In a fit of temper at my parents, I shouted out the worst thing my six-year-old mind could conjure up. “Go and pick a peck of pickled peppers!” As we get older, our moments of helpless, childish anger should grow more and more infrequent, but they still happen. The only difference is that now we’ve been exposed to a host of much worse imprecations. In a culture that prides itself on its foul language, what’s a Christian to do? Most of us generally agree that Christians should avoid “bad words” (not just cursing or swearing but also vulgarities) in our day-to-day lives, but we might wonder what do in writing. Should we try to make our books “realistic” or avoid swearing at all costs? The answer is not as simple as you might think. Rather than emphasize avoidance of specific curse words in every situation, Christians should instead focus on speaking words that edify others and honor God, while acknowledging there is a morally acceptable context for profanity in writing.
Now I know you may be thinking, “Wait a sec! Isn’t avoiding profanity part of honoring God? What’s the difference?” Well, to understand what I mean, we’ll need to start by looking at what I’m not saying.
First of all, we are never to dishonor God’s name. Some moral issues are up for debate, but the Bible’s pretty clear on this one: as the Lord of the universe and the King of Kings, God deserves our awe and we are forbidden to use His name in vain (Exodus 20:7). He forbids all irreverent uses of His name, such as invoking it flippantly or using it as a curse word. We as Christians may disagree on whether words such as darn or crap constitute profanity. However, we should all agree that God’s name is off-limits. Through the power of Jesus’ name, we are guaranteed an eternity in Heaven, can approach God the Father with the deepest longings of our hearts, and even cast out demons. Degrading His name as an expression of annoyance or a joke shows a lack of respect for His majesty.
Next, we must realize that what makes a word profane. No word in and of itself is inherently evil. Rather, what makes a word vulgar is the association it carries and the heart it in which it is spoken. Cultural standards and context factor into the equation, too. For instance, in Britain, the word bloody serves as a mild expletive to express annoyance. In America, bloody simply means covered in blood. Or while damn often does duty as a swear word, its proper meaning refers to the state of condemnation to extreme punishment or eternal judgment. An uncomfortable and unpleasant truth, maybe, but not profanity in this use. Words or gestures acceptable in one society or context may be offensive in another.
This isn’t to say that morality is subjective or changes according to the culture. On the contrary, God calls all Christians, regardless of culture, to holiness as ambassadors of His kingdom, and part of representing Him entails using language which honors Him and avoiding that which does not. Which specific words are considered profane will vary from culture to culture; the principle—speaking only edifying words—remains the same. Indeed, the motive behind swearing and vulgarity is universal: to draw attention to ourselves. Whether we’re attempting to fit in, express our frustration, hurt another person, or shock other people, when we use profanity, we’re letting our emotions control us. Instead of using the gift of language to bless people, we use it to wound them. Thus, language is profane not because the words themselves are evil, but because their connotations turn our minds to vulgar paths and the words spring from a heart seeking to hurt others and place ourselves first.
Image Credit to Marvel Studios
In our personal lives, we should avoid using profanity. Scripture commands, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers (Ephesians 4:29). Here we see a simple litmus test: Is the word we’re saying corrupt? Does it carry a crude or blasphemous meaning? Then don’t say it. Another part of Scripture adds, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Colossians 4:6). Salt in the ancient world served to preserve and flavor food. Hence, the exhortation here means we should not only avoid foul language, but we should also choose our words thoughtfully and intentionally to speak healing to a dying world.
The same call to use edifying words applies to our writing as well. Even if we’re writing fiction, our writing should reflect reality, communicating truth through wholesome and discerning words. However, because of the nature of writing, more leeway for profanity exists. After all, writers of fiction often create characters, typically the villain or maybe even the hero in a weak moment, saying or doing actions that the actual author would never do. Authors frequently depict a character doing sinful actions, but that does not mean the authors approve of that character’s choice. In that same vein, in rare circumstances, I believe Christian authors are permitted to use profanity. This does not mean swearing is morally right, but rather, that in a very specific, narrow context, including profanity in writing is morally justifiable or, at least, a necessary evil.
You’re probably wondering, what circumstance could that possibly be? You might be shocked I suggested the very possibility, or you may be eager to push the limits. Either way, don’t get too excited. The situations warranting profanity are extraordinarily limited. In fact, for the inclusion of profanity or vulgarity to be acceptable, the context of the writing must meet each of the following three criteria.
1) Profanity is the last resort.
