Pardon my French (Bad Words)

Original Date: 
Sunday, January 17, 2016

Ephesians 4:29-5:5 Taming the Tongue: Pardon my French (Bad Words)

The Cussing Pastor
When Beth and I finished seminary and I took my first job as a pastor, one of the first things I did was buy a car. I bought a purple Chevy Blazer with four wheel drive.

I really did need a different car. What I was driving for the last year of seminary was a late ‘70s Jeep Wagoneer with the wood paneling on the sides that I had bought for $500. As we were making the drive from Illinois to Iowa I actually had to stop at a Menards in Rockford, Illinois and buy some baling wire to tie up the tailpipe so it would stop dragging on the interstate. It was a rolling wreck.

And I told people I bought the Blazer because the church we were serving (and the house we were living in) was 8 miles from town and two miles from a hard surface road. So I needed the four wheel drive in the event of snow storms. But, if I’m really being honest, the reason I bought it was because it was purple.

So, anyway, a few years passed and I got into doing some basketball refereeing. A friend of mine did Jr. High and Jr. Varsity games, and I joined him. He was a friend who didn’t go to church, so I was also trying to witness to him.

So, one Friday night we worked a Freshman game in Cedar Falls and then we were going to go watch the Varsity game at our High School in Dike. And we rode together, in my purple Blazer. After the game, we were hustling to get back to Dike, and I didn’t notice that the roads were a little icy. So as we were driving out of town, I was probably going faster than the conditions warranted, when a light in front of me turned yellow. I hit the brakes a little too hard at the same time that I hit a patch of ice, the Blazer turned sideways, and I drifted right through the intersection and hit the island median on the other side, hard.

It all happened in a kind of slow motion, I really thought the Blazer was going to flip over, or that oncoming traffic was going to hit us. So, as I felt the car lose control, I said a bad word.

As it turned out, everything was OK. One of the tires was flat, but my friend helped me change it (by which I mean, he changed it) and we got to the Varsity game in a reasonable amount of time.

But what really bothered me about the whole thing—other than the fact that I nearly killed my friend—was that he had heard me say a bad word. I was trying to share Jesus with him, and now he had heard me curse.

I have to say that one of the hazards of being a professional Christian is cursing. If I slip up, and utter an R-rated word, people who know that I am a pastor find it very, very strange. And, even more unusual, when people let a naughty word fly in my presence, they often apologize profusely. It’s not that they would hesitate to use such a word in other situations, but if a pastor is around it feels more wrong.

And so, I really worried about how my bad word was going to affect my friend’s impression of me. Would he think I was a hypocrite? Or would he think that maybe I was a normal guy who sometimes struggled to control his tongue?

Salty Language
Today’s sermon is going to be about swearing. Cussing. Cursing. Salty language. Adult language. Explicit language. Language that is intended for mature audiences only. Four letter words. Bad words. Naughty words. Expletives. Profanity.

For whatever reason, swearing has been identified as one of the distinctive things about Christianity. People outside of the church assume that Christians never use a bad word, and if we ever do it feels like a “gotcha” moment.

And in the church, we sometimes act as though swearing is the absolute worst thing a Christ-follower could ever do: Tony Campolo once famously began a sermon by talking about the thousands of children that die of hunger every day. Then he used a swear word. Then he said: “The sad thing is most of you are more upset about the word I just used than the fact that thousands of children are dying.”

But the Bible does have something to say about bad words. We are in a series called “Taming the Tongue.” We know that Jesus said what comes out of our mouths reveals what’s in our hearts. (Luke 9:45) And swear words certainly reveal a darkness that lingers inside of us. So if we want the rudder of our tongues to steer the ship of our lives in a positive direction (James 3:4), then we’ll have to tackle profanity.

Let me acknowledges some difficulties right up front:

For one, it’s hard to preach a message on swearing without having you, in the audience, thinking about all kinds of bad words. I’ve probably thought about more bad words in the last week than I have during any other week of my life. And I don’t know how to get around it. I’m not going to say any bad words from the pulpit today. But we’re all still going to be thinking about them. I’m sorry about that.

