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January 31, 2012

What’s the Big Deal with Profanity?

There’s something about the lingering effects of the words we choose to listen to.


I love to go to the movies. Sharing a bucket of hot buttered popcorn, sipping the boat-sized soft drinks, sitting in a huge theatre with a bunch of people all watching the latest Hollywood offering of suspense, drama, comedy, or action. It’s a wonderful escape.

My mother is not a movie-goer. She doesn’t like the cooped up feeling of having to sit still for hours watching a movie with a bunch of people she doesn’t know, getting her fingers buttered up, and dropping enough money to almost cover a mortgage payment just to eat snacks and watch entertainment. It just isn’t her thing.

So last week when my mom mentioned the possibility of us going to the movies together to see a film based on a book she’d recently finished, I almost passed out from excitement.

I promised that I’d look up movie times and get back to her. Before that, though, I checked out Christianity Today’s movie site, which offers movie reviews and a heads-up on the types of potentially undesirable things that may show up in the movie: violence, nudity, language.

The review mentioned this particular PG-13 rated-movie had more than its share of strong language. I cringe at hearing profanity—but especially when I hear it in the presence of my pastor’s-wife mom.

So I called my mom to tell her about that and see what she wanted to do.

She sighed. “That’s too bad! I really liked the book. I don’t know. What do you think?”

It took me a second to realize she was putting the ball in my clichéd court.

I faced a dilemma: (1) miss an opportunity to go to the movies—a true rarity—with my mom and enjoy two things I love (movies and my mother); or (2) go to the movie and be uncomfortable about what I was listening to and worry about what else was going to be said.

It seems like such a simple decision: just say no. And to be honest it was. I said no, without a second thought. We’d find another movie to go to, and in the meantime we could play games or go for coffee together instead.

More valuable, though, was the conversation my mom and I had about profanity.

“I don’t like to listen to it,” she confessed, “because it gets stuck in my brain and I can’t get it out. I can be folding laundry and all of a sudden some word—which I never use—will pop into my mind and ricochet all around it.”

“And the more you try not to think it, the more persistent it becomes in sticking around,” I said.

In the realm of good and evil, is profanity all that terrible?

The apostle Paul thought so. He argued that what we take into our minds, eyes, ears, and hearts ultimately help to shape our character:

“Among you there must not be . . . obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Ephesians 5:3–5, NIV).

In our culture it has become more and more difficult to keep our little ears pure from taking in certain words and phrases. Yet God calls us to pure hearts and minds—and to shut out those things that have dark lingering effects on our brains and ultimately our character.

What do you think? How do you guard your mind from those things that shape your character in a negative way?

Related Tags: Character, decisions, profanity, purity


Ginger, I get what you are after and agree in principle. ALL of what goes into us has some affect on us. I'm OK with saying we need to avoid certain things as a general principle. I was happy you stopped short of making a prescriptive list of words and phrases we should avoid. This is where we as Christians get into so much trouble. Words, in and of themselves, are not good or bad. It is the agreed upon connotations that can make words more than neutral. Like many other issues, when it comes to ourselves we should be as specific as possible in what may be an issue, but when it comes to others we need to be careful to add our own list of things when the Bible never did so.

"Words, in and of themselves, are not good or bad."
I couldn't disagree more with this statement. Christ says in Matthew 15:11 it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person. There are references throughout scripture of what our words mean and how we need to be mindful of them.
I agree that making a list of words to avoid saying is unfruitful, but every Christian should consider how their words represent their thoughts and that "those things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart" (Matthew 15:18).
All in all this is a great topic of conversation. Thank you.

Believer, those are Jesus' words but what do they mean? He just finished referring to Isaiah in which words were not the important thing but the heart, which he states in verse 18. We need to be conscious of words, including to be considerate of culture, intention, context, etc., as you referenced. At the same time, we need to focus on the message so we don't end up fighting over words (2 Tim.2:14).

Ginger, I appreciate your bold acceptance of this verse at face value. Paul used a general word for profanity because although words are different in each culture, each culture understands which words are profane. Even unbelievers grasp the fact that certain words are crafted to be crass. Two other admonitions are given in this chapter that underline your concern about obscenity. 1)Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord(5:10). If our mom would cringe, what about a holy God. 2)Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them(5:11).Our job is to expose evil, not enjoy it.

It's a shame they don't release movies under and alternate 'clean-language' version, so that Christians (and others with sensitive ears) could enjoy them. I'm sure the directors would be all "you're ruining my ART!" but hey, do they want to make art, or money?!?!!

