Every community must concern itself with how its members should speak. In my experience, most families have a list of words that are considered immoral and thus, off limit. Many Christian parents try to prevent their children from hearing such words by putting heavy controls on the environment of their children. When my kids started going to school, they found their friends all had different lists. Growing up, the list of words I was allowed to use was much more restricted than that of my neighbors, but we had friends that had an even longer list of bad words.
As I grew older, I began to wonder from where our list came. Since we are Christians, I had assumed the Bible must have a list somewhere. But of course, I never found a list anywhere. I was also confused about why two different words for the same thing could be on different lists. Cleary the concept or thing they describe wasn’t problematic. For some reason, the word choice mattered.
By the time I got to college, I began to feel that all these lists were arbitrary, mere reflections of social customs or personal preferences being passed down by families and communities. This left me a bit confused as to what I should and shouldn’t say. I’d also noticed that I could be a real jerk without ever using a bad word. It seemed to me that a list wasn’t a sufficient guide to godly and wise speech.
Now I’m a father and a pastor, so I’ve had to think carefully about leading my own family and church in godly speech, and I’ve been asked many times what parents should teach their kids about bad words. So here’s what I tell people: God is not concerned about what words you use so much as how you use your words. To put it another way, I teach people that there is no such thing as a bad word, only a word badly used.
That might come as a bit of a shock to religious people who have been taught that Christians shouldn’t swear, cuss, use obscene language, or talk dirty. While it would be much easier if we just came up with a manmade list of unacceptable words, then godly speech would be fairly easy to attain. But I’m afraid it’s much more complicated than that.
What Does the Bible Say About Our Words?
The Bible teaches that our words are powerful, bringing destruction or giving life (Prov. 12:18; 18:21). We should not take what we say lightly, and we must learn to control our tongues (Jas. 3). So how should we speak? If I were to try and summarize everything the Bible has to say about speech and words (perhaps that’s a bit too bold), it’d go something like this. Our speech should:
- not corrupt, tear down, or denigrate people, but build up, edify, and give grace (Prov. 12:18; Eph. 4:29, 5:4; Col. 3:8)
- be true, measured, and proportionate (Prov. 12:19, 25:15; Mt. 5:37; Rom. 16:18; Jas. 5:12)
- be wise and appropriate for the moment (Prov. 15:23, 18:13, 25:11)
- be humble and not boastful (Ps. 94:3-4; Prov. 27:1-2; 1 Cor. 1:31, 13:4)
Our goal, then, shouldn’t be to avoid using bad words. We can destroy people without using bad words. We can mislead people and bring confusion without using bad words. We can say things that don’t fit the moment without using bad words. We can boast without using bad words. Bad words, that is, words that end up on someone’s list of immoral words that should never be used, actually aren’t bad at all. The category misses the point.
The goal of all our speech must be to love others with our words, and that means learning 1) discernment, so we can speak what’s good and true, 2) wisdom, so we know what needs to be said and when, 3) humility, so we don’t constantly draw attention to ourselves, and 4) purity, so we don’t corrupt but build up and beautify. In other words, our goal must be virtue that proceeds in godly speech.
This is why we have to get to the heart—the wellspring of our words—if we want to speak in a godly way. Unless we have heard, received, and continually return to God’s loving word, the good news of Jesus Christ, our hearts will produce wicked, impure, false words that bring death and destruction around us. Only if we are growing in godly character will we be able to speak in a way that pleases God and serves our neighbor.
Redirecting Our Words
If our approach to godly speech has mainly been about avoiding certain words, then we need a new orienting vision for our words. We could ask ourselves:
- Do I speak in a truthful, measured, proportionate way, or do I overstate things, exaggerate, flatter, understate, and downplay the truth? Do my words lead people to trust me?
- Do my words build others up, encourage, and contribute to conversations positively? Or does what I say often tear people down, discourage, condemn, or detract?
- Do I say what is best in the moment, or am I regularly blabbering on without much of an idea of what I’m getting at? Do I know how to say things gently but with clarity and power? Or am I reckless, abundant, and foolish?
- Do I draw attention to myself with my words, or does what I say reflect a self-forgetfulness oriented toward connecting with others and celebrating the greatness of God?
- Why might my words be functioning in these ways? What do I love that might be shaping my words? Is it my reputation and the approval of others? Is it my advantage, comfort, or convenience? Is it my own ego? Is my self-absorption? Is it my ambition?
Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (Mt. 6:45). A rightly directed heart will in time pour forth rich, lovely, and life-giving speech that gives others confidence we can be trusted as people of godly character
A Different Approach to Teaching Our Children
How might this translate to parenting our children to speak with godliness and wisdom?
Assuming we are working on our own speech by attending to our own hearts, here are a few simple lessons to teach our children:
- There are no bad words.
- There are powerful words that little children are not yet ready to use.
- All our words should aim to love others, promote the truth, and help the situation.
The second lesson will help your kids avoid the danger of the first. People didn’t come up with lists of bad words for no reason. There are some filthy, gross, unkind, serious words in every language, and most of the time, people don’t have any business speaking them. But the reality is, life is filled with hard, painful, disgusting, and evil things, and in order to speak the truth, we must have the words to name those experiences. Christians must not be people who are too “polite” to speak of such horrors. We must never do that lightly, but there are times when we can bring life to others by naming evil with the strongest of terms.
Words are like tools. All tools are made for certain purposes, but if we use those tools in the wrong way, they might break and they could hurt someone. Likewise, words mean specific things, and we must become people who can use words in the right ways at the right times in order to bring life. Children may not be ready to use some of the tools until they are older and have proven they are capable of using less powerful tools.
So this is what I say to my kids when they ask about bad words. “There are no bad words, but you are not allowed to say that word yet. When you are older, and when you have proven that you can use these other words wisely and with love, then you can use that word because then I know you will use it well.”
This also means, there are times when I use strong words around my kids. I am not afraid of my kids hearing these words, and you shouldn’t be worried about it either. They will hear strong words. You cannot stop it, even if you send your kids to a Christian school until they are college age. Sheltering kids, or at least trying to, won’t help them become the type of people that speak faithfully. We should only be concerned about our kids hearing us use strong words in the wrong way. So I must use strong words carefully in the few moments when I must speak with great weight.
This brings us full circle back to the beginning. I am not saying Christians should be dropping f-bombs every time we stub our toe or face an inconvenience. What we normally call swearing or cursing is usually flippant speech that isn’t truthful in that it uses the strongest words our language possess for every inconvenience, insult, or injury.
Many Christians I know that grew up in legalistic environments, upon learning about our “freedom in Christ,” began to swear regularly. But this is a mistake in the opposite direction. If you’ve never been allowed to use a hammer, you might be tempted to start using a hammer for every home project. But if you insist on using the hammer for everything, no one will want to hire you to help renovate the kitchen. Tools must be used in the right way, and no one tool fits every occasion. Liberation from lists of bad words doesn’t bring freedom or righteousness if we start using words foolishly or wickedly. That’s not because the words are bad, but because improper use will do damage or make us less trustworthy.
So let us learn to use words properly by becoming attentive to the aim and effect of our words.