What The …? (Cussing, Contempt and the Orthodontist)

My April Christianity Today column has gone online. I’m tempted to introduce it with dozens of caveats, clarifications and “other-hands,” but I best just let it speak for itself, at least to begin. I’d love to have a conversation about it, though. Let me know what you think.

The Trouble with Cussing Christians

Do Christians have a unique call to avoid strong language?
Carolyn Arends [ posted 4/15/2013 ]

The Trouble with Cussing Christians

Recently, rushing late to my son’s orthodontic appointment, I missed a critical left turn. Much to my surprise, I exhaled a “bad” word by our family’s standards. (Please understand, dental receptionists don’t suffer tardiness lightly, and my punctuality track record isn’t strong.)

“Mom!” exclaimed my children.

“What?” I stammered, feigning innocence, and adding the sin of deception to strong language.

Apparently my mother was right all along. One sin leads to another. And we shouldn’t use bad words.

Except … it’s cool these days to be a Christian who swears. It gives the curser an “I’m into Jesus, but I’m not legalistic” badge. A recent tweet about a behavioral study that linked swearing and honesty went viral among my church friends (although no one could produce a link to the actual study). Many of these friends point to the arbitrariness of the cuss-word system.

“What if table was a swear word?” asked my daughter. “Or elbow?”

She has a point. There is something absurd about the designation of particular words as profane. And yet, neither table nor elbow is in the curse category, and the majority of swear words have earned their designation according to a certain logic. Other than words associated with deity, most profanity involves associations with biological function in the areas of sexuality and waste elimination. The God-related curses are right off the table, if one takes the third commandment seriously at all. But what is a Christian to do with the remaining “strong language”?

All language is a kind of social contract. We agree—as heirs of centuries of etymological development—to call the pointy thing in our arm an elbow, just like we agree to label things we find despicable with words we identify as profane. The words themselves hold only the power we give them. But curse words tend to be powerful indeed, because to linguistically reduce something or someone to the level of biological functions (and their resultant products) is almost always an act of contempt. And contempt is toxic.

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes the work of psychologist John Gottman. In Gottman’s lab, spouses were asked to discuss something mildly contentious while sensors recorded their physiological responses. After years of studying the nuances of these exchanges, Gottman became startlingly successful at predicting which couples would divorce. The most telling indicators, he claims, are expressions of contempt. An eye roll or a mildly disdainful put-down was more worrisome than outright conflict. In fact, the presence of contempt in a marriage affects not only the survival of the relationship, but even the immune systems of the parties involved; spouses who live with chronic contempt get more colds than those who don’t.

Contempt is a mixture of anger and disgust, expressed from a position of superiority. It denigrates, devalues, and dismisses. It’s not hard to understand why even subtle levels of contempt are damaging—not only in marriages but in all human interaction.

If profane language has a privileged place in the lexicon of contempt, then Christians have a unique mandate to avoid profanity. It’s not that abstaining from pejorative language outfits us with some holier-than-thou halo. It’s that we are called to live with a servant’s heart, affirming the dignity of every human and the sacredness of existence.

Theologian John Stackhouse points out that our primary vocation as Christ followers is not to “stay pure,” but rather to cultivate shalom. From Isaiah’s picture of a wolf living peacefully with a lamb (11:6), to Paul’s description of a new reality that obliterates racial, socioeconomic, and gender-based power structures (Gal. 3:28), the biblical vision of shalom dissolves any notion of hierarchy. All of creation joyfully submits to the beautiful rule of its Creator. There’s no room for one creature to hold another creature (or creation itself) in contempt; God alone occupies a superior plane.

Of course, it’s possible to religiously avoid disdainful language while being seized with contemptuous thoughts. But, as the Book of James reminds us, our tongues are like rudders to the ships of our thought lives. Taming our language, in other words, is a good place to start.

