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. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
I grew up in a world that frowned upon swearing. In my family I wasn’t even supposed to say things like “Shut up,” not to mention off-color words or taking the Lord’s name in vain. As far as I can remember, I heard my father and mother swear a grand total of five times in life, the majority of which were actually ruses to teach me and my siblings not to say those nasty words.
My church experience reinforced what I learned at home. Ephesians 5:4 and similar verses were used to teach me and my friends not to engage in “obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking.” For the most part, we avoided such language, believing it to be wrong and inconsistent with our Christian commitment.
Then in college one of my roommates was from New York. For him, certain words I considered off color were both ordinary and acceptable. He had turned cussing into an extemporaneous art form. Though I became more or less inured to swearing because I heard it so often from him, I mostly avoided using such language because it still felt wrong to me.
But sometime during my twenties my peers and I rebelled against our strict upbringing. Though we continued to be faithful Christians, we reveled in the discovery that we could swear and not be struck by a bolt of heavenly lightening. We wouldn’t cuss in sermons, talking to our parents, or in front of the kids in our youth group, of course. But, in private, we partook in a few juicy words. They helped us express our anger. They allowed us to feel that we could be Christians and still be hip. Most of all, when we said words that felt forbidden, we sensed a kind of freedom. We cussed and God still loved us. We swore and we could still serve him. We didn’t have to be bound by fear that a slip of the tongue would lead to divine rejection. That was a sweet freedom.
Perhaps you have experienced something like this in your life. It might have to do with swearing or drinking or playing cards or going to movies or doing other things that were frowned upon in your church or family. This might even have allowed you to break free from legalism that limited your experience of God’s grace.
But as my Christian friends and I grew older, many of us have found a better freedom than the one we relished in our twenties. Once we realized that God would not condemn us to Hell for using coarse language, once we sensed that God’s grace covered us fully, we began to take more seriously verses like Ephesians 5:4. We began to discover a new freedom, not the freedom to say whatever we liked, but rather the freedom not to say things because they didn’t please the Lord. We found new freedom to see how our words could build people up, offer respect and kindness to others, and reflect the fact that we have been created in God’s image.
I’m not saying that I never, ever use bad language. When I dropped a 4×4 on my foot a few months ago, I said a couple of words that I’d rather didn’t show up on some viral YouTube video. At this stage of my life, when I fall into “obscenity,” I no longer fear that I’ve committed the unforgivable sin. Rather, I know that I am forgiven, that God invites me to live without fear of judgment. But I also know that God has set me free in Christ so that I can offer all that I am to him, including every single word that I speak. These days, I would like every single word I speak to honor the Lord and to fulfill his purposes, even when I drop a heavy board on my foot.
Something to Think About:
As you have grown in your faith, have you had to learn to leave certain kinds of legalism behind?
In the process of doing this, did you swing the pendulum too far?
Do you ever find yourself saying things that would be better left unsaid?
Have you discovered the freedom to choose not to do certain things even if you’re free to do them?
Something to Do:
Think about the words you use regularly. Are there some that are not especially edifying? I’m not talking only about swearing. Perhaps you indulge in gossip or excessive complaining. Ask the Lord to help you make changes in your vocabulary if needed. (And if you can’t think of anything, decide to say “thank you” more times today than you ordinarily would!)
Gracious God, thank you for loving me, forgiving me, and being patient with me. Thank you for not condemning me when I fall short of your intentions for me. Thank you for helping me to experience freedom from guilt and fear.
Dear Lord, I would like to honor you with every thing I do, with every word, every deed. I don’t want to play at being religious. Rather, I want to offer my whole self to you as a living sacrifice, including my words—all of them. Help me, I pray, to live fully in your presence and for your glory in all that I do and say. Amen.