Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is Profanity Sinful?

For some unknown reason, out of the blue, one of my co-workers begged me (out of the bosses' earshot) to say a naughty word on Tuesday.  "Please?  I never heard you say anything bad.  Please, just one bad word?" 

"No," I answered, confused.

"Please?  I've been having a really bad day, and that would just cheer up my whole week.  For me?  Please!"


"I just want to hear you say a naughty word."

I was lost as to where this came from, and so was my partner that day.  We thought our co-worker was being quite silly.  Eventually, she suggested, "Hell?  Could you say 'hell' for me?" 

Now, I don't know about you, but to me, hell is not a swear word.  Think about it: the word is a theological term and is even in the Creed.  Confused that she would ask for that word, I asked, "Hell?"  She giggled maniacally and then asked for "another" swear word. 

When she finally went back to her area, my partner-for-the-day suggested to me, "But 'hell' isn't really a swear word, is it?" 

"No.  It's a place." 

"Yeah, that's kinda what I thought."

So I have been thinking about this interchange.  I knew she would pester again for a swear word.  And sure enough, she has. 

I really don't know what I think about whether profanity is sinful.  I do know that cursing and swearing is sinful: the second commandment tells me that.  But the profanity that is merely "coarse language"?  I've heard discussions about why it is sinful and about why it's not sinful.  I've heard discussions about whether "gee whiz" and "golly" and "darn" are sinful, and other arguments as to why they're not sinful.  And honestly, I just don't care.   Those conversations always seem to end up steeped in legalism or antinomianism.

But here's what I noticed.  My co-worker does think profanity is sinful.  She may think that she doesn't; after all, she is not opposed to cursing, swearing, and profanity coming out of her mouth occasionally.  But there is some drive in her to get me to say something "naughty."  Isn't that a tacit admission that she thinks it would be sinful of me to toss out some of those four-letter words?  And here's what I'm wondering: If even the world, in all her revelry and self-indulgence, considers profanity sinful, would that mean it is?


  1. This happened to me in about 5th grade at the public school. My classmates begged me to say a naughty word. My mom had taught me not even to say words similar to taking God's name in vain, like "gosh". I didn't even know any bad words to say to them other than words like "darn" and words that aren't bad words like "hell". It put me in a terrible position as just a 5th grader. Experiences like that are one of the reasons we homeschool-it's one thing for an adult like you to have this conversation, another for a grade school student.
    It also shows just how much our coworkers and friends and even just acquaintances are paying attention to us Christians for what we consider to be "normal" or little things.

  2. I mentioned this to three people besides my husband (who has met the co-worker). Two of the three asked, "Just how old IS this person?" My son said the same thing happened to him at work, but that he doesn't think it's abnormal for teenagers to do something like this. (My co-worker is an adult.)

  3. I worked in restaurants as a teenager, and can remember co-workers saying they knew I must be Christian because I never said bad words. Some of them felt like they had to be "on guard" around me, which made them uncomfortable, but others gravitated toward me and trusted me for the very same reason.

    As an adult, it's certain groups of men who try to clean up their language when a lady is in the room.

    1. How old is this person? I would expect that from maybe 10 year olds, but not adults. Espcially someone who respected you.

  4. Sandy, I've noticed that certain groups of men will watch their language around ladies or children. But it's generally men our age or older. It seems like people 35 and younger don't bother. But at work, they know there's a certain standard around customers.

    Rhonda, she's probably late 20's. I don't know exactly.

  5. This is just bizarre. I agree from what you've described that she thinks the type of language in question is sinful. And yet her efforts to lead you into that sin are so overt. Usually when we poor, miserable sinners try to lead others into sin (which we unfortunately do all too often) we make light of the sin, downplay it, try to paint it as not so bad or as not sin at all. "Oh, this harmless little apple? It's not going hurt you one bit! It's so pretty and yummy!" But she seems to be acknowledging that she wants you to sin and not even pretending that there will be any benefit to you for doing it! It is very strange, and as others have noted, psychologically extremely immature.

    It is so hard to answer the question about whether or not it indeed is sin. Reminds me a little of the post I wrote a few days ago about politically incorrect/insensitive language and why some things are deemed insensitive and other things aren't. It seems to some extent to be a matter of context. Are you using the language to reflect anger or to insult or harm or because you are trying to be "naughty"? Are you using it in a place where you know someone might be offended? I do think these things come into play. But I don't like that answer. I want it to be more cut and dried. I want to know what's okay and what's not okay. And I hate that the line seems so hard to draw and that as soon as I think I have figured out where it is someone moves it. (I personally have a really low tolerance for foul language and I am daily dismayed at some of the stuff I regularly now see online and in the media that didn't used to be socially acceptable.)

  6. Obviously she thinks it's sinful and she wants you to sin. I'd ask if she thought you were some perfect angel, and you could reassure her that you're already a sinner in need of forgiveness. :)

  7. Cheryl, yes, it does seem strange. And generally not like her. That's what's especially odd. She can have fun and joke around, but this little game seems rather uncharacteristic.

    Dan, after some thought yesterday on my drive home, I knew what I wanted to say. But it seemed too big, too weighty, too important to just toss out a one-liner. But after chatting briefly with Pastor, he pointed out that I'd summed it up in one longish sentence that really didn't take long. He asked, "Why not just say that?" So I think I'm going to ask her to think about WHY she wants me to say these words. After she's had a day or so to think about it, I can say, "If you think I believe in a God that will zot me for saying 'damn' or 'sh**' then you're wrong: I believe in a God of mercy who forgives sin."