And so I am trying to avoid language that expresses contempt towards people, situations, and yes, even traffic lights that dare to defy my will. Such an endeavor goes beyond comedian George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”—even the most innocuous words, if uttered from a contemptuous heart, can mutate into curses. Conversely, certain evils can indeed be worthy of contempt and there are times when “adult language” is appropriate. But in every case, our words should reflect our calling to participate in hallowing, rather than profaning, the world. If it’s truly strong language that we’re after—language with power and impact—what could be stronger than the language we use to cultivate shalom?


14 comments to What The …? (Cussing, Contempt and the Orthodontist)

  • Amy Nemecek

    Thank you for these excellent thoughts and for challenging me to more carefully consider what I’m saying and how I’m saying it. I pray that those around me will perceive there is something different about me simply by what I say (or don’t say). Grace and peace.

  • Rick

    Intriguing topic for sure and one that I’ve probably grappled with many times internally without realizing it. Couldn’t agree more with what you said regarding contempt and profanity which is either intended or merely interpreted as being in a degrading manner. One thing that immediately popped into my mind is whether there is any difference between profanity that is uttered while alone versus profane language being used while others are around. Its very easy to understand how anyone might be offended for any number of reasons when someone curses in front of them, even if they don’t think its directed at them. However, when I’m alone working around the house and smash my thumb with a hammer, or walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night and stub my toe, are we doing the same harm? Are we in any way denigrating ourselves when we swear or cuss in our moments of stupidity, some of which are undoubtedly followed by a chuckle, especially if its a moment of stupidity that has happened many times before and no lessons seemed to have been learned from it! What if you were alone in your car driving to your own dentist appointment, would your outburst have affected you in the same way? I think many of us might agree that there is a difference between using inappropriate language when we are alone versus when we are with others but whether or not it is sinful to Him is another mystery for me. Now having said all that I honestly think its the habit of cursing while alone and feeling ok about it that may often lead to our unexpected and unintended outbursts with others around. Its a slippery slope to be sure and as with all things in life, it takes a great deal of practice and discipline to get better at anything.

  • Justine

    Coming to Christ as an adult, I already had years of creative cussing under my belt that are not so easily put off. I’ve been able to rid myself of the outright blasphemous ones, but retain a fondness for the short & sweet scatalogical one and the homophone for a river retainer. Plus, I truly enjoy some off-color words. I can never abide with those who say that it is always a lack of linguistic creativity that leads to the use of our four-letter friends (or foes, depending on your outlook). Take Zoolander, for instance, which contains one of my favorite movie exchanges ever: “Lee Harvey Oswald was not a male model.” “You’re g-dd–n right he wasn’t; but, those two lookers who capped Kennedy from the grassy knoll sure as s–t were.” That could never have been better, whether substituting the pale offspring of “gosh darn” and “shoot” — or coming up with a more verbose method of expression. Let us never forget that Chesterton himself said that there were definitely times when “perdition” just wouldn’t cut it, and a good, old-fashioned “d–n” was the only way to go. I seem to remember that someone once wrote a song about one-syllable words and their power. Funny, isn’t it that most cuss words are only monosyllabic? And there is power in them. Power to express contempt? Yes. And I totally agree that that ought to be avoided as much as possible. Power to convey a punchy observation or simply to elicit a snort of laughter? That, too. Of course, this is from a gal whose second date with her future husband was watching Glengarry Glen Ross, so I guess I am an outlier in the realm of the saints.

    • Hey Justine – thought-provoking response as always. You are touching on a related-but-separate issue I am still wrestling with – what of cursing in literature/film/theatre,etc? Some of the most redemptive live theatre I’ve ever seen had some of the most profane language, and I think that might be OK. Still working out my thoughts on it … film at 11!

