John Piper on Profanity, Crude Joking, and Using the Word “Dang”

Some thoughts on cussing

Christians are called to high standards with the words we speak. On the tongue’s use and misuse of words, four general principles guide us.

1. Don’t misuse weighty words.

Weighty words include: God, Jesus Christ, damn, and hell. Employing God’s name in vain is clearly forbidden (Exod. 20:7; Deut. 5:11). “We don’t take the words seriously when we use God as a throwaway word, or Jesus Christ as a word for when I just hit my finger or something terrible just happened, or damn as a swear word, or hell as a throwaway swear word. The problem with all those words is that they take things that are unbelievably important and serious, and they turn them into moments of smallness.” Don’t belittle solemn words.

2. Don’t use vulgar words.

Whole lexicons of “crude, crass, vulgar, and indecent” words don’t emerge from nowhere. They’re invented because “every culture has something that they view as offensive, off-color, or rude.” And Paul tells us that love is not rude—it’s not unseemly (1 Cor. 13:4–5). Paul forbids Christians from using a vocabulary that employs words that the culture would recognize as dishonorable, disgraceful, and indecent. If there was any question, Paul makes the point very clear: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place”—instead, “let there be thanksgiving” (Eph. 5:4).

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3. Speak thanks.

It’s not enough to not use crude language. Paul wants us to voice thanks (Eph. 5:4). “Paul thought if your heart is right and brimming with gratitude to God in all things, there will be a monitor on the kind of crudeness that comes out of your mouth. People that tend to use a lot of four-letter words, a lot of scatological talk, a lot of harsh, crude, rough, and crass talk, are generally sounding pretty angry. They are not content. They are not happy in Jesus. Something is out of whack in their heart.” Crudeness is the sludge that accrues when the fountain of Godward thanks dries up.

4. Speak grace.

Instead of corrupting talk, we speak grace to others (Eph. 4:29). Gratitude works to wash away crude language, but Paul pushes us to consider whether our words are good for people. Do my words make others stronger? And do my words “make Christ more beautiful in their eyes?”1

Does profanity make us more culturally relevant?

Profanity doesn’t make us more culturally relevant for three reasons.

1. Immorality is a bad strategy for improving the world.

“Issues of moral character—that is, issues of biblical uprightness—are being subordinated to our strategies for how to make the world a better place.” This principle is true in modern political candidates and true in the language of the church, revealing that “our trust has shifted from the power of God to work through the humility of holiness onto the power of our own cleverness, whether it be political shrewdness or cultural savvy.” Such attempts at culture transformation are “hopelessly flawed.” No matter how politically shrewd, profane means “will not bring the kingdom. It will not transform culture. It will not convict sinners. It will backfire and destroy the credibility of the Christian church.” The strategy has been tried: become like the world to save the world. In the process you lose the gospel. In the church, you lose confidence in God’s power, lose confidence in his word, and lose an “authentic thrill that our way is better” than the ways of the world. This vain attempt to appear cool before the world is destined to fail.

2. The world will not be impressed by our crudeness.

“According to the New Testament, what will get the attention of the world and penetrate possibly to the inner recesses of their heart is not cultural similarity with the world but sacrificial service to the world.” It isn’t “risqué language that will waken the dead, but radical love” (Matt. 5:16).

3. Filthy language is simply unfitting.

God doesn’t want us to use crude jokes, which are out of place or “unseemly” (ἀνῆκεν; Eph. 5:3–4). So Christians don’t simply avoid repeating a list of bleep-able words. No. “We discern what is suitable and fitting in a hundred situations.” The “alternative to the crude, vulgar language that Paul mentions is not clean language but thanksgiving.” Crude language exposes a “gratitude deficiency” in the heart. So Paul’s call on the Christian life is not so simple as avoiding vulgar words. Our call is to “fill your mouth with Christ-exalting truth and overflowing, humble thankfulness. Pursue the very good works that Jesus says have a much better chance of impressing the world than if we would just adopt a little bit of their language, which they themselves know is cheap.”2

But what about soft cussing?

So is it wrong for Christians, even preachers, to use words like: shoot, crud, dang, crap, and friggin’—softer cuss words?

In defense of strong language, Paul used scatological or garbage language— “dung” (σκύβαλον)—to speak of his former life of legalism (Phil. 3:8). Some Christians would liken this to the s-word. And Paul called false teachers “dogs” (Phil. 3:2). To false teachers advocating circumcision, he suggested that they castrate themselves (Gal. 5:12). Even Christ called false teachers a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 23:33). There’s a category for using “very severe” language “with adversaries of the Christian faith” or false teachers. “So I will not say there is an absolute prohibition of using severe, cutting, aggravating, edgy language in some situations of conflict where huge and deadly things are at stake.” But Paul and Jesus used these words seriously, never in a cavalier, joking, trendy, trying-to-be-cool way—unlike how they get used today.