It is becoming more and more of an issue. My husband and I remember seeing movies and want to watch with our kids, but now our standards have changed, as we cringe and will not continue. Growing up we had the 3 strikes rule, and the movie went off but today's movies add too much for my taste. I'm not yet a customer, but have been looking for cleaner versions for our family and have found www.clearplay.com/ it has a special dvd that is "cleaned up" and works like netflix, where you rent them and return via mail. Good point, Jeannie!

It's difficult to feel your pain in this one. I live and work in and around Philadelphia, and harsh profanity is something you hear all the time. There is no getting away from it. To avoid a movie because of some harsh language seems almost comical from my perspective. That would be like holding an umbrella to protect you from a light rain right while your standing in a lake up to your neck. But for anyone who really wants to take an in-depth look at speech, check out the "Speech" study at www.biblicalfreedom.com. It examines all Bible verses addressing our speech. There are about 90 of them. And there are dedintely some surprises.

When you live and work around profanity, you get sort of immune. But as for me, I pick up that sort of stuff easily. Now that I don't live and work around profanity, I am very offended when I hear it, or when I say it.

If you are standing in a lake up to your neck, I think it is time to get out of the lake. You CAN influence people with the way YOU talk. I know I have.

I have worked in environments with varying degrees of profanity. If we can trust that, contrary to what most people believe, it's unnecessary in human expression, we can be a light where we are. Finding better ways of dealing with anger, frustration and sexual issues than by using obscenity and coarseness is what reflects Who we believe in. It's a process, but I see so much equivocation by believers who claim that we aren't real or genuine without that language. It's deception, and hardness of heart. So sad.

"Equivocation" was the wrong word. Oops.

Believer, I don't disagree with what Jesus said, but he was not saying certain words were bad, but rather what they meant in that context and how they were used. Words can be used in hurtful, hateful, and worse ways, but it is not the words themselves that are evil. So, yes, we have to be mindful of what we say, but making a list of words we should or shouldn't say is never going to be productive.

As for the "clean" versions of movies? If you feel it needs cleaning to watch, is it something you should watch anyway?

1. Ginger Kolbaba, I am so glad you had a good talk with your mom!

2. Have any of y'all worked construction? I have. Working construction means, by and large, working with a group of guys. Guys who work with their hands. they use things to construct the world they want.

So, here we are, on the construction site, a bunch of guys sitting around eating lunch. And what to their wondering eyes should appear, but a pretty girl walking by.

If the construction guys you worked with were any like the guys I worked with, the first thing the guys would do is look. In their minds, the pretty girl walking past is not a human being, but a thing to be used. After the construction guys see this thing they could use, they would say something--obscene--about the pretty girl. Then they would talk--very loudly--foolishness to the girl about her doing something with them (in my construction subculture such talk was often accompanied by loud whistling). The girl would of course ignore them and continue in her beautiful way. The construction guys would then joke coarsely among themselves about the girl and what they and she would mythically do and say.

Ginger, in your article you quoted the Apostle Paul's epistle to the Ephesians. Paul wrote the epistle to the Ephesians In the Roman Empire of the First Century. In that culture at that time, guys were in charge. Women were things. Slaves were things. Guys used things to construct, in many ways, the world they wanted.

Now, the Apostle Paul was a guy. He travelled the Roman Empire accompanied by a group of guys. He mostly talked in organized settings with groups of guys. When Paul and the guys he travelled with were not announcing the Good News, or teaching, they worked with their hands. They used things to construct, with their hands, the world they wanted (to make a living to continue to announce and to teach). Paul, therefore, knew all about these guys he wrote to.

In Ephesians 5, Paul talks to those who were in charge (the guys), telling them not to any of the actions which typified what those in charge do to those who were under them, because these women were people, not things. The men did not make those "things" (the women), nor should they simply use the "things" to construct the world they want. Only God created things. He made the world the way He wanted. For the guys to use the women--even with their words--the men would in essence make themselves gods. And woship themselves.

If Paul could talk to the guys who worked construction with me, he would not command them to ignore the pretty girl walking past, but to thank God for her. Instead of men using women as things--even in their speech--Paul commanded the men to put women in their proper place (people, not things), put themselves in their proper place (not gods, and not using people as things), and God in His proper place (God, to be thanked for his blessings).

So, in Ephesians: "“Among you there must not be . . . obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Ephesians 5:3–5, NIV)."

Words can corrupt or words can bring healing and peace. Cursing is rampant in today's society. Cursing has seeped into awards ceremonies, nearly every TV program, music videos, books, CDs and sadly, into America's classrooms.
As Christians, we need to be salt and light. Salt to preserve good behavior and light to shed on the darkness in all of our hearts.