For another thing, this is a tough topic because bad language seems so pervasive these days. It seems to be more and more socially acceptable to use foul language. Standards for television and popular music seem to be lowering, and the internet and social media make it worse. There’s a lot of swearing out there, and many people don’t even realize how bad their speech has become.

And that might include some of you. So I might be stepping on a few toes this morning. If that is the case, I apologize. But please know I do it in love (and as someone who needs his own toes stepped on as well.)

And, on the other hand, you might feel like this is a rather trivial thing to spend a sermon on. Like Tony Campolo, you might, feel like there are a lot bigger problems in the world than a naughty word someone might utter after hitting her thumb with a hammer. And, there certainly are. This is the first sermon I’ve ever preached on swearing. I’ve preached far more on caring for the poor. But, it is still something the Bible addresses, and thus it is worthy of our time.

So, let’s turn to the Bible. Our primary text today is Ephesians, starting in chapter 4, verse 29, and going through chapter 5, verse 5:

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Our key verses today are the first verse I read: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” and the second to last verse I read: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.”

There are four categories of words that we should seek to avoid. We’ll start with the three listed in Ephesians 5:4:

No Obscenity
First, there should be no obscenity. The King James Version of this verse says “filthiness.” There should be no dirty words in our vocabulary. No potty mouths.

So, what is obscenity? I’d say these are the words that we just know are bad. The words that get a movie an “R” rating. The words that newspapers still refuse to print.

As my friend Matt says: “We often say, ‘Pardon my French.’ But there is no excuse for ‘French.’”

Now, we have to acknowledge that there is a certain arbitrariness to what qualifies as a swear word. Why are some words bad, while others are not? What if “table” were a swear word? I’ll talk a little bit more about that in a bit.

But when it comes to obscenity, there’s usually a connection to biological functions in the areas of sexuality and waste elimination. The verse right before this one says:

3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.

A lot of bad words come from talking about impurity in sexuality. Body parts, sexual acts, bad names for people who engage in illicit sex. They are crude words. Disgraceful words. Vulgar words.

In fact, that word: “vulgar” gives us a hint as to what is wrong with swearing. Vulgar is the Latin word for “common.” It refers to things that are low class, impolite, unworthy. When vulgarities are uttered it is really being uncivil. These are words used for shock value. They are selfish words, words that are spoken with no concern or care for those who are listening. They are words which reveal a lack of class in the person who speaks them.

You shouldn’t use obscenities because you should want to represent yourself better than that. Proverbs 10:32 puts it like this:

The lips of the righteous know what finds favor,
but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse.

I should mention, too, that this passage in Ephesians does not mention it directly, but breaking the third commandment is certainly out of bounds here as well. The third command is “you shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.” As Christians, we should be especially careful about using the Lord’s name as a swear word.

Why would we want to take the precious name of our Savior, and turn it into an obscenity? I’m not sure I even get why that happens, but I know it does, and I know I’ve been guilty of it. Taking something utterly holy and turning it into a way to curse someone or something. That’s terrible. That’s serious. And it something we need to repent of, and guard our lips against.

And, by the way, this includes seemingly simple phrases like “O my Lord!” or sticking OMG into a text. That’s not the way God wants us to use His name. It’s not the kind of talk God wants from us.

No obscenities.

No Foolish Talk
Second, there should be no foolish talk. That’s the second thing in Paul’s list in Ephesians 5:4: “ Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking.” No foolish talk.

This is very similar to obscenity, though I think it expands the category. Foolish talk includes words that are vulgar and indecent in their connotations, but also includes words that hint at or substitute for those words.

The picture I get of “foolish talk” is empty words that are spouted out without thinking. They are words that haven’t been fully considered. Proverbs 15:28 says,

The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.

I realize that when you try to categorize what is a curse word and what is not, it is sort of a moveable target. There are certain words that. depending on where you are in the world, or where you are in history, might be considered offensive, but in another time or place are completely innocent. For example, in England, “bloody” is a curse word. Here? Not so much.

Or, again, I read a blog post by a Pastor in South Africa. He pointed out that in Afrikaans—the variation on Dutch spoken in South Africa and Namibia—two of the most offensive words are “bliksem” and “donder.” If you called someone a little “bliksem” or told someone you were going to “donder” them, those would be considered fighting words. What do they mean? They are literally the words for “lightning” and “thunder.” But in that culture, somehow, they came to be used offensively.

