  See, when I was in high school, I rarely swore.  No one would have described my language as trucker-like, or colorful, because it wasn't.  I grew up with "clean" language. As I got older though, I developed my sense of sarcasm and wit.  In fact, in high school I became quite popular for it.  I mastered the art of breaking down an individual with cleverness and what my legalistic little mind believed was cleanness.  I took pride in destroying someone with my words, yet, without swearing.    


Redeeming Language is about understanding that glorifying God with our words is less about the words, and more about how they are used.  It's less about spending time thinking about words we should avoid and more about what we want to do with our words.  In short, it's about our hearts, not necessarily our mouths.  And although what is in the heart can often be reflected by the mouth, it has to be about more than words.  Once it becomes about the words alone, once our cleanness or the cleanness of others is rooted in words they speak, or the jokes that they tell, then we're no better than the Pharisee's whom Jesus condemned because they talked and looked "clean" on the outside, but inside were tombs for the dead-their lips were praising him, but their hearts were far from him.


Begin with the Power of the Tongue

At the same time, I don't want to minimize the abuse of language.  There is no arguing that the tongue is powerful and can cause damage.  James 3.1-12 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.  Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.


In this passage the tongue is described as something that:

  • Boasts in pride
  • Causes destruction like a forest fire
  • Described as fire set by hell that has the power to affect one's course of life
  • Full of so much unrighteousness it's called a "world" of it
  • Possesses the power to stain not only the mouth but the whole body
  • Is a restless evil, full of deadly poison that curses creation & the creator
  • Will bless one minute and curse the next


Paul says, "these things should not be so." Our tongues, along with the other parts of our body, are enslaved to sin-to the point where much of the time we are not in control of what we say...but it can certainly control us.  Men use their words for all sorts of perverted purposes ALL of which are rooted to praising ourselves and seeking our own pleasure.  Jesus warned us in Matthew 12.32 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."   So the question remains, what do we do with this powerful weapon between our gums? 


What makes a bad word bad?

A lot of people will say, we should get "religious", translated, we stop cussing and we start using good, clean, righteous words.  Which ones?  James says in chapter 1.26, If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. To many religious people, "bridling the tongue" means don't say bad words.  Unfortunately, the Bible does not provide us a word or a list of words to abstain from using.  It can be hard, therefore, to determine what a "bad" word is because language is fluid and changes in culture.  Words will always be open to new understandings because as often as cultures change, their use in culture changes. 


Few would or should argue that there is a line where talk becomes obscene, vulgar, indecent, or contrary to acceptable standards of a culture-that ‘bad' words exist.  Even though we might agree that there are bad words, I think our lists might look different from person to person, or culture to culture.  There is no hard and fast "rule" with what is appropriate or inappropriate. 

  • Different parts of the country use different terms offensive to other parts of the country.
  • Men and women disagree on what is humorous, not because of different standards, because they communicate differently.
  • Every home has its own standard of acceptability. In one home it's called Poop, in another it's %$^; one home uses the word "Fart", in another they use, "toot, fluff, or gas"; in one home they say "bottom", in another they say, "butt, or arse or ass."


I am not for a minute suggesting that there are no lines to draw with regard to language.   I am arguing that there are a lot of people drawing a lot of lines and they haven't a clue why.  Clearly, there are audiences where the language must be curtailed out of love, to remain above reproach (especially in a pharisaical crowd), to avoid causing weaker brothers to stumble, or simply to gain a hearing. But any attempt to make lists of good and bad words, or acceptable and unacceptable jokes will probably end in arguing about opinions. Romans 14.1 As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.


Sin makes our language sinful

We must never forget that Sin makes ALL of our language sinful, whether we use profanity or not.  The moment you start making lists you get away from the HEART.  You cannot change behavior if the heart is not changed.  Avoiding words or changing them into different things does not impact what is motivating you to say them at all. 


Self-Indulgent Language:  PERVERSION

 Psalm 51.19

19 "     You give your mouth free rein for evil,

          and your tongue frames deceit.

