Be Careful Little Mouth What You Say

What are “bad words” and why are they bad?

My daughter is 6.  She is pretty sheltered, but as her exposure to the world widens and her vocabulary expands, she will start to notice some language that we don’t want her to repeat.  This has got me thinking about how best to explain to her why some words are “bad.”

Parental advisories for TV shows, movies, music, etc. usually address sexual content, violence, “adult” themes (including substance abuse), and language.  Problematic language can include swearing, cursing, “cussing,” profanity, obscenities, and maybe some other similar words such as expletives or “strong” language.  Are these all synonyms or do they have different meanings?  Why should such words be avoided?

Let’s start with some definitions:

Cursing (aka “cussing”): To curse someone is to wish something bad upon them.  It is not our place to condemn (“damn”) anyone or anything.  We are not the Creator.  God says “Vengeance is mine; I will repay” (Hebrews 10:30, Romans 12:19, Deuteronomy 32:35).  Rather, we are called to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27,35, Romans 12:20).

Swearing: To swear on or by something is to denote the seriousness (solemnity) of our statement by association with the seriousness of the object/place/person being sworn on or by.  We have an obligation to speak truthfully at all times.  Attempting to make some speech more impactful by accentuating it with “swearing” implies that our words themselves are insufficient and casts doubt on our commitment to be truthful in everything we say.  Instead of showing our “seriousness” by drawing on the seriousness of something outside of ourselves, we should simply let our “Yes be yes and our No, No” (Matthew 5:33-36, James 5:12).

Profanity:  The essence of profanity is treating anything holy and sacred as if it were not.  Profane speech is speech that does not show God the reverence he deserves.  The name of God is holy and must be treated with reverence (Deuteronomy 10:20).  To use God’s name in a trivial manner (Exodus 20:7) or to associate God with anything that is not true profanes his name (Leviticus 19:12); it sullies his perfect righteousness and dishonors him. 

Obscenity:  Something that is obscene is something that is put on display that should not be put on display (Ephesians 5:12).  Most often, this has to do with things of a sexual nature.  Part of keeping the bed of marriage undefiled (Hebrews 13:4) is keeping it private.  Sexual intimacy is not something to be shared or brought out in public (Ezekiel 16:36, 23:18) or even talked about in a way that destroys its intimacy (Ephesians 5:4).

Vulgarity:  If any “bad” words could be defended, it would be those in this last category.  After all, the original meaning of “vulgar” was simply “characteristic of or belonging to the masses,” which was why the churchmen who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1646 advocated for the Scriptures “to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation.”  However, the more modern definition of vulgarity is of things that are tasteless, crass, crude, and generally offensive.  This could involve some overlap with the previous categories, but I am thinking primarily of words that do not fall into one of the other categories.  This would include scatological terms that are generally recognized as being indecent.  One might argue that this falls into the category of “filthy language” prohibited by Colossians 3:8.  The contents of this category could be more subject to the changing standards of what is considered “decent,” but Christians should always seek to be polite, courteous, kind, and avoid speech that is not wholesome or gracious (Ephesians 4:29, Colossians 4:6).  What comes out of our mouth is an indicator of what is in our inmost being, and our hearts and minds should be saturated with things that are pure and lovely (Philippians 4:8).

Other: Perhaps you can think of “bad” words that don’t seem to fall into one of the categories above. An example might be certain words that demean a person’s parentage. The admonitions to love our neighbor, love our enemy, and speak wholesome, gracious words extend to this “other” category also.

The Side of Silence

It is not uncommon (especially in recent days) to hear someone make a public statement that includes comments along the lines of “I just couldn’t stay silent any longer.”

One of the tactics used to encourage others to chime in and voice their support for the issue at hand is the accusation that to remain silent is to be “on the wrong side of history” . . . that silence is tacit approval of the “evil” being denounced.  There are two famous quotes to this effect, one misattributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”)1, and another misattributed to Edmund Burke (“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”)2.

Not-Bonhoeffer and Not-Burke are right that staying on the sidelines is not an option.  Silence cannot be equated with neutrality.  Declining to publicly proclaim your stance on a particular issue or conflict does not mean that you are not “helping” one side or the other.  The question is, which side is bolstered by your silence?

If you don’t make it a point to say #BlackLivesMatter, does that mean you’re okay with racism?
   or
If you don’t object to the #BLM movement, is that an indication that you’re okay with Critical Race Theory and Marxist ideology?

If you refuse to put a rainbow on your profile pic, does that mean you’re a homophobic bigot?
   or
If you don’t speak up against gay marriage, does that mean you’re on-board with allowing the sexual revolution to continue unabated?

Depending on the situation, your silence could benefit either side of these divisive issues. It requires wisdom and insight to recognize whose side will benefit the most from your silence.  The answer to that question may well depend on the context of your situation, who the audience is, what type of platform you have, etc.  However, do not mistake silence for neutrality.

On two occasions, Jesus addressed the actions and attitudes of those who were not his followers.  Despite not being his followers, neither group was neutral.  In one case he claimed them as allies (Mark 9:40 – “the one who is not against us is for us”), whereas in the other case he proclaimed them to be his adversaries (Matthew 12:30 – “whoever is not with me is against me”).

The determining factor was not based on their issuance of a public statement proclaiming their affiliation with Jesus or their opposition to Jesus.  Neither was their “side” determined by their failure to issue a public statement declaring themselves for or against Jesus.  Instead, it was their actions and attitudes that made the difference.

What actions and attitudes are you putting on display?  Are you furthering the cause of Jesus or the world?