“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” (Ephesians 4:29, ESV).
“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 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. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” (James 3:5-12).
“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” (Philippians 4:8, ESV).

There are SO many verses in the Bible that urge us to avoid profanity - Webster defines "profane" as: 1) to treat (something sacred) with abuse, irreverence, or contempt, desecrate; and 2) to debase by a wrong, unworthy, or vulgar use... Since ALL life is sacred and God calls us to build each other up, it seems pretty obvious to me that foul language is the exact opposite of what God wants. To say that "words are neither good nor evil" is a ridiculous argument given by people who enjoy inflicting their appalling habits on the rest of us under the guise of "freedom of speech." Remember, ALL THAT IT TAKES FOR EVIL TO SUCCEED IS FOR GOOD MEN TO DO NOTHING. The next time you are offended, don't be "politically correct" and silent ~ speak up! Make use that "freedom of speech" the offenders are so fond of and let them know that you do not appreciate their language! There IS such a thing as being TOO tolerant.

Debbie, it is fine to say that we should avoid "foul language," but who is it who decides what is foul language? What if our culture decides that certain religious language is no longer acceptable, will you stop using it? I'm not disagreeing that we always need to be mindful of what we say, how we say it, and who we say it too, but I'm never for making a list of words and phrases that are unacceptable. In most contexts, I think we can be guided by the Holy Spirit to know what is correct. Language is too fluid and quick-changing and just too different from culture to culture to start defining specifically which words are OK and which are not. And if words ARE good and evil than please tell me which are which. Which of the words in this particular post of mine are good and which are evil? Because if words, in and of themselves, have a moral aspect, then you need to be able to tell me whether each specific word I use is good or evil. This is why the Bible never gives us specific words to use or not use, but rather gives us principles to guide us in how we use our tongues.

Well, I know a swear word when I hear it. It doesn't matter the context. I'm tired of going to a movie, walking into a store to spend my money and listening to a man calling the girl with him a bitch over and over, a girl describing what the man with her is in nasty language and she ain't going to put up with it any more. The same way walking down the street. The cussing as you are coming, passing and going away from them is sicking, and if you say anything they just cuss worst. Who brought up these people, oh I forgot, the movies, Hollywood directors, writers, producers, actors and actresses, humanists, drug addicts, gang people, secularists, etc. It wasn't my parents, that's for sure. I feel like killing these low lifes but I refuse to let them ruin my day. I wonder what they do to the people they're with when they're alone because their language sure makes me wonder.

Anna, "I feel like killing these low lifes." Really? So what you get from the grace of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ is that we shouldn't curse and we should hate those who are lost in sin? Let me tell you I know many "low lifes" whose language may not be so savory, but yet they don't hate or want to kill those who are different from them. I mean this with all sincerity, what happened to put you in a place like this? I can understand feeling battered or defeated by all that's wrong in the world, but as Christians it always behooves us to remember we were (and often still are) as much to blame for that as anyone else. We are not better than anyone else, in fact, we are only different in that we have acknowledged how bad we are and how much we need a Savior.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say. If we use Scripture as a guideline, then profanity is out. What is profane? Any words used to denigrate, humiliate, or otherwise make any person feel less than a creation of God. What about some of those exclamations so frequently used that sound startlingly like an obscenity? They have become so commonplace, even amongst Christians. What about slang? It all rolls off the tongue so easily, yet what are we communicating? That we are too lazy to think before speaking and use the proper word to express what we want to say? That we are annoyed with something and we want everyone around us to know? We've all grown up with slang, and profanity, but I believe that it usually is evidence of an ungodly, selfish attitude. If we have the attitude that Christ had, then we would speak plainly about right and wrong, in a loving and articulate manner!

Now I have to confess. I am Christian who sometimes swears. More of us exist than previously though. Mind, I don't swear as much as I did in my youth but if I'm not careful, then I've allowed such words to fly particularly if I lose my temper. I know it's a bad habit but I am working to control. However, I feel that when it comes to people who freak out about hearing profanity in a movie, they need to get some perspective. There are far worse things than someone dropping the occasional f-bomb or salty exclamation when frustrated. How about blasphemy or heresy? Loose talk, gossip and insensitive dismissive comments? What about racist, sexist, sizist, and other personally hurtful judgmental comments? What about those who make jokes at other people's expense? Those are the things you'll find more frequently in everyday conversation, and those are the things that can tend to be more hurtful to others and sever relationships.

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