This first requirement knocks most inclusions of profanity out of the park. I believe there are times when profanity must be included, but only when it truly is a last resort. The reasoning that swearing is necessary to convey a character’s anger or the gravity of the situation is overused. Films such as the Avengers movies or YA series such as the Darkest Minds—otherwise enjoyable entertainment—feature a number of curse words and innuendos. Okay, granted, if New York City were undergoing an alien invasion, people would spit out a handful of curse words. Nonetheless, a movie or book can nearly always make its point without swearing or vulgarities. We don’t need to hear your characters curse for you to show us they’re upset. Describe how they look or feel. Is there face flushed? Are they sweating? Yelling? Little details like these evoke a vivid picture so we empathize with the characters. We don’t need curse words. And if you need to rely on cursing to show us how dire the situation is, then sorry, but you clearly haven’t built up the action enough for us to care.
Situations that are the exceptions and not the rule might include non-fiction memoirs and news reports. As unfortunate as it is, people do use swearing, racial slurs, crudities, and more, and if, for instance, you’re a journalist, a memoir writer, or even a historical fiction author, you’re bound to bring the truth to light. Of course, you don’t need to go overboard and record every single instance of every single word. Yet you do need to be to provide thoughtful, honest accounts in these situations. The goal here is not to shock but to report.
2) Profanity is the only choice.
This criterion is closely related to the first. In special circumstances, including profanity in writing is not only the last resort, but it is also the only choice because no other word will do to convey the desired meaning. Again, such situations are rare; usually, another word works just fine. One surprising example of a well-used expletive is found in Philippians 3:8. Author Sierra Stevenson, a writer for the Christian writer’s platform, Story Embers, says this:
In Philippians 3:8, Paul contrasts the value of worldly ambitions with Christ: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
“Rubbish” seems a lackluster translation considering that the Greek word skubalon literally means “excrement.” Since the word appears only once in the Bible but much more frequently in non-literary historical documents, Paul seems to have deliberately chosen an expletive to shock his audience. Its offensiveness likely falls somewhere between “crap” and the s-word… This cannot be passed off as vulgarity from a degenerate biblical character… Paul is redeemed in Christ and still brandishes this term, [employing] language for the purpose of teaching, not as an angry attack or out of laziness…As the most prolific and educated New Testament writer, Paul was capable of producing a more genteel term. Instead, he selected a word that nevertheless accurately conveys the revulsion we should feel toward life apart from Christ.
For Paul, no other word would do to describe the disgust and futility of his worldly accomplishments apart from Christ. Paul’s use of a mild vulgarity here is quite justified, dare I say even divinely inspired. (Note: if you want, you can check out Stevenson’s full article here).
3) Profanity serves a unique, specific purpose.
In addition to being the last resort and the only suitable choice of words, any coarse language must serve a definite, targeted purpose that it alone can fulfill. Too often movie scriptwriters and fiction authors pepper their writing with profanity in order to sound cool, funny, and sensational. The desire to offend, shock, or degrade for its own sake does not justify the inclusion of language. Cursing doesn’t add to the storyline; if anything, language usually detracts from it. Yet rare exceptions exist.
We see one such example in the movie, The King’s Speech. Rated R for a burst of harsh profanities, the movie tells the story of King George VI, a reluctant hero thrust into power when his irresponsible, decadent older brother abdicates the throne. King George must rally his country to oppose one of the world’s most powerful and cruel regimes, Hitler’s Nazi Third Reich. This means plenty of interviews, broadcasts, and speeches as King George shows a courageous face to inspire his subjects. No problem, right? Except that King George speaks with a debilitating stutter that makes him almost unintelligible and makes exchanging the simplest pleasantries like “How are you?” and “Good night” a torturous endeavor. He seeks help from a renowned vocal coach, Lionel Logue, who tries to address both the outward mechanics behind the king’s stuttering and the psychological causes for it. Noticing that the king never stutters when angry or cursing, Lionel goads King George into spewing a spray of F-bombs. Strong language? You bet. Is it warranted? I believe so.
Lionel’s remedy—urging the king to use profanities—while unconventional, targets the king’s weakness and forces him to grow. It accomplishes two goals: it helps King George release the pent-up anger from years of psychological and emotional trauma which led to his speech impediment to begin with, and it forces him to practice his diction. Obviously, King George found himself in a very unique position. In this case, had the movie scriptwriters used “milder” profanities, the emotional impact would have been lost. I mean, how accurate a glimpse of King George’s struggles would have gotten if he had just shouted, “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, I’m really upset”? The scene would just have ended up looking corny, rather than conveying the raw emotions that it needed to.
Therefore, instead of shunning all possible uses of profanity, Christian writers must use every word in their writing to edify others and glorify God in the context of the larger narrative. What exactly that looks like depends on your personal convictions before the Lord. If your tendency is to use language merely to shock or fit in with the culture, I caution you to make sure you’re committed to holiness. God’s approval is worth more than temporarily causing a sensation or fitting in. If you tend to avoid all curse words at any cost, I gently challenge you to consider that there are morally justifiable occasions to include profanity. Such circumstances are rare, and depending on the genre you write in, you may never encounter them. However, if you do, my hope is that you’ll be better equipped to navigate the issue and to use the gift of words responsibly.