20      You sit and speak against your brother;

          you slander your own mother's son.

21      These things you have done, and I have been silent;

          you thought that I was one like yourself.                 

     But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you 

Self-indulgent language is language without restraint, complete liberty without guidelines.  Those who indulge in the use of language believe they can say what they want, when they want, without consequence.  Their "right" to use language overshadows whether or not it is "right" to speak in the manner they choose. 

Self-Righteous Language:  LEGALISM

Colossians 2.23 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.  Self-righteous language is the creation of new law from which one can obtain righteousness.  Typically, the individual makes a list of words they find "offensive" or "off-color" and categorically declare their usage sinful.  Because they abstain from such words, they feel good about themselves and, perhaps more importantly, they look good, clean, or pure in front of others. Anyone that dares use a word on their list, is deemed sinful, lower class, or dirty.


Self-Denying Language: FREEDOM

Proverbs 21.23  Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble. Self-Denying language is more difficult to live out because it declares that words are simply words and there is not morality connected with them.   The righteousness, or lack thereof, is not rooted in the words themselves, rather, in how they are used.  That means that an individual must live a life of discernment as they speak AND as they listen.  That also means that there are a lot of "bad" words that are ok, if not "good" to speak at certain times in certain contexts.  It also means that there are some words that should never be spoken because they can't without speaking them in a sinful way or context. Simply stated, if we do not live a life of self-denial then we run the risk of developing a self-righteous law apart from the gospel and fostering a sense of pride and prejudice towards those who use language we don't personally approve of.


What does the Bible say about "bad" words?

Typically, people bring up the same 4 or 5 verses to address the use of inappropriate language or imagery.  Without really breaking down these verses, they declare something to be filthy, unwholesome, or otherwise profane and therefore never to be said.  Consider the following verses:   


Ephesians 4.29 9 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.  

  • Unwholesome Words/Corrupting Talk (sapros, "rotten"): In context, the term "corrupting talk" is used in contrast to talk that builds up. In other words, sinful corrupting talk or unwholesome words are those words that break down or discourage an individual. The key is to understand that there is not a list of words that exist to inform us of words that break down. Why? Our sin makes it possible for us to harm people with any word. It is language, whether profane or not, that seeks to kill the soul versus fill it with grace.


Ephesians 5.4.  Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

  • Filthiness (aischrotÄ“s, "indecent behavior"): Filthiness refers to that which is dirty; not clean; not pure. Historically, this word has often referred to acts or gestures. It doesn't take much to imagine the various hand motions, even existing in today's dance styles that one might classify as filthy or obscene. .


  • Foolish Talk: (eutrapelia "obscenity") This term refers to obscene words but if you ask someone to define what an "obscene" word is, you'll find they have difficulty apart from a giving a list rooted in culture or experience. It seems that everyone in our culture accepts S#%T as a swear word when used in a crowd or when you hit your finger with a hammer-even if it makes it hurt less. It is doubtful, however, that anyone would argue their "sinning" by using that word to describe how they feel when praying to God privately-Lord, I feel like S#%T. Perhaps that is the best word they can think of to describe their feeling at the moment. God is not so easily offended 


  • Crude Joking/Coarse Jesting - (eutrapelia, "vulgar, frivolous wit") The word "joke" can be understood several ways. There are practical jokes, verbal jokes, physical jokes, and as Paul indicates, coarse jokes (dirty jokes). No matter what interpretation you might lean towards, most everyone knows a "dirty joke" when they hear one. Within the context of Ephesians 5, these types of coarse jokes often focus on those living in sin. Without question, this is not an invitation to prudishness, or to avoid genuine biblical honesty about sexuality, but is a warning against conversationally indulging a fascination which often leads to sinful action. Defining what a "dirty joke" is without telling a dirty joke is difficult and such definitions will sound different for everyone. As we are supposed to avoid sin in all that we do, I would humbly suggest that a dirty joke is any joke that glorifies sin for the purposes of humor.  


