Years ago when I was a proud avionics technician in the Air Force I made a decision to follow Jesus and realized there was a lot in my life that needed amending. One of those things was the profane language I often used. I had about a decade of training in foulmouthery, and being part of a group of people who didn’t blink at cuss words and crude language didn’t help my personal reform.
I can remember one day I broke a tiny bolt off the bulkhead that held together a wiring harness—no big deal. We called out the structural guys and they would perform a twenty-four-hour modification to make the bolt like new. The next morning, I grabbed my torque wrench and got started on the fix again. With just a bit too much pressure—SNAP!—it broke again.
What did I do next? Let’s just say that I repeated a four-letter-word about forty times fast.
On the fortieth repetition, I recalled that I had been trying to stop cussing for the rest of my life and then feeling a huge amount of shame, for I had just been witnessing to my battle buddy about my recent conversion. He said he didn’t mind. Years later I lost a pretty nice size northern pike to an easy mistake, and after cussing myself and apologizing for my language a Christian friend of mine reassured me that it was okay to cuss.
Is it? What about just a little, or in a joke? If I hit my thumb with a hammer, would it be a sin to utter an expletive? What can I say to the guy who just cut me off in traffic? As I’ll show you, the Bible and the Church take this matter seriously.
Cursing, swearing, and cussing
First, I should make sure we’re using the same language when talking about bad language. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines “cursing” as “call[ing] down evil upon God or creatures, rational or irrational, living or dead.” A curse, the encyclopedia provides, can be a general curse for ill-fate or could involve the weather, earth, and disasters. We also distinguish taking the Lord’s name in vain from the way we use it to curse others: one is a violation of the second commandment, the other is a combination of breaking the commandment and profanity. Profanity has the same meaning as cussing, and we all know what profanities are, so there is no need to provide examples.
What does the Bible say?
Profanities are hurtful, blasphemous, vulgar, wicked, and uncouth. They are the worst things that can come from our mouths, and the Bible warns to the effect of this truth:
Colossians 3:8 “But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.”
Ephesians 4:29 “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”
James 3:10 “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.”
Several verses from the New and Old Testaments warn of the destruction in crude, defiling language, or even poor choice of words.
Matthew 15:11 “[It is] not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”
Ephesians 5:1-33 “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Proverbs 8:13 “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.”
The Bible’s words demand no elucidation: what we say matters! Why? There’s a number of good reasons, but the primary reason Christians shouldn’t use profanity is because the Bible tells us without doubt that profanity is comparable to malice and slander, should never be repeated, and contradicts blessing—a principal act of Christ’s followers. God created the entire universe by speaking, and as creatures made in the image of God and having the Holy Spirit in us, it is our charge to be co-creators of goodwill and blessings, not defamations.
What about swearing?
Occasionally, too, some will say we ought not to swear, as in making oaths. This can get confusing when the Bible seems contradictory. In some places Scripture admonishes us to keep the oaths that we make. For example, Numbers 30:2 tells us, “When a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
But Jesus—whose teaching was a sum of all the prophets and law—said:
But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil (Matt. 5:34-37).
Does this mean we shouldn’t make promises or oaths? This question impact many events so familiar to us: military oaths, the inaugural oath of office, wedding vows, and even the penitential act of contrition we recite in the Sacrament of Confession. Don’t sweat: not all oaths are immoral. As Tim Staples points out, Jesus honored the oath the high priest placed him under in Matthew 26:63: “I adjure thee by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Tim explains, “If Jesus taught oaths to be unlawful or immoral, he would not have responded or he would have protested and made clear that he did not agree with the concept of oaths.” Jesus used hyperbole to make the point that Christians are bound—and indeed judged—by what they do, rather than what they promise, or what they base their promise on.
The Church says…
The Catechism is clear that we are never to use God’s name in a foul way: “The second commandment forbids the abuse of God's name, i.e., every improper use of the names of God, Jesus Christ, but also of the Virgin Mary and all the saints” (2146). The Catechism also is agreeable with Scripture regarding swears of the oaths-type:
Promises made to others in God's name engage the divine honor, fidelity, truthfulness, and authority. They must be respected in justice. To be unfaithful to them is to misuse God's name and in some way to make God out to be a liar… The second commandment forbids false oaths. Taking an oath or swearing is to take God as witness to what one affirms. It is to invoke the divine truthfulness as a pledge of one's own truthfulness. An oath engages the Lord's name. "You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him, and swear by his name” (CCC 2147, 2150).
Other than the texts cited above from the Catechism, the Church doesn’t speak directly on the use of profanity. The teaching in demonstrable from biblical texts alone.
What’s the bottom line?
Sometimes we say things we don’t mean, words slip, or we don’t realize the full weight of what something means. Other times, we make promises we don’t intend to keep, or we’re hypocrites. We should remember that what we say matters. We are called to not conform to the world (Rom. 12:2), and we are called to a very high standard of living (Phil. 4:8). We should use words that build up people and the kingdom of God, not words that destroy and curse. To take it a step further, “Avoid such godless chatter, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (2 Tim. 2:16).
Before you speak or make an oath, remember Jesus’ promise: “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36).