Words Matter

[One of my all time favorite movie scenes is the one in A Christmas Story when little Ralphie Parker, while helping his father change a flat tire, spills the lug nuts.  The dialoge and narration went like this:

Ralphie: Oooh fuuudge!
Ralphie narrating as an Adult: Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!
Mr. Parker: [stunned] *What* did you say?
Ralphie: Uh, um…
Mr. Parker: That’s… what I thought you said. Get in the car. Go on!
Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] It was all over – I was dead. What would it be? The guillotine? Hanging? The chair? The rack? The Chinese water torture? Hmmph. Mere child’s play compared to what surely awaited me.

Well, what awaited Ralphie of course was an appointment with a bar of Lifebuoy soap, the standard remedy for a foul mouth back in my boyhood years.  Not pleasant.

Well, things have obviously changed and IMHO not for the better.  Here is an article which speaks to the issue. RMF]

Magic Mountain, an amusement park in Southern California, is known for a roller coaster named X. Coincidentally, I was there to speak at a youth event when I overheard an X-rated conversation—between churched teens no less. It prompted me to address the issue from stage. I asked, “How many of you struggle with using bad language?” Many hands went up. I followed up with questions we’ve all probably considered at some point: Is it wrong for a Christian to use curse words? If so, why? And what makes profanity, well, profane?Entertainment is full of swear words, sexual innuendo and scatological slang. I recently read a study of prime-time TV in which the Parents Television Council found more than 11,000 expletives—nearly twice as many as in 1998. Indeed, in our coarsening culture, some young people can’t recall a time when f-bombs weren’t part of “normal” discourse. Kids use it because they’ve grown up hearing profanity and having it reinforced by the media. And somehow it becomes a personal habit that even Christian teens may consider acceptable in certain situations.

I’ve heard people argue that words are just noises we make. They’re sounds. They don’t really mean anything. But such a position is contradictory. To deny the power of language one must debate with … words. And those combinations of letters and sounds require meaning to be grasped. You have to assume that, objectively, your listener understands what you’re saying. We can’t get around the fact that words contain meaning.

Words also yield consequences. For proof that language matters, consider that we have an entire lexicon associated with their misuse: fraud, slander, libel, perjury, harassment, defamation. The ways people abuse words have social, psychological, legal and even spiritual implications.

All to Jesus I Surrender
The Bible reminds us that we should speak in ways that honor God and benefit others. Ephesians 4:29 says, “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.” James 1:26 warns us to keep a tight rein on our tongues, while Colossians 3:8 says, “Rid yourselves of all things such as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips.”

Regarding the use of coarse language by believers, some people contend that since Christ has made us free, howwe say things doesn’t really matter. While salvation sets us free from the penalty of sin, freedom doesn’t equallicense. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that Christians have an obligation to pursue holiness (Eph. 4:24; Titus 2; 1 Pet. 1:13-15 and 2:24).

Indeed, God’s ownership of a believer extends even to the words we use. According to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 we’re mere stewards. Jesus Christ owns us lock, stock and barrel. That includes mind and mouth. Discipleship and spiritual maturity require a level of obedience that should find us yielding everything to God.

Judged by the Words We Use
Teens should submit their vocabularies to the lordship of Christ, in part because God is always listening. His grace is perfect, but if words didn’t matter Jesus wouldn’t have said, “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37).

We derive our word profanity from a biblical term that means “outside the temple.” Profane means “unholy” or “unwholesome.” As we saw in Ephesians 4:29, some types of speech are literally unholy. Spouting certain four-letter words can hinder spiritual growth, harm relationships with others and undermine our credibility as bearers of Gospel truth.

Christians possess an advantage by having a pure well of words from which to draw. Years ago, as a new believer working my way through college, a superior noticed that I didn’t tell off-color jokes or use foul language like others in the workplace. Not only did this create a witnessing opportunity, but I was promoted to a level that no 21-year-old had ever held in that company. My boss later told me that my habit of avoiding profanity convinced him that I must be honest, and this led him to promote me.