  • Jesting: Additionally, the word for "jesting" or "joking" is a translation of a word that means "able to turn easily." This might suggest a certain kind of person, with the gift of wit, who can turn any statement into a coarse jest. The gift of wit is a blessing, but when it is attached to a filthy mind or a base motive, it becomes a curse. There are quick-witted people who can pollute any conversation with jests that are always inappropriate and often out of place.


Colossians 3.8  8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.    

  • Malice (kakian, root of anger and rage); "slander" (blasphÄ“mian, "railing or evil speaking"). In addition to obscene talk, the bible warns against words that are slanderous or gossiping. In other words, just because you are not saying "bad" words doesn't mean you're not sinning. We often slander and gossip unwittingly because we are not intentional about our language. We speak evil about people in secret but feel righteous because we don't drop the F-bomb in public.


2Timothy 2.23 Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels

  • Another Foolish talk (mÅ┬Źrologia, lit., "stupid words") - The same words as used in Ephesians, foolish talk can also speak to "stupid words." This word is meant to describe the act of bragging-the manifestation of sinful pride. Usually, this involves bragging about behaviors that are in themselves sinful: How much one can drink, how many sexual conquests they've had, etc. In short, foolish talk comes from those that brag about their sins. In this context, Foolish talk, or speech, seems more to do with speculative discussion about established truths-even heresy. This is the point in 2 Tim. 2:23 and Tit. 3:9, where the teaching of Jesus contrasts sharply with stupid controversies, i.e., speculations and subtle questions that do not relate to the truths of salvation, in other words, false teachings.


Does the Bible use "Crude" language?

The Bible does not make use of the language that is obscene, stupid, or rotten, but it does use language and imagery that might be considered "crude" by our culture.  IF it does use this type of imagery, then we can at least say such imagery is not sinful EVEN if we shouldn't use it in a given context.  We must always remember that 2 Timothy 3.16 says the Bible's words are God's words.


Paul's "Crude" Wish

Galatians 5.7-12  7 You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion is not from him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump. 10 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. 11 But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!


Ezekiel's (God's) "Crude" Description

Ezekiel 26.1-4;  11; 19-20  The word of the Lord came to me: 2  "Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother. 3 They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; there their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosoms handled. 4 Oholah was the name of the elder and Oholibah the name of her sister. They became mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem. ... 11  "Her sister Oholibah saw this, and she became more corrupt than her sister in her lust and in her whoring, which was worse than that of her sister.... 19 Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt 20 and lusted after her paramours there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses.


God's "Crude" Rebuke

"And now, O priests, this command is for you. 2 If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. 3 Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and you shall be taken away with it.


What about our language and humor?

Unless you're a Jehovah's Witness who believes that Thomas is so shocked to see the resurrected Jesus that he swears saying, "My Lord and My God," then you might be hard pressed to find what we would describe today as "profanity."  Without question, the Paul, Ezekiel, and even Jesus use "harsh" words at times that people today would gasp at whether it's telling guys to cut off their nuts or calling the Pharisees (to their faces) tombs full of dead bodies.


As regards imagery, even a cursory reading of the Old Testament will reveal that the Bible is written close to a PG-13 level. Some of it is probably rated R. If the Bible speaks of "emissions of semen", gruesome deaths, gods who poop, and how to go to the bathroom properly, then we can assume that it is acceptable to talk about such things as Christians and in church. Whether or not humor is appropriate with such things is a cultural question. It is our belief that in our culture, we need to be open, honest, funny, and real from the pulpit about such things. This communicates volumes to our people about the gospel (value from Jesus) and what we are all about.


