By now you all know that I enjoy the occasional hashtag game on social media. Recently someone brought this one to my attention: #RuinAChildrensBook. The premise is to take a beloved book and, by altering one or two words in the title, significantly change the meaning of the book. As a book lover who is married to a book lover and raising three little book lovers, this was right up my alley.
It’s amazing how changing one or two words can radically alter meaning. Words are incredibly potent. It should be a reminder to all of us to be careful about the words we use when we’re talking to others and about others.
With our words we can build people up.
With our words we can tear people down.
Like bullets from a gun, when words leave our mouths there is no taking them back. Even the most sincere apology cannot undo the hurt we might cause with some poorly chosen words.
So think before you speak. Ask yourself if the words you are choosing will bring life or death.
If you have a sensitivity to coarse language you may want to skip this post…
So the other day I played a little game with some friends. I asked a group of people to help me come up with as many Christian swear alternatives as we could (those are words Christians use when we feel a need to swear but don’t feel comfortable using any of the words the world uses).
Keep in mind that Christians have different standards of what is or is not acceptable. But here is the list we came up with.
cheese and crackers.
“crumb” instead of “crap”, for the very conservative 🙂
oh my word, oh my stars
oh my Gosh!
Shut the front door!
Well I’ll be dipped in buttermilk
son of a biscuit
He’s full of shiitake mushrooms!
What the frick?
shut the front door
What in the blue bless?!
Oh. My. Cow
Jesus, Mary & Joseph.
SUGAR MONKEY FUNKY BUTTS!
Peas and Rice!
Dag nab it!
Goodness! That’s a long list. Every once in a while I’ll get someone who asks me a question about what the Bible says about swearing/cursing/profanity. The truth is that the Bible doesn’t say a whole lot about it.
There are two verses in the Bible that most Christians use to justify a no-profanity position.
Exodus 20:7 – You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…
Ephesians 4:29 – let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.
While these are great verses, neither one is talking about profanity. In Exodus God is commanding the Israelites not to use his name lightly. There is a little bit of ambiguity here, because the Bible never says exactly what it means to take God’s name lightly. It could mean not to use the name casually. It could mean not to use the name to back up your promises (swear to God…). There is no general prohibition here on profanity.
The Ephesians verse seems compelling at a cursory look, but Paul isn’t talking about profanity. In Ephesians he’s talking about not lying, speaking truth, not sinning in our anger, and building people up. In the context of the passage it would seem that “unwholesome talk” is not profanity but is language that seeks to hurt or damage others. The Greek word can literally be translated as “trash.” It’s like Paul is saying, “Don’t engage in trash talk against each other. Use your words to build each other up.”
On top of the lack of biblical direction against foul language we run into the problem of the fluidity of language. That is to say, language changes. What words mean now could be very different from what they meant 300 years ago. So which culture and era do we use as the standard for acceptable and non-acceptable words?
I grew up in a conservative home, where there were very few acceptable alternatives for swearing. I have a very clear memory of the first time I EVER used the expression, “Man, that’s screwed up!” I felt like such a rebel. In our home “sucks” was not an acceptable word. But I remember the first time my mother was so upset about something she declared, “Well that…that just SUCKS!” She doesn’t use it regularly, but she needed to express the depth of her emotion and used that phrase to do it.
In the end it is another case of Christian liberty. If God’s Spirit is convicting you and telling you not to use certain words – DON’T! If you have freedom in Christ to use certain words – FEEL FREE! We just need to make sure that we’re not imposing our freedom (or lack of freedom) on others.
In the end, it is always better to err on the side of caution. Even if I’m free to use words it doesn’t mean that I should flaunt my freedom in front of others. Out of respect for people I can choose to change my language to fit the circumstance.
Last year we took a family trip to a nearby zoo. There was one section designated the “petting zoo” where children could interact with animals. I asked my oldest if she want to go in and feed the goats and she said yes. As we were walking through the animals my daughter seemed okay. She was a little timid but there was nothing to be concerned about…until we approached the feed dispenser. When the goats saw us nearing the dispenser they knew what was coming and rushed over to grab some food. At this point I had the feed in my hand and goats were rearing up and some were butting heads to get the food. When they reared they were taller than my daughter, and at this point she was starting to panic and was clinging to my leg. I was knocking goats away, trying to protect her. Finally I just tossed all the food away and the goats swarmed it. That’s when we made our break and escaped the petting zoo – never to return (read that last phrase in an ominous voice).
My wife and I had a similar experience visiting St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. The square outside the Cathedral was famous for pigeons. Thousands of them! And tourists could stand in the middle of the square, hold out birdseed in both hands, and have the birds flock to you and land on you. It was quite a sight (and yes, I tried it). You’ve got to be careful with that birdseed.
The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Ephesus
22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. 25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. 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. (Ephesians 4:22-32)
Notice that he says Christians “put off the old self” – the language is very similar to changing clothes, taking off one outfit to put on another. There is supposed to be a difference in Christian behavior from the way the rest of the world operates. Our outfits are supposed to be new and different. That plays out specifically in our language and how we use our words. Paul says to put off unwholesome talk or “foul language.”
I’ve heard many people use this verse to tell others not to use profanity. The debate about what words are (or should be) taboo is for another time, but suffice to say that Paul isn’t talking about that here. “Foul language” is not about profanity but about language that tears down others. With our mouths we have the power to harm or to heal, especially when it comes to rumors and gossip (some of the most “foul language” around).
Our words become like birdseed and those crazy pigeons. Every time you jump in the rumor mill you are spreading birdseed. Even if you get the facts right later the seed is still out there. I’m still trying to clean up birdseed from a over year ago. “Did you hear that Pastor Chris did…? Did you hear that Pastor Chris said…?”
You have probably had to deal with this in your life. “Did you hear about…?” And the birdseed gets scattered. Then the hungry birds come and devour the seed and then fly away. What do full birds do? They poop! Someone miles away might get pooped on because of the seed you were spreading. How do you stop birds from pooping on people? Stop spreading the birdseed! This isn’t what Christian behavior is supposed to look like.
The book of Acts does give us a picture of what the church SHOULD look like. It’s supposed to be characterized by 1) authentic community – the church is supposed to be a place where you can experience relationships the way they were meant to be, 2) wholehearted worship – the church is where God gets the glory He deserves, 3) spiritual growth – the church is where you can become the best YOU that you can be, 4) financial care and responsibility – the church is where our time, talents, and treasure get invested for eternity, and 5) reaching others – the church is where everyone gets adopted into God’s family. When the Church embraces those characteristics it becomes a powerful force in the world and in people’s lives.
We Choose. What type of Church community would you prefer to be part of? The birdseed model or the Acts model? We choose what kind of people we are going to be. It is my prayer that we refuse to be birdseed Christians and start being the purposeful people we see in Acts.
Stop throwing birdseed. Be the people He calls us to be.