  • Jeanette

    Grateful, Carolyn, for this. I am surrounded by people who use the F-bomb (sometimes all they utter) and the language of contempt. I am an editor of books and journals, a ghostwriter for authors many people know and follow, and find myself using the word “like” too many times in a sentence like an eighties Valley girl. Words do matter. The very name of God used to be unutterable it was so holy. To hear it would stop your heart, your steps, your soul. That is often what lies beneath the uttering of the words of contempt. But neither the holy nor the profane stops us anymore. It has been made all too common. We need new words. I like the ones you are choosing: Shalom. Peace. Blessing. And maybe others too: Astonished. Love.

  • D_m good article Carolyn. Just an aside here about that third commandment. It is just as profane to use God’s name in an attempt to gain credibility. ‘As God is my witness . . . ‘is just as profane as ‘God D_m it’. I once had a logo in which one of the ‘T’s was a stylized cross intended to whisper to other Christians that I was one of them and of course they could trust me and ought to use my services. It wasn’t long before I was brought to realize (He touched me . . .) that my work and integrity should be a witness of my faith; not the other way round.

    • Good insight, Cord. I actually struggled with something like that early in my music career, when certain record execs wanted me to add the name “Jesus” into my songs more frequently to gain listener approval. I thought Jesus was all through the songs, and I wasn’t just going to arbitrarily add his name to sell more records, ya know? I’ve tried to deal more in depth with what it means to profane (and, conversely, hallow) God’s name here: http://carolynarends.com/107/

  • Cord is right… the 3rd commandment is more about oath taking (swearing an oath) than about curse words. As a bit of a joke (with some teachabiity thrown in) whenever someone says “I swear” or “swear to God” I often retort “stop swearing” and then chuckle to myself as they stutter to figure out what on earth I was talking about. 🙂 Of course, Eph 4:29 is the real guide for Christ-followers.


  • Carolyn, I appreciate how you’ve pierced the cuss-word issue to the contempt and hostility behind it. Sounds like something Jesus would do…

    And thank you for the challenge to use redemptive strong words instead of the easier destructive ones — and to watch our thoughts for silent contempt.

  • Jean

    It’s always, always good to be reminded to watch out for those things we can so subtly become; like contemptuous.

  • Matt

    Wow, Guilty as charged!. I was wondering aloud the other day if cars were the work of the devil! (Every picture of “Ford” I’ve seen, he’s frowning…must mean something). I seem to have the hardest time in the car, I just usually end up being very unloving in my thoughts towards the drivers around me. Yet thoughts about what each of us are struggling with during the course of the day makes you have a different thought pattern towards those around you who are also hurting, thinking about so many things, replaying the argument they just had with someone, etc, etc, etc. So the car is not the culprit but ” out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks…”(Matthew 12:34-37. Scary stuff tothink that there is that kind of thing in our hearts. Does that mean we are not “Christians”? No, it means we still are in this body and live in a fallen world..We are in the process of “sanctification”, He’s still working on us. So, we need to search our hearts and pray daily about all these items that He is showing us. We talk a lot about “cursing” but what about talking about someone else when they are not around, commenting on something someone did when they are not present,making snap judgement about someone else just from their appearance or mannerisms….Oh,I’m back to the beginning….Guilty as charged!
    Very thought provoking…and very convicting!

  • Barbara Collver

    When I grew up, granted it was 77 years ago, I was taught anything that could be short for GOD, JESUS, DAMN,HELL, would not ever be spoken. Today people think I’m crazy for correcting my kids on gee, golly, gosh, darn, doggone, etc. My kids, of course, are grown and have grown children. They are prone to say what I call “bathroom language”, as well as the above words. I think it is a travesty on our Christian walk to even come close. They say we are living in a different time – no kidding! BUT Scripture & our Holy Bible is still true and relevant. As an older person I would appreciate kids being taught about this, as in your article. Thank you! BJ

  • Daniel

    Good article, thank you!
    Reminded me of these Bible verses:

    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.
    – Ephesians 4:29

    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.
    – Philippians 4:8

    God bless!

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