    Oh, and Cheryl, I wanted to respond to that post. But working five days this week and having a workshop at Children's Hospital and a rendezvous to take a down-payment on the car, along with the regular stuff at church and home, I just haven't been able to take the time yet.

  8. "But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth," Colossians 3:8.

  9. Josh, I don't think that the variety of words for "poop" are necessarily "obscene talk." Another example: the b-word (the one for "illegitimate child") isn't obscene ... unless you're trying to use it to be insulting and damaging.

    There's more to obscenity than simply letting a word (possibly used in a quote) pass your lips.

  10. Of course. Context is going to determine obscenity. "A-word for donkey," "b-word for illegitimate child," "b-word for female dog," "d-word for punish eternally," "h-word for the place of fire prepare for the devil and his minions," "f-word (with one G, not two) for bundle of sticks," and "q-word for unconventional" are seven examples of words that have (or at least had) acceptable usage in polite society. They could be used in non-obscene speech. One of those words even shows up in a Christmas carol.

    But we all know that there are inherently obscene words out there. Even the F.C.C. has a list of seven words expressly forbidden from being aired (and none of the words I listed are on that list). You yourself admit to not speaking them. Would you consider it acceptable for someone to use these words in front of your pastor? In front of your children? In front of the president? In front of a guest at church? Of course not. They're obscene.

    With the Word of God there is no wiggle room. There aren't shades of gray. Either we keep it or we don't. When we start making excuses for our behavior we are simply trying to self-justify the behaviors to which we have become accustomed. We are trying to find a loophole in the Law. Well, there are no loopholes. Obscene is obscene. Yes, context determines it, but there's no permissible usage for that which is obscene.

    But that's the beauty of grace. Our sinful nature is so ingrained in us that we either don't realize we're sinning or we have calloused over the Law that has been written upon our hearts to the point that we have convinced ourselves that it's not really a sin. And then grace covers it all the same.

    But when the Law then breaks through the callouses upon our hearts, do we still continue in sin so that grace may abound? Certainly not. When the Word of God speaks we listen, even if it is begrudgingly. The Holy Spirit smoothes out the rough places and leads us back to the means of grace.

    So is profanity sinful? Perhaps the better question is whether or not profanity is beneficial. For, after all, "all things are lawful." But Paul shows us that we should flee from profanity as we would any sin. To put the Word of God that I quoted for you into context, we should "put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you" (Col. 3:5), "seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator" (Col. 3:9-10); "and whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Col. 3:17). Profane and obscene talk just doesn't fit with that.

    Pr. Osbun

  11. I'm confused, Josh. It sounds like you're telling me that it would be bad of me to say, "If you think that I believe in a God who will zot me if I say 'damn' or 'sh**' ..." because that sentence contains a word that is [virtually always] considered obscene.

    Am I understanding you right? Or are you just saying that there's no excuse for mouthing off with foul language?

  12. I'm not going to say that saying a naughty word in one setting is okay while saying it in another is not.

    What I am going to do is show you the Word of God. You can reckon with that however you desire. But that's what the Word of God says: Build up Christ. Reflect the image in which you were created. Do not pursue the ways of the flesh. Seek first the Kingdom of God.

  13. I think I'm having a hard time believing that you're saying what it sounds like you're saying. I am NOT justifying foul language. But what I'm hearing you say is that ANY time a certain arrangement of phonics passes your lips, it would be an obscenity.

    For example, let's say a kid gets to be about 8-10 years old. He's reading. Kids hear foul language at the playground. They see bumper stickers and graffiti. They ask what those words mean. If Mom or Dad has a conversation with the child, telling them what those words are, what they mean, and why we don't use them, I cannot see how you could claim that that's "obscenity" to speak those words. If you think that, well, okay. But I think it's going beyond God's word to say that a kid sinned when he came home and told Mom that "Georgie got in trouble today at school for saying" whatever-it-was.

  14. I was involved in a rather lengthy discussion regarding the sinfulness or lack thereof of Mixed Martial Arts fighting. What I have learned since that discussion is that we cannot go around saying "this is a sin" or "that is a sin." When we do that all we do is try to find a way to justify the things that we do.

    Here's what we can say for certain:

    We are by nature sinful and unclean.

    Our depravity courses throughout our entire being.

    We sin without realizing it.

    The Law of God is written upon our hearts so that no one is without excuse.

    Our children are sinners, too.

    When in doubt, we should not assume that we have acted righteously. That is against our very nature. When in doubt, repent, and cast yourself upon the mercies of God.

    Is it a sin? I don't know. That's why "I'm not going to say that saying a naughty word in one setting is okay while saying it in another is not." But because of situations like this that arise that's also why "Context is going to determine obscenity."

    But I do know what the Word of God says. I know that it tells us to flee from obscene speech. I know that the Law of God is so broad that thinking hateful thoughts is tantamount to murder and thinking lustful thoughts is the same as adultery. What we might consider to be innocent and/or unlawful behavior is not necessarily so in the eyes of God.

    But again, I cannot say "yes, this is a sin" or "no, this is not a sin." That's not my place.