Jesus Laughed

Quite honestly, we believe that laughter is a powerful tool that can bring both joy and healing.  The Bible says that God laughs, usually it is at the wicked who go after false idols, revealing that laughter did not result from the fall of man.  The Bible says that Jesus created all things, therefore he created laughter. The Bible also says that Jesus was fully human and it's difficult to be believe that he experienced humanity without laughter.  Moreover, that if Jesus was camping with blue collar workers for over three years, it's hard to imagine that he never laughed or joked about anything.  In his sermon on the mount, Jesus said "Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh" indicating the anti-thesis of weeping is laughing. 


[AD IMAGES] Our church has made use of humor often because (we find it funny) we believe that humor evidences the fact that we are "real" people and that we believe in a God who created laughter.  Of course, there will always be those who feel that any reference to toilets, bottoms, or other bodily functions have no place anywhere in the Christian life.  Again, we are a church that tries to blur the lines between spiritual and non-spiritual so that IF we are going to laugh outside of church, then we should laugh inside of a church and ALL of it can glorify God and not sin.


Does the Bible make use of humor?

The Bible itself makes numerous references to such things, sometimes in the context of a humorous story (Judges 3.24, 1Sam 24.3) and other times in direct statements by God.


The god who poops

1Kings 18.20-27 20 So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. 21 And Elijah came near to all the people and said, "How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." And the people did not answer him a word. 22 Then Elijah said to the people,  "I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal's prophets are 450 men. 23 Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. 24 And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God." And all the people answered, "It is well spoken." 25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it." 26 And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, "O Baal, answer us!" But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. 27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, "Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened."


Finally, we are not suggesting that since the Bible speaks and jokes about poop that a church service should be filled with as much "potty talk" as possible. All we are suggesting is that if the Bible uses it, then it is possible to use it and not be sinning.


Guidelines for Language and Humor

Paul is not admonishing Christians to avoid all humor in life. He does not expect that men and

women will prudishly avoid laughing at anything humorous for fear of men's approval or God's

disapproval. Clearly, Paul gives us some guidelines to use when discerning what is appropriate

to laugh at or joke about. The following guidelines will prove helpful if we can avoid our

tendency to be legalistic about such things


1. Does the language or humor break down, as opposed to building up, an individual or group?

2. Does it consist of inappropriate gestures that are dishonoring to the body?

3. Does it encourage acceptance of heretical teachings or false doctrine?

4. Does it glorify sin, especially, sexual sin?

5. Does it minimize or make light of sinful behavior?

6. Does it cause one to fascinate about sin?

7. Does it cause a weaker brother to actively sin?

8. Does it make use of culturally obscene or vulgar language that may offend?

9. Does it make use of or reference to God's creation for unholy purposes?

10. Can I say it with a clear conscience?


CONCLUSION:  Why use the ‘questionable' language or humor at all?

Colossians 4.2-6 2 Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. 3 At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison- 4 that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. 5 Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. Paul reminds the Colossians about using their behavior to open doors with those on the outside-seasoning their speech with "grace and salt" that they might be able to give answers (or gain a hearing).  Greek comic writers used the verb artyo, meaning "to season," as seasoning with the salt of wit. Of course humor can get too "salty" and like other good things become degenerated. Funny need not be filthy.


We have concluded that the language and humor we use is not sinful and may in fact be quite helpful to build bridges with a culture that is apathetic, hostile, and untrusting of Christians and church.  In many ways, it is an effective way to reach people and become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (2Cor 9).


We do it because God has given us language and humor to enjoy and to use for the sake of proclaiming Jesus.  We recognize that the tongue is powerful because of the sin within us.  While we're mindful about what we see, we'd rather spend our time thinking about what we should say in the moment versus what we should never say in any moment.  When all is said and done, our sin doesn't come from our mouths & righteousness does not come in the words that we don't speak or the jokes that we don't make, rather, in the fact that Jesus died to save me from the world of sin that manifests itself powerfully through my tongue.  And, by God's grace, God will use our language and our humor to point back to his greatness, his beauty, and his sufficiency.



More in Redemption

August 10, 2008

Redeeming Q & A

August 3, 2008

Redeeming Your Past

July 27, 2008

Redeeming Music