I was recently advised not to use phrases such as ‘what the heck’ and ‘dang it’ in my posts as they were euphemisms for ‘what the hell’ and ‘damn it’ respectively and that we should avoid language that might offend anyone. I appreciated the counsel and took it as confirmation that it was time for me to take a close look at what the bible says about speech and what guidelines the bible gives to Christians.
Firstly, it is important to note that Scripture teaches that our tongues and our speech are important. James describes our tongues as the equivalent of a small rudder that guides the course of a large ship and that no man can tame it, it is ‘a restless evil full of deadly poison’ (see James 3:2-10). In Proverbs 18:21 it is written that ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.’ So the topic of our speech and how we use our tongues is something we should carefully consider.
Are any words forbidden?
The psalms and Old Testament wisdom literature is full of advice on how to wisely use our speech but I plan to focus on one commandment from Exodus and several New Testament passages that I believe convey most of the underlying principles behind the Old Testament verses. The first question to ask in regards to our speech is if there are words we are absolutely forbidden to use by scripture. The answer is no. Nowhere in scripture is a word expressly forbidden. There are however contexts that words are not to be used in.
Exodus 20:7 says, ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.’ Using the name of God in any way that is dishonouring, false or empty is sin and forbidden. Any use of God’s name in a context that reveals it to be vain is to be repented of.
In Matthew 5:22 Jesus says ‘But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.’ At first it may appear that Jesus is forbidding us from calling someone a fool yet he goes on to use the same word to call religious hypocrites fools in Matthew 23. As Jesus never sinned we can conclude that using the word is not sin but rather using it to express hatred, unrighteous anger or violence towards a person is wrong, as is the context of Matthew 5:22.
What’s in your heart?
The issue of speech expressing what is in the heart is an important one as Jesus says to the Pharisees ‘You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.’ (Matt 12:34) As Christians we are to allow the Holy Spirit to change our hearts so that we speak truth, encouragement, edification and grace.
It says in Ephesians ‘Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.‘ (Eph 4:29) ‘Corrupting talk’ here means ‘rotten, putrified or useless’ and the Greek word for corrupt ‘sapros’ is most often used to refer to the corrupt tree that produces evil fruit that Jesus speaks about it in Matthew 7, 12, 13 and Luke 6. So a Christian’s speech should be good for growing and building up and not be rotten or useless. It is important to note however that no particular words are mentioned here as being corrupt. It is the result of the speech which is to be the standard with which we judge our words.
A few verses later Paul gives another admonishment in Ephesians 5:4 and says ‘Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.’ Again this is a general command to not speak in an immoral way with no definition of what words or jokes are immoral. The positive comparison again has to be our standard of measure. In this case, are our words and jokes in the spirit of ‘thanksgiving’ or are they ungrateful and unappreciative of what God has done? So what is truly important is the place in our hearts that our speech is coming from.
If it is the condition of our heart that is most important in our speech then how does that affect the issue of euphemisms? Can a Christian use sayings that are euphemisms for God’s name or other ‘offensive terms’? The answer lies in the fluidity of language, the condition of the person’s heart and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
We describe swear words as ‘profanities’ but originally the word ‘profane’ was simply used to describe something ‘outside the temple’ or ‘not part of the church’. The word’s meaning changed over time. In the same way, when somebody says ‘gee whiz’ most people aren’t aware that it was originally a euphemism for Jesus and even if they are I don’t believe most are consciously or unconsciously cursing Christ. If a word or phrase has changed over time to a point where the speaker no longer recognises the original meaning, then I do not believe it is wrong to speak it. So if a person says ‘Dang it’ with no reference in her heart to ‘damning something to hell’ I don’t believe that she has used corrupt communication or foolish talk. On the flip side if somebody constantly says in anger or frustration words such as ‘fruit’ or ‘shoot’ instead of dropping F-bombs and the like maybe they need ask the Holy Spirit to examine their heart.
Next time…Do we need to limit our language to avoid offending others?