  1. https://www.wthrockmorton.com/2016/08/25/the-popular-bonhoeffer-quote-that-isnt-in-bonhoeffers-works/ 

  2. https://checkyourfact.com/2019/06/05/fact-check-edmund-burke-triumph-evil-good-men/ 

To Mask or Not to Mask?

Lots of people have strong opinions about whether or not we should all be wearing masks right now.  The answer to that question is not as simple as some would have you believe.

There are two issues that must be resolved: 1) do health concerns warrant mask wearing, and 2) does submission to authority warrant mask wearing?

If masks provide the health benefits that are claimed, then the second question is not all that relevant.  If a mask is a low-cost, low-effort, and effective means of protecting myself and others, then it makes sense to wear one, whether it’s mandatory or not.  If I knew exactly when and where I might be exposed to a contagious virus, then I would not need to wear a mask unless I knew I was in the presence of the virus.  If I knew that I was not a carrier, I would not need to wear a mask to protect others.  However, I cannot know when and where I might be exposed, and I cannot necessarily know if I am a carrier who might inadvertently pass the virus to someone else.  So, the question becomes a matter of whether the risks of transmission and the benefits of the mask are high enough to outweigh the downsides of wearing a mask.

Some people think this is an easy question.  They argue that the risks are reasonably high (although impossible to know for sure), that a mask substantially reduces those risks (especially when worn by an infected person to reduce the spread at the source), and that the downsides are so low that it’s a no-brainer.  This is the “accepted narrative” being put forth by the majority of health experts and public leaders right now (although a few months ago it was a different story).

Others point to statistics showing that the risk of death or serious illness from COVID-19 is not all that fearsome, studies that cast doubt on the efficacy of masks in mitigating the risk, and concerns that the downsides of masks are higher than what is often acknowledged.  These concerns are typically countered by appeal to the “scientific consensus,” but scientific consensus is fickle and is sometimes influenced by things other than unbiased interpretation of the evidence (not only the interpretation, but even the generation and collection of “evidence” is subject to biases).

In light of doubts about the true health benefits of wearing masks, the second reason to wear masks is to  comply with a mandate from a governing authority.  Legal consequences notwithstanding, those who share Christian convictions recognize our obligation to obey the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7).  This obligation to obey extends even to those rulers who are unjust (1 Peter 2:18).  The only exception is when the authority demands something that is contrary to God’s law (Acts 4:18-19, 5:28-29, Ex. 1:17).

The question on this front is: what if the claim to authority is illegitimate?  Even though the person or body making the claim does have legitimate authority, their authority has bounds.  A teacher has legitimate authority in the classroom, an employer has legitimate authority in the workplace, a parent has legitimate authority in the home, elders have legitimate authority in the church, and civil governments have legitimate authority in the public sphere.  But when an authority in one sphere oversteps the bounds of their authority, one is not being disobedient to ignore their demands.  A demand by someone without the authority to make such a demand can be disregarded.  This is not disobedience; it is simply a recognition that the demand is not authoritative.  In some situations, one may choose to acquiesce to the demand for other reasons (to escape the threat of violence or other costs), but it may also be appropriate to refute the illegitimate authority claim.

Does a government official or body have the legitimate authority to require healthy (or presumed healthy) individuals to wear masks everywhere they might go?  Does their authority extend to private enterprises (businesses, schools, churches, etc.)?  Some say yes, some say no.  What is the basis of their authority?  Is it simply because they have the power to enforce their demand (might makes right)?  Is the authority vested in them by the law?  What if the demand exceeds the authority granted by the law?  What if a law is crafted that exceeds or violates the authority granted by the constitution?  Does the authority rest in the individual(s) representing the government, or in the legal code that established the government?  If a state constitution does not give a governor the authority to mandate the wearing of masks, and if one remains unconvinced of the health benefits, then is it still necessary to “submit” to the illegitimate authority claim?  Is it better to stand up against the illegitimate authority claim?  What if, instead of a mask, the government mandated that certain elements of the population wear an armband with a yellow star?  Do Christians have an obligation to obey such a command, or would compliance only be recommended under duress to avoid the threat of penalty?

Given that there are doubts about the medical necessity of mass mask-wearing, and doubts about the legitimacy of governmental mandates to wear masks, I accept that there are good people who have good reasons to think that we should all be wearing masks, and I accept that there are good people who have good reasons to think that we should not all be wearing masks.

The Necessity of Debate

Many (most?) people will accept the following two principles:

  1. The truth matters.
  2. No one (except God) has a corner on the truth.

Therefore, debate is necessary.

Because of principle #2, humility is necessary, and continual engagement with others is necessary. We should not think, “I have obtained the truth, so there is no need for debate.”

Some people put so much emphasis on principle #2 that they are unwilling or uninterested in debating the truth. But this has the effect of negating principle #1. If we stop short of finding the truth, or declare that the truth is unobtainable, then we are essentially saying that the truth is not necessary. To believe that the truth matters, is also to believe that the truth is something that can be grasped (not exhaustively, or in every situation, but in general; see principle #2), and is worth fighting for.

Strange Hair

What follows is an undated writing assignment I found in my collection of school papers. I’m guessing junior high.

I enjoy watching people. You sometimes see crazy people or see normal people doing things that seem crazy. I remember going into a supermarket and seeing a woman apparently talking to the dairy section of the store. I wasn’t sure if I was mistaken about her talking to the cheese, or if she was really crazy. Then a hand appeared from behind the cheese. At first this seemed very strange, but it didn’t take long to realize that there was a person behind the cheese display who was talking to the woman.

A mall is a good place to watch people, especially if you like seeing crazy people with weird hairstyles. I like to go to the mall. It is amazing the kind of hair you will see–it is often straight up, straight out, or so strange that it cannot be described.