What do you hear when you listen to the regular rhythm of cultural conversations today?
Do you hear what I hear? I hear words that are debasing, offensive, coarse and foul. Do you hear that too? I ask because profanity is normalized— so much that we may not even notice it.
What happens to our civil discourse when the conversation is coarsened by words that defile, dehumanize and debase not only the one being spoken to or about but the one speaking as well?
Words that were once considered indecent now make regular appearances in podcasts, entertain and even print and television journalism. Consistent exposure to these words and images desensitizes us and before we know it, we find such words or phrases popping into our minds or out of our mouths.
Think I’m kidding?
Think again. Literally. Right now.
Think again about how the common vernacular has changed over the course of your adult life. I could make a list of once-considered “bleep” words that are now offered without hesitation today, but I’m not going to. You can make that list yourself. So, you might be wondering, if coarse language is now everywhere, why is it a big deal?
In short, because it’s a big deal to God. God cares about what we say and how we say what we say. God is a God of the Spoken Word. Of all the ways God might have created the universe, He chose to speak it into being. Language matters because God is the author of it.
He also hears it all. Every word we speak and every word we think, God hears them all. So even if the culture accepts certain words or images or ideas, the person who is in Christ, must not. The mind of Christ literally has no real estate for such profanity.
The book of James acknowledges the tension of language in the teaching on the taming of the tongue. James 3:9 says “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” (NIV)
Why? For that answer we turn to Ephesians 5:4, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”
Not one word.
And don’t bother trying to make a list of “no no words.” That’s a futile undertaking. Rather than make a list, we can make a heart commitment to use the tongue according to these principles:
We glorify God
For example, we don’t use language having to do with the concept of damnation, or damning someone, because it is not glorifying to God to do so. To use language that is damning of another person is as if I am putting myself into the position of God. God is the only one in a position to make those kinds of declarations and statements, and I am certainly, by my vocabulary, not in a position to consign someone to such a fate.
Similarly, we don’t talk about the good gift of sexuality that God has given to us to be experienced joyfully in the context of the marriage between a man and a woman using language that makes it less of a gift, less beautiful and less spectacular than it actually is.
We edify others
We don’t use certain words because they do not edify people. We build people up, we don’t tear them down. Besides profanity, even seemingly inconsequential words in the vein of idiot, windbag, moron, nitwit — you get the idea — demonstrate a wrong view of our fellow humans. And so we don’t call people, who were created in the image of God, names that make them less than human, or a lesser human.
Instead, let’s use our words for good, to build others up. Ephesians 4:2 says our edifying words “give grace to those who hear.” What a worthy goal! We do this by pointing them toward truth— the truth about God, the gospel and about who they are. By encouraging others, we literally put courage into their hearts, spurring them on to good things, unto the Lord.
Additionally, when we use our words to praise God and give Him thanks (as in the Ephesians 5:4 passage), others who hear us are reminded of God’s faithfulness through our words and led into worship, too. The alternative is what is so common in our time— repeating rumors or half-truths based in fear and aimed to provoke anger. So we ask, are our words leading others into worship or into worry, good works or sin?
There is so much wrapped up in how we control our tongues— or don’t. My encouragement in the new year is to train some of your attention on words themselves. Yes, the Word of God and yes, your word of the year, but also the words of the world we live in. Let us be mindful and thoughtful and guarded against the language used in the culture around us. Let us commit our words along with our conduct to bringing goodness, beauty and truth to the world every day in every interaction.
Matthew 12:36 says we will be judged for every idle word we speak. That’s quite a test! Our tongues, therefore, are part of what we submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. As ambassadors of the Kingdom of God in the kingdoms of this world, how are we representing our King through the words we use and how we use them?
Jesus said in Luke 6:45, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”
Let us fill our hearts and minds with God’s Word that what comes out of us moment by moment is goodness, beauty, truth and grace— all to the glory of God and edification of others.