In this series, Dr. Dane Ortlund, Senior Vice President for Bible Publishing at Crossway, answers readers' questions about the Bible. If you have a question for Dane, simply leave it as a comment at the bottom of this post.
Q: What does the Bible say about swearing?
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths…” - Ephesians 4:29
My oldest son Zach is seven and for the first time he recently raised the question of swearing. We had a talk about some of the language he’s hearing at school and in the neighborhood.
How does the Bible guide us here? Not only for children just asking for the first time, but for all of us?
There are two basic ways we might handle swear words with our kids and in our own use of the tongue. We could call them the List Strategy and the Heart Strategy.
Making a List
The List Strategy puts on a short list a handful of words we should never utter, and all the rest of the words in the world that are legitimate to use on another list. We then go through our lives making sure we use only the words on the longer list and avoiding all the words on the shorter list.
The List Strategy can take forms that appear right and wise. We tell our kids, for instance, “Honor God with your words” and remind them of the damage that can be done with the mouth. We quote the commandment about not taking the Lord’s name in vain and remind one another of the Bible’s command that no corrupting talk come out of our mouths (Eph. 4:29). And of course we have the gospel to forgive us when we breach these instructions.
All this is good and appropriate and ought not to be neglected. But we’re ripping up the tops of the weeds without getting to the root if this is the extent of our approach to swearing.
After all, this approach overlooks the fact that it’s possible to use good words inappropriately and bad words appropriately. We can send poisonous arrows with our words without ever swearing. We can slander, insult, gossip, and tear down by using only words that are in themselves neutral. There will be plenty of lifelong non-swearers in hell. And we can also (though rarely) use bad words appropriately—as the Hebrew prophets at times did, in depicting Israel’s idolatrous whoredom. Such horrific rebellion couldn’t be accurately captured by demure, everyday words.
Wooden adherence to a list, then, is not what guarantees healthy speech.
Considering the Heart
What does? Getting deeper than the words we use to why we use them.
The Heart Strategy makes our words a matter of intention, motive—the heart (by which the Bible means not just our emotions but the animating center of all that we do and love). The List Strategy piles up the various verses about our use of the tongue and then seeks to implement these texts by applying a filter to our mouth. The Heart Strategy hears these texts mindful of what is happening inside us. Diseased well water requires more than a filter on your tap—it requires cleansing of the source, the well itself. Cleanse the heart, and you get clean words thrown in. Focus on your words only and you get neither a clean heart nor clean words.
Have you ever noticed how Jesus concludes his teaching in Luke 6 about a tree being known by its fruit? Many of us take this to mean that what happens in our heart is what determines our actions. But Jesus concludes in this way:
“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
It is one thing to filter out profanity bubbling up from the heart, and another thing to have something else entirely bubbling up “out of the abundance of the heart.” The Bible leads us into wise speech not by giving us a filter to weed out certain words but by giving us a new heart, and thus new motives. Desires, not just actions, change.
This is why appeals to the OT prophets as an excuse to use coarse language don’t work. We have to ask why they spoke in such shocking terms, and why we want to. What is our heart’s motive? Are we seeking to build up, to give life, to strengthen—or is some other motive lurking? The question is not what we say but why we say it. The Bible shepherds us into a use of the tongue that graduates from a mechanical filter that weeds out a short list of no-no words into a calmed heart that spills out in praise, encouragement, wonder, delight, honesty, simplicity, childlikeness.
When Zachary asks me, “Dad, can I say the word ____?” my first response should not be yes or no but “Why do you want to say it?” He wants to know which list the word goes on. I’m wondering about his heart.
The Word of Grace and Words of Grace
But how? How do we nurture a new heart, in others or in ourselves, so that life-giving words come out?
By marinating in the good heart of God for us, which spilled out in a life-giving word. In the gospel God speaks to us a word of welcome, from his heart.
We’re sinners. And he doesn’t swear at us.
He hugs us with words of love. His Son was cursed so that God never curses at us.
Loved with this spoken word of welcome, I find my heart oddly calmed. Softened by grace, I discover a fresh desire to speak what will inject life into others. Graced with a word, I grace others with my words.
Which, it turns out, is what the individual speech-verses are after anyway: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).
Do you have a question about the Bible? Leave it as a comment and we'll try to answer it in a future post!
Dane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) is Senior Vice President for Bible Publishing at Crossway. He is the author of several books, including Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (August 2014), and serves as an editor for the Knowing the Bible study series. He lives with his wife, Stacey, and their four kids in Wheaton.