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Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What does the Bible say about swearing?
Swearing is most likely as old as the human race. The Bible is filled with examples of people who swore! Today, cursing and swearing fill the air all around us.
A future Hall of fame NFL quarterback, Tom Brady, had a favorite expression when he came to the bench after a critical, unsuccessful play. As he pounded his helmet into the turf he screamed the "F" word repeatedly four times. The TV cameras were all over him. You couldn't hear a single sound from his lips. It didn't matter; very little practice was necessary to lip-read his cursing. He was asked by his team owners to tone down his actions. He did.
Tiger Woods, the world-famous golfer, cursed mightily and pounded his golf club in the ground as he expressed his frustration with a bad shot. The PGA of America demanded that he stop this untoward behavior. He did.
Most of us think of swearing in the context of being angry, frustrated, hurt, abusive, violent, or blasphemous.
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Cursing is so commonplace that it shouldn't surprise us that it seems to be built right into the emotional part of our brains. Sometimes, we don't have time to think about saying a "bad word;" it just pops out. In fact, over 90% of the last word spoken by an airplane pilot just before the crash is, "s**t".
As a pastor I obviously had to monitor my mouth carefully. It wasn't too hard because my father taught me what he called the "preachers'" curse words." "Boulder" is a good substitute word. Why? Because Boulder is the biggest DAM around. "Sugar" and "Goodness Gracious" work pretty well too.
I'm not certain that I'd classify swearing and cursing as used in this context to be sins, although my mother certainly did. The problem here with swearing is that it is so highly offensive and vulgar sounding to so many people (this is most likely--and often the sin).
I learned the word, "b***s**t from Mike Everett when I was seven. I had no idea what it meant or that it was a "bad" word. But my mother did. Our extended family was over for dinner when I came into the kitchen singing "Oh, b***s**t, b***s**t, b***s**t b***s**t" at the top of my lungs. I was sent to bed without my supper. I watched through the window as my cousins frolicked. As far as I was concerned, the punishment certainly did not fit the crime. And I still had no idea what I'd done wrong.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul used the strongest swear word in the Greek language to denounce those who were tempting his readers to alter and/or desert the true Gospel of Christ. Paul wrote: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:8-9).
The term, "eternally condemned" is a nice, sweet translation compared to a translation of the real word Paul used.
Now, let's go a little deeper.
Much of the swearing in the Bible is connected to the idea of swearing an oath. To swear means to make a solemn declaration, invoking a deity, or a sacred person or thing, to confirm the honesty, truth, and/or the intentionality of the one swearing the oaths to fulfill the declaration.
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An example today of swearing an oath occurs in the courtroom when we swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God."
Swearing oaths was a common practice in Jesus' day. He oath swearing took a step further in Matthew 5:33-37: "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord. But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 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 even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'-- anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
The sensitive and insidious issue behind swearing has to do with the sacredness of God, His name, and His power.
Look with me to the second of the Ten Commandments: “Thou must not take the Lord’s name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). The word "vain" means "empty." "Taking the Lord's name in vain," has nothing to do with cursing. This commandment refers to the sin of emptying the Name of God of power— declaring that God has little or no power to create, judge, be in control or provide the strength we all need for victorious living. In other words, taking the Lord's name in vain is a way of saying that He's not omnipotent. This is a sin.
The Bible also uses the concept of swearing in how we relate to people. This is illustrated by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount. Jesus declared the consequences of swearing and cursing another person. He said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22). "Raca” means "worthless." The Jews used it as a word of contempt. It was derived from a word root meaning, “to spit.”
Jesus told us not to use swearing or cursing to demean another person.
Cursing another person may take many forms. It can be as innocuous as talking derogatorily “behind someone's back.” It can be verbal and quite hurtful. It can be as demonstrative as using vulgar and unmistakable hand gestures out a car window.
Instead of cursing, Jesus encouraged us in Luke 6:27-28: "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Paul also gave us positive advice on how to use our words—not to curse—but to bless others. He wrote in Ephesians 4:29-30: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to the needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
The meaning of “unwholesome talk” is rather obvious. One of the purposes of our talk is to build others up—according to their needs. This implies that we know what their needs are. They may need comfort, guidance, encouragement, acceptance, approval or even loving rebukes. Can you imagine what our homes would be like if nothing but wholesome talk came out of our mouths?
When all is said and done the Bible makes it very clear that we should clean up our speech. Why? Because Jesus teaches that unclean words come from a dirty heart. Our light to the world is extinguished and no one sees Jesus in us (Matthew 15:10).
Jesus also says that our unclean words lead us into depravity and sin. Our Christian purity is flushed down the toilet.
So what do we do?
We read the Bible often. God’s Words are like Ivory soap. They purify your heart and uplift your thoughts.
We filter our mouths and think and say wholesome and positive things.
We follow Paul’s advice, and experience peace and blessing.
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you" (Philippians 4:8-9).
Well, David, thanks for asking such a timely and relevant question.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
This article is part of our larger Spiritual Life resource meant to answer your questions about the Bible, God and the Christian faith. Visit our most popular questions on “What does the Bible say about…” questions answered by well known Christians and theologians to find more inspiration. Remember that as you read these articles, the Holy Spirit will give you understanding and discernment to make the right decision for your walk with Jesus Christ! If you know others struggling with these faith questions, please share and help others discover the truth on these controversial topics.
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