Which brings us to a whole bunch of words in English which have perfectly normal and acceptable usage when used one way; but, if used another way, are clearly intended to be offensive. I won’t give any examples, but I’m sure you can figure it out.

And then there are the “substitute” swear words. Words which aren’t the really bad words, but which start with the same letter or have the same number of syllables or in some other way bring the really bad word to mind. What about them?

Again, it’s a moveable target. But I would lump most of these words into the category of “foolish talk.” You might not say the magic word, but it’s not too hard to decipher the intent of your heart.

And again, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? Out of the fullness of his heart a man speaks. What does your use of a word say about what is going on inside? Are you trying to use a substitute word to give the appearance of acceptability, even while that very word lets everybody know what you are really thinking?

The Bible says there should be no foolish talk.

No Coarse Joking
Third, there should be no coarse joking. That’s the third thing on Paul’s list: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking.” Some translations have “degrading jesting.”

In other words, Christians should not tell dirty jokes. We should not tell jokes with suggestive overtones or double entendres. We should not tell jokes that use obscenities to get a laugh. We should not tell jokes that demean or degrade or humiliate others.

And here’s the problem with that: Sometimes those kinds of jokes can be really funny. Some of the funniest jokes you’ll ever hear are a little coarse. Some of the funniest comedians work really blue.

But, just because something is funny, that doesn’t mean it’s good. Just because you can make someone laugh, that doesn’t mean you should.

That’s why I have so much respect for comedians who work clean. It’s a lot harder. Some of the cheapest laughs come when they descend into the gutter. But being funny while avoiding coarse joking takes a lot more work.

Which brings up this question: What if you don’t use a lot of bad words or dirty jokes in your speech, but you listen to it in your music or in the movies you watch?

This is tough. Because as Christians, we have freedom, and what might be a problem for me could be no problem at all for you. (see 1 Corinthians 10:23-33) And some really good movies, like Saving Private Ryan, for example, contain some rough language in order to be true to their subject.

But, at the same time, Philippians 4:8 says:

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

It’s hard to see how watching a movie you know is a gross out movie that relies on bad language to get laughs, or listening to a comedian who works blue, or listening to music that emphasizes obscenities—it’s hard to see how any of that can be considered pure, lovely or admirable.

Which brings me to another question: what do you do when someone around you is telling coarse jokes or using a lot of swear words?

Again, this is tough, and it depends. If you are a parent or a teacher or an adult with some authority over a child who is swearing, it is appropriate to correct bad language. Or, if you are close friends with another believer who is constantly slipping into the gutter, you might feel comfortable saying something. Likewise, if you have a spouse who uses a lot of swear words, you might look for a gentle way to encourage a change.

But, for the most part, if you hear cussing or swearing it is probably best to overlook it. It is not Christian witnessing to tell a non-Christian to clean up their language. More than likely, it is going to come off as pious and judgmental.

As Christians, our goal should be to win those around us to Jesus, not clean up their mouths.

As my friend Matt says: “We shouldn’t be crude, but we shouldn’t be prudes either.” We can let the Holy Spirit do the convicting.

No Unwholesome Talk
Fourth, there should be no unwholesome talk. This takes us back to Ephesians 4:29, the first verse in our passage:

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

“Unwholesome talk” here is probably a broad category for all the kinds of language we’ve already talked about. And you could expand it even further to include things like gossip, grumbling and dishonesty.

But I wanted to list it today so that I could talk about one more type of bad words, and that is words that are intentionally hurtful of others. Hate speech. Bullying. Insulting speech. Ethnic slurs. Demeaning words for people we disagree with, or who have lifestyles different from our own.

For example, we might not agree with homosexuality as a lifestyle, but that doesn’t give us the right to use derogatory names to describe those who identify as gay. Or there might be politicians you disagree with, and would never dream of voting for, but that is no reason to call them names. There is never an excuse for a Christian—or anyone else, for that matter—to use racial insults.

