Chapter 10: On Swearing

As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, sometimes I say (or write) swear words. I didn’t always do this; when I was growing up, my parents instilled in me a strong desire to avoid saying any “bad words”. I remember one time when I was pretty young, and I started to say “What the heck…” in front of my mom, but I caught myself and changed it to something else. Later on, my mom pulled me aside and wanted to know why I changed what I was about to say, and I said that I wasn’t sure if “heck” was a swear word or not. She very lovingly and gently explained to me that it wasn’t, but it was related to one; and furthermore, I should be careful about how I spoke, even if I wasn’t saying curse words.

When I was a bit older, I had a youth pastor who meticulously avoided saying any sort of “replacement” swear word, like “dang” or “darn” or “heck”. I thought this was kind of silly, and so I made fun of him quite a bit for this. But he took it well, and he always responded that it was the intent of the word, and not the actual word itself that mattered, and that if you were angry when you said it, “dang” was just as bad as “damn”. I didn’t really understand this very well at the time, but I think I understand it better now.

Then I got to college, and the type of language that I used gradually got worse and worse. Not that I was ever particularly foul-mouthed, especially not around other people — I did learn fairly early on that other people got offended easily if I swore in casual conversation. But at the same time, when I was by myself, or really angry, or frustrated, or upset, I’d drop a few swear words down just because it made me feel better.

It was pretty easy to rationalize this. I took the things my mother and my youth pastor told me growing up, and inverted it. After all, if there was no difference between a curse and a replacement curse, why not just say the original word, after all? But as I grew older, I noticed a trend that more and more frequently, curses slipped into my everyday vernacular. Again, I was generally very careful about when and where I spoke like this, but it was certainly happening. And, I told myself, what was the big deal, after all? They’re just words.

But it gradually became apparent to me that this was not something that God wanted me to be doing. I fought this for a while. I didn’t want to stop swearing. It had somehow become a part of me, and that part needed to be taken out. I had spend two days not eating anything, because I felt like God wanted me to, and at the end of those two days, I realized that this was it. God was telling me to stop swearing. (Also, going two days without eating is Ii>miserable. I don’t recommend it unless you have a really good reason).

Here’s the thing I still struggle with, though — I really do believe that there are times when swearing is appropriate. People in the Bible swear all the time (it just normally doesn’t get translated correctly). Sometimes these words express extreme emotion; sometimes they’re funny; sometimes there just isn’t any other word that will do. And I don’t really know how to reconcile
these two things…

For a while I got caught up in the legalistic trap: is this word OK to say? Is that word OK to say? If this word is OK, then why isn’t that one? But here’s the thing I’ve come to realize — God doesn’t want me to spend time worrying about those details. I don’t think God is offended when I swear. He wants us to be real with him, and I believe he’s big enough to handle a few curse words. I believe that God is much more concerned about my motives and intentions than which exact word I said or didn’t say.

This is actually a big theme that appears over and over again in the Bible. In fact, you could almost split the Bible up into two halves, the “rules” half and the “grace” half (some religious people might call these the Old and New Testament). A lot of times I find myself focusing on the “rules” half of the Bible, because I get rules. I may not like them, but I can understand them. They make sense to me. Grace, on the other hand, makes a whole lot less sense to me, but when Jesus was walking around on the earth, he said repeatedly that grace trumps rules. It’s not that the rules aren’t important, but sometimes things are too complicated to be summed up in simple rules — and even if they could be, I couldn’t follow all the rules all the time anyways.

So for me, at least with regards to how I speak, it means that I try hard to not swear casually anymore — even when I’m by myself. Sometimes I’ll get angry and say something; sometimes I’ll say something to get a laugh, or because there’s just not another good word to use. But one thing the Bible does say is that the words I speak reflect on what’s in my heart, and I need to be careful to not let my heart enter a place where it can’t receive grace. But more on that in the next chapter.

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