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Thou Shalt Not Cuss?

July 31, 2011

Recently I was discussing the Ten Commandments with my daughters and when we came to the third commandment (“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.”), I asked them what they thought it meant. My 7 year old pleasantly surprised me when she said it was referring to what Saul did in 1 Samuel 23:21 when he blesses the Ziphites for telling him where David was hiding. In this context, Saul was trying to murder David and the Ziphites were helping him achieve this end. As you can imagine, I was pretty proud of her for coming up with that on her own, not only because it’s wonderful to see her developing her reasoning skills, but also because it was different than the typical understanding of this commandment. In fact, I had never even thought of this before. The typical interpretation of this verse, of course, is “you shall not use the word ‘god,’ ‘gosh,’ or any other form thereof as a cuss word.” The fact that this understanding is so prevalent is what surprised me about my daughter’s answer – I naturally expected her to interpret the commandment the same way. The thing is, nothing in this verse, or in it’s full context, suggests that this is the proper interpretation.

While I think my daughter’s insight was much better than the typical understanding of this verse (and something I’m going to have to consider more in future studies), I think the proper meaning of this commandment is found in the context of the Ten Commandments, which can be divided into two categories: commandments prohibiting improper worship to God (the first five) and commandments prohibiting improper actions against our fellow man (the final five). Given this context, to interpret the third commandment as a prohibition against cussing just doesn’t make sense. What does make sense is that in the context of worship we are to ascribe the proper holiness due God, and not steal (take in vain) his holiness for ourselves. When we properly worship the Lord, we take His name in various ways: By calling out to Him, by receiving His Word, and most importantly, through communion. When we do this improperly, then we are calling judgment down upon our heads (1 Corinthians 11:29). Irreverent (improper) worship is stealing what properly belongs to God and this is what the third commandment prohibits. Some have said that the correct interpretation of this verse has to do with the taking of oaths, and perhaps that is part of it, but I think the bigger issue is where the oaths are taken – in worship. To put it another way, the Ten Commandments are God’s Word to his people that teach them how to properly function in the world – First, this is how to love God, then, this is how to love your neighbor… hmmm, now that sounds familiar, eh?

So, does this mean it’s alright to cuss? Well, in a biblical sense – maybe, but I think it behooves us to think about this issue culturally as well. The Bible is pretty specific about speech. It needs to glorify God. There is a right way and a wrong way to talk. The wrong ways, though, usually address sins such as lying, false accusations, “smooth” talk, perversion, and “lofty” or arrogant speech.  Most curse words don’t typically fall into these categories in and of themselves and to put them on the same level is wrong. Unfortunately, while you may never hear a curse word come from a Christian’s mouth, it is likely that you will hear language that fits into the categories above. This is not surprising, given our desire to have our morality in nice, neat little packages: “Do not drink, smoke, cuss or chew, and do not go with girls that do.” Curse words are really just flourishes to speech; they say less about what’s inside a person’s heart (which is what the types of speech mentioned above do), and more about a person’s background or education. When I hear someone cuss a lot, I don’t see some low-life degenerate; I just see someone who is too lazy to come up with better adjectives.

Culturally speaking, we should be concerned with how we talk – especially as Christians. There is a time and place for everything and in most times and places, cursing is not really acceptable. As I mentioned, it often shows ignorance, laziness, and lack of concern for those around you. It also should be noted that cursing is adult language. This doesn’t mean it’s evil – it’s just for grownups. There are many things that fall into this category: sex, smoking, drinking, driving, certain forms of entertainment, etc. These are things that require a particular amount of wisdom and discernment in order to be used properly. You need to be able to weigh the options and make a wise decision. The same goes for our language. I have worked in places where profanity is completely inappropriate, yet I have also worked in places where it is common, acceptable, and in some cases, appropriate. Taking the moral “high ground” – especially under the guise of Christianity – only served to alienate me from my co-workers. In fact, going against the “Christian norms” in these instances – speaking their language, bonding over a beer, etc.  – proved to be a way into their lives. They were never impressed with my ability to not cuss when I dropped a two by four on my foot, but they were impressed when I showed up to work every day and worked hard. More importantly, though, because language was not an impediment to their experience of Christ in my life, they responded all the more favorably to those instances when I did speak out against true, biblical immorality.

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