Again, you know what I’m talking about. And the words you are thinking about right now never need to be spoken out loud. There is no reason for name calling.

No unwholesome talk.

So, as Christians, our speech should be free of obscenity, of foolish talk, of coarse joking, and of unwholesome talk. Get rid of the cussing. Clean up the dirty language.

But that leads to an obvious question: Why? Why is this something the Bible takes time to warn us against? Why is this such a seemingly big deal to Christians?

If we watch our language, will it get us into heaven? If we never say a bad word out loud, will that make God like us better? If we keep it clean, does that make us better than other people?

Sometimes we make it seem that way. But that’s not what the Bible says. Rather, the reason Christians should not swear is because it is not in keeping with who we are in Christ. If we belong to Jesus, then swear words don’t fit us anymore.

The truth is: cleaning up your language isn’t going to help you get even one inch closer to heaven. The only hope any of us have of getting to heaven is through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. It says that earlier in Ephesians, when it tells us that it “is by grace you have been saved...not by works.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) You aren’t going to get to heaven by giving your money away, or by helping little old ladies across the street, or by cutting all the four-letter words out of your vocabulary. You are only going to get to heaven by trusting in Jesus Christ, letting him pay the penalty of your sin, and giving Him the rule over your life. There is no other way (cf. John 14:6)

But, if you are a Christian, then that will change the way you live. That’s what this section of Ephesians is all about. It’s a section, starting at Ephesians 4:17 that is all about living differently because of Jesus Christ. It uses the metaphor of clothing, and says that we should take off the old clothes of our life without Jesus, and put on the new clothes of a life that has been changed by Jesus.

The picture Paul paints is of this shabby clothing that we all wear. Beggar’s rags. Filthy clothes that make the person next to you move down a couple more seats. A wardrobe filled with falsehood and stealing and bitterness and a whole bunch of unwholesome words.

But Jesus has given us this new wardrobe. It’s a walk-in closet filled with the best clothes out there: Armani and Gucci and the best stuff from Nike and Under Armour too. Jesus gives us this new set of clothes made up of truthfulness and work and generosity and love and kind words. And the question is: why in the world would you want to go back to the beggar’s rags? Why would you trade your new clothes for your old ones?

As it says in our key verse, Ephesians 5:4:

4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

Bad language is “out of place” for those who are in Christ. It doesn’t fit anymore. It’s like a middle-aged man with a paunch trying to put on the suit he wore to his High School graduation. It just doesn’t work. As it says in the verse before this: “these are improper for God’s holy people.”

Here’s how this passage ends, Ephesians 5:5:

5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

That’s how high the stakes are. It’s no laughing matter. Bad words don’t fit. They are impure and out of place for those who belong to Jesus. As my friend Matt puts it: “Obscenities, foolish talk, or coarse joking in the mouth of a Christ-following believer is like putting Ghandi in charge of the U.S. Marines. They just don’t fit together!”

Again, not because we earn our way into heaven by watching our language. But, because we have been made into children of God, because we have a new inheritance in His kingdom, because we have been given a new wardrobe, we should no longer live as though we were outside of Christ.

What Paul is saying is: You are already pure because of Jesus, so purify your mouth. Does that make sense? If you don’t have a purified and purifying mouth, then you might not know Jesus, and you might not have a share in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Because all saved people are being sanctified.

Don’t think that you can clean up your mouth to impress God so that He’ll let you into His family. You only get into the family of God by faith in Christ and what He did on the Cross. But if you are in that family, then you need to talk like it.

And that means no obscenities, no foolish talk, no coarse joking, and no unwholesome talk. Because they are “out of place.”

So, one more thing, and very quickly. What should we do instead? If not swearing, then how should we talk?

Let’s go back to our two main verses. Ephesians 5:4:

4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

And Ephesians 4:29:

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

“But rather thanksgiving.” “But only what is helpful for building others up.” In other words, our language should give thanks to God for His good gifts, and it should be helpful to those around us.

That makes me think about what Jesus said were the two most important commands: love God, and love your neighbor. Love God, and love people.

That should be how we measure our language. That’s what we should strive for in our speech. What kind of talk shows love for God? What kind of talk shows love for people?

That’s the kind of language we should use.