Every communicator has thousands of words at his or her disposal. In the quest for individuality and self-expression, there’s no shortage of raw material. Teens need to talk! Comment! Express! Emote! But only in ways that speak well of themselves and of their Savior.

Alex McFarland is president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and host of the daily radio program SoundRezn.

Tasty Treat? Not!



About ronfurg

Former naval officer, federal investigator, forensic scientist, senior executive service member and pastor. In retirement serves as volunteer and life group leader at New Life Christian Church (www.newlife4me.com). Devoted to beautiful wife, kids and grandkids. Looking forward to the time when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all and that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
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3 Responses to Words Matter

  1. Jonathan Hilgeman says:

    My personal opinion is that there is really only one consistent measure of any word: it’s intent. I believe we sometimes get so caught up in the condemnation of specific combinations of letters that we forget the thing that makes that specific combination profane in the first place. A word does not become profane by itself, but rather by how it is used.

    As new generations come into being, they try to distinguish themselves from the previous one, and one of those ways is to take the existing English language and add their own lingo to it. The additions are usually benign, but some have ill-intentions behind them. So even though a new word may not even be four letters long, its purpose makes it profane.

    Another effect of the passage of time is that words that used to be considered profane lose their original meaning and get accepted into the common vocabulary as simply another functional adjective or verb. So while there may be a new generation using “profane” words as part of their normal speech, they may very well have a different idea of what is actually profane.

    All that said, profanity seems to originate in the heart. Is “unwholesome” or “filthy” language simply in reference to specific combination of letters or the purpose behind those words? Not every word can “build up” others, so the important question is whether or not our words are tearing them down. After all, language’s true purpose only comes into play when we’re interacting with others, so HOW are we using it?

    The Greek word for “filthy” as used in Colossians, aisxrologia (http://strongsnumbers.com/greek/148.htm), may be literally translated as “filthy language” but it helps to see it in practice. In its practical use (which can be found in studies of Greek culture, plays, rituals, festivals, etc – you can probably Google the word or its iterations to find some other practical examples of its use), it refers to insults and abusive language, which fits perfectly in with the rest of the verse that forbids a progressive list of things that tear down others (anger, wrath, malice, slander, and ….). I say “progressive” because of the order in which Paul presents them:

    First comes anger.
    Anger builds up to wrath.
    Wrath builds up to malice.
    Malice often begin with slander / harmful gossip.
    Slander builds up to direct, abrasive and insulting language.

    If we get bogged down in the condemnation of specific words, we’ll never be able to provide a consistently-satisfactory explanation (or defense, in some cases) of our beliefs about profanity. We’ll be trying to hit a moving target (as language is constantly evolving).

    Words will come and go, and will have different meanings over time, but the only thing we can do to avoid legalism is to ensure that we are being responsible with our own words and not willfully using any words of any combination to the detriment of others.

    As for language we hear from others, only God can judge their true intent, so there is really not much use in trying to judge others unless we see someone clearly trying to tear down someone else.

  2. Jonathan Hilgeman says:

    And just for the sake of disclosure, I enjoy writing short stories from time to time, and I sometimes make use of words that would be considered profane by some people. However, I use them for the sake of emphasis and the illustration of an extreme emotional reaction. I also use them in some of my daily speech with others as long as I know that I’m not using words to someone’s detriment.

    That said, there also has to be some level of awareness of being a stumbling block for others who may believe in their hearts that certain words are wrong, no matter what. In cases where we suspect that letting loose with certain words could offend someone, we should be careful to avoid those words. Most of my family is very traditional in this thought, so I usually make a conscious effort to avoid certain expletives around them, even if I don’t personally believe the words themselves to be wrong.

  3. ronfurg says:

    Excellent addition to the thoughts expressed in this blog. Words and the way we use them are so very powerful in a multitude ways. And, as you say, it is never the combination of letters acting alone that really matters. It is the intent of the heart that is being expressed, what it does to the speaker/writer themselves as well as the impact the words have on the person/audience to which they are directed. I would certainly hate the prospect of giving an account of many of my words, whether verbalized, written, or simply uttered to myself. If asked to do so I would probably say, “Oh ****.” Know what I mean?!

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