Crudeness is the sludge that accrues when the fountain of Godward thanks dries up.

In opposition to strong language in the pulpit, and against pastors “who seem to go out of their way to flaunt coarse, rude, dirty, questionable language,” we go to Ephesians 5:3–5. Verses 3 and 5 warn of the physical, sexual sins that condemn. Sandwiched between them is verse 4, a key text on language. So “it is not just what you do with your groin or your heart, but with your tongue or your mouth as well. If it is wrong to do sexual things, he is saying, it is wrong to be cavalier and course in verbalizing those very things. There are a lot of things people are willing to take on their mouths that they would not take in their hands—and they wouldn’t take into their lives.” So, for example, “recently I heard a young leader say—and pardon me here—to hundreds of Christians in a joking way about someone who had criticized him the day before: ‘Screw you.’ And he laughed. I mean everybody laughed. Everybody laughed! Almost everybody. I didn’t.” Don’t say with your mouth what you shouldn’t act out physically. “And I would apply the same principle to bathroom language that you would never take in your hand—or hell or damn, which you would never actually apply to anybody.” So “a pure heart and pure hands should be accompanied by a pure tongue. I think that is the point of verse 4.”

The tongue is governed not by compliance with right/wrong and good/bad words. It’s governed by categories of what is proper/improper and out of place/ in place. Love is not unseemly (ἀσχημονέω; 1 Cor. 13:5). In the world’s evil, don’t get experienced with it (1 Cor. 14:20). Be a baby in evil. You don’t need to adopt the culture’s shows, movies, and language. Don’t let a fear of prudish puritanism push you into embracing vulgar language. Instead, “honor commonly accepted standards, because it is humble and not self-asserting.”3

When jokes go crude

Paul contrasts filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking with thankful speech (Eph. 5:4). “And I think the reason thankfulness is given as an alternative to crude joking and filthiness is a heart that is humble enough to recognize that everything is a gift. And full of thanksgiving to God is the kind of heart that just doesn’t get ugly.” Humble thanks “cleans up the mouth.” We seek to build others up—our “criterion” for everything we say, even our jokes (Eph. 4:29).

So does my wit build up or tear down? Here are five ways that jokes tear down. (1) The joke is corrupting and dirty. (2) The joke is ill-timed and doesn’t fit the occasion. (3) The joke is egocentric, trying to be clever and nothing else. (4) The joke is a demeaning put-down, making fun of a group or nationality or ethnicity. (5) The joke is “relentlessly superficial,” from a person only trying to be witty.

Yet this list “leaves wide open that there is humor that does none of those negative things, but is full of grace and well-timed and produces a healthy cascade of laughter.” There’s a laughter that breaks out in sheer joy at God’s goodness (Ps. 126:1–2). But there’s also a “belly-shaking humor” that “just happens” in life. It happened once in a sermon. “I was using an illustration of, ‘Come on, everybody. You want to be a dolphin, right? You want to cut against the currents of culture, and you don’t want to be a jellyfish. Who in the world wants to be a jellyfish?!’ And a little girl right in the third row raised her hand. ‘I want to be a jellyfish!’ Everybody simply roared. I could hardly contain myself I was laughing so hard right in the middle of a very important point.” Humor just happens.

In the words of Spurgeon: “We must conquer—some of us especially—our tendency to levity. A great distinction exists between holy cheerfulness, which is a virtue, and that general levity, which is a vice. There is a levity which has not enough heart to laugh, but trifles with everything; it is flippant, hollow, unreal. A hearty laugh is no more levity than a hearty cry.” So, says Piper, “there is a difference between robust humor in the soul of a saint who is manifestly taking God with great seriousness and levity—that is the negative word—levity in the mouth of a resident clown, who can’t seem to be serious about anything.” “Humor and laughter in their most natural and healthy forms are spontaneous, not contrived, not planned. Therefore, the challenge in life, as in so many other traits, is to become a joyfully, holy, seriously happy, God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated person so that, out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth laughs.”4


  1. APJ 97: “On Cussing” (May 23, 2013).
  2. APJ 1187: “Will Profanity Make Us More Relevant in Reaching Our Culture?” (April 20, 2018).
  3. APJ 640: “What about Soft Cussing?” (July 15, 2015).
  4. APJ 907: “When Does Humor Become Sinful?” (July 28, 2016). For more on the dolphin/jellyfish contrast between those who “cut a path against the current” and those who “float in the current of culture,” see APJ 683: “How to Engage Culture and Swim against It” (September 11, 2015) and APJ 1141: “Deep Bible Reading Strategies for the Tired and Busy” (January 3, 2018). Quote from C. H. Spurgeon, The Sword and Trowel: 187 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1874), 78.

This article is adapted from Ask Pastor John: 750 Bible Answers to Life’s Most Important Questions by Tony Reinke.

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