Christians have a lot of unwritten rules when it comes to cussing, cursing, swearing, or having a “potty mouth.” But what does the Bible say about cussing Christians?
Rules for Cussing
Obscenity laws are written to limit what you can and can’t say in public, to protect public decency. Unwritten rules, on the other hand, get enforced by society in general. There are all kinds of unwritten rules about cussing. Let me write down three:
- Certain people shouldn’t hear you cuss. For instance, it used to be that men didn’t cuss if women or children were around, to protect them from becoming corrupted. If you were a child, you definitely didn’t cuss in front of the teacher or grandma. This was so you didn’t get in trouble. And, no matter who you were, you sure didn’t cuss in front of the preacher, or at church—because, you know, it’s only then that God can hear.
- Certain people get a free pass to cuss—like mechanics and sailors. But what if you’re my brother Paul, who happens to be both a preacher and a sailor? (I guess he’s really confused!)Drill sergeants and professional sports coaches are expected to cuss, but their counterparts who work with scout troops or little league had better not do it. Christian actors are even allowed to cuss—see rule # 3.
- Sometimes it doesn’t count as cussing. Some say it’s okay to cuss if you’re quoting someone else—especially if you use “air quotes.” As long as the words aren’t original to you, like song lyrics or lines from a movie, then it’s alright. It’s also okay to cuss if you spell it. Or if, in your spelling, you refer to sports equipment, like hockey sticks. Some say it’s fine to cuss if it’s in another language and your hearers don’t know what you’re saying. It’s also not cussing if you use replacement words, like “Cheese and Rice” instead of taking our Lord’s name in vain.
The History of Cussing
All these rules must have some basis in history, right? I’m glad you asked! It all comes from a class distinction in England. After the Norman Conquest of 1066 CE, the Old-French-speaking Normans mixed with the Old-English-speaking Britons. Old French was influenced by Latin, but Old English was influenced by German. The Norman nobility looked down on peasants who continued to use Germanic-based words. They believed that the Germanic-based language was “vulgar” (which means “of the crowd”). In English, our offensive language mainly comes from that Germanic base, which is considered vulgar because it’s the language of the common people. It has nothing to do with obscenity, and everything to do with cultural snobbery. This is why, for example, you can use a word like “doo-doo,” but not its alternative.
Is it a Sin to Cuss?
Christians have a long history of saying that it’s a sin to cuss—but when it comes to foul language, it’s important to know what the Bible does and doesn’t say. The Bible gives us many guidelines for appropriate speech—but not appropriate language if you take my meaning. Keep in mind that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written mainly in Greek—so the writers couldn’t have cared about English because as a language it didn’t yet exist. Whether you say “poo-poo,” or its alternative is not even a consideration for Biblical writers. It’s not so much whether your words come from a Germanic or Latin background. It’s what comes out of your heart.
The book of Proverbs emphasizes not the avoidance of certain words, but clean speech as opposed to perversity. Proverbs 4:24 NIV says to “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.” Proverbs 10:32 NIV says, “The lips of the righteous know what finds favor, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse.”
In other words, good people know how to use their language to bless people, help people, and honor people, but wicked people use twisted speech. The word “perverse” means to be turned away from what is right and good. So, the interest here is in our speech being straightforward, honest, and honorable—as opposed to corrupt, which speaks of rottenness, decay, and disease. This is the difference between cussing and cursing. Cussing is when English-speakers choose Germanic-based words. Cursing is when we use speech that is wicked and perverse, that does real damage.
Cursing in the Bible
There are four categories of cursing, or corrupt speech, including:
- Lying. Proverbs 10:18 NIV says, “Whoever conceals hatred with lying lips and spreads slander is a fool.”This is not only dishonesty about another person, but dishonesty about how you feel. God wants integrity, which means our feelings and speech need to match one another. Proverbs 12:19, 22 NIV says, “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment…The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.” Proverbs 19:9 NIV says, “A false witness will not go unpunished, and whoever pours out lies will perish.” God isn’t just concerned with making sure you are honest with yourself—God wants us to be honest with each other, and about each other. Even for those who think they can get away with dishonesty, life has a way of bringing truth and its consequences to those who deceive.
- Gossip. Not everybody who gossips is a liar. Sometimes gossip is true—but just because it’s true, that doesn’t mean it needs to be told. Proverbs 11:13 says, “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.”Bible teacher Greg Laurie suggests that before you spread gossip, you need to T.H.I.N.K. Ask yourself if what you’re about to say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind. If not, keep it to yourself.
- Mocking. Proverbs 14:6 says, “The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning.” Mocking is when we use our words to tear other people down. It’s like the emotional bully who calls names because he can’t use rational language. Typically, mocking uses words we generally consider offensive to a person’s ethnic, cultural, sexual, or gender identity. The opposite of mocking, of course, is knowledge and discernment.
- Troublemaking. Strange as it may seem, sometimes lying, gossiping, and mocking are not always intended to harm people—they just somehow do. But troublemaking is when you are intentionally trying to harm another person. Proverbs 6:12-15 talks about, “A troublemaker and a villain, who goes about with a corrupt mouth, who winks maliciously with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers, who plots evil with deceit in his heart—he always stirs up conflict.Therefore disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy.” Notice how the troublemaker uses not just their speech, but their whole demeanor, to stir the pot? Sometimes they can say one thing with their mouth, and another with their body language—masking their culpability with intentional deceit.
Does God Care if I Cuss?
The Bible has nothing to say on the subject of cussing. It has a lot to say about cursing, which is lying, gossiping, mocking, and troublemaking. Unfortunately, it seems these days that a lot of Christians care more about whether a person uses Germanic-based words than they care about whether their words curse someone by cutting them down. It’s been fashionable in the past few years for Christians to express their political opinions, disdain for the disabled, and hatred for national, ethnic, and sexual minorities. They might not use cuss words, but they certainly curse other people with this kind of language. Christian leaders need to do a better job of rejecting this as hate speech, rather than encouraging it because it suits their political purposes.
Instead of hurtful language, Proverbs advises that we use our speech thoughtfully and respectfully, with wisdom and love. Proverbs 16:24 NIV says, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Proverbs 18:21 NIV reminds us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” When we remember this, we become aware that our speech should be used to heal, and never to hurt. We also remember that if our words offend people, even if it’s because they come from Germanic instead of Latin roots—then maybe we need to rethink our word choices in front of those people.
Author Wayne Dyer points out that when you squeeze an orange, orange juice comes out. Not grapefruit juice or apple juice—because what comes out is what’s inside. In the New Testament, Jesus says, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil, for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45 NRSVUE).” When life puts pressure on you, what comes out is what’s inside—I pray that your words will build up, and not tear down, and that they’ll be filled with love and virtue.