Each of us is to be light each day, right where we are, in many varied ways, to those around
Sights and Sounds
Picture this scene: a village nestled between a tiny lake and mountains in the Rockies; a Sunday sun
intermittently eclipsed by growing thunderheads; a slow, dusty street; a boardwalk and rough bench
fronting a tempting ice cream parlor. Two preschool boys struggle up onto the bench and plunge into
their cones. In two seconds, noses and fingers are bathed in chocolate. A few paces away, five
teenagers hover like hummingbirds among the summer flowers.
With fire in my eyes, I strode toward the teens and fired my words point-blank: “I’d appreciate it if
you’d watch your foul language. Don’t you care what those children hear?”
The same scenery and sounds clash the next day and all work-week long. Whatever their age, fellow
workers spit out the same vulgar epithets. Age, however, determines a sharp difference. Jake, the
foreman, and his peers suddenly choose new adjectives when working near visitors in the national
park. The abrupt change is absent in my age group. Without inhibition, they spew out any
Do my peers reflect an ‘honesty’ that their elders lack? Is the older generation displaying ‘hypocrisy’?
Or are they acting out of ‘charity’–caring for others—by their unwillingness to offend?
We need to explore these questions. Today, profanity surrounds us. As a student, I even hear it in the
halls and corners of my seminary. Popular explanations contend, “Hey, everyone uses it,” profanity is
“no big deal.”
Does no one listen to Jesus? “You can be sure that on Judgment Day everyone will have to give
account of every useless word he has ever spoken” (Matthew 12:36).
How many pray with the psalmist: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be
acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer”? (Ps. 19:14). Is this just a Sunday
morning tidbit, or are we able to learn from Paul that our prayers should be unending?
The psalmist recognized the connection between words and thoughts. Our words reflect our thoughts,
and words used by habit affect what we thing about. It is no accident that Jake, my boss, is both upset
by cussing in the coffee shop and embarrassed by one-track minds that jest about his daughters.
Language permissiveness and sexual lust feed each other. Jake has not abandoned control. My
So, is Jake a hypocrite? Of course he is, but so am I. Four years in a men’s dorm and three years in the
Marines weren’t exactly a seedbed for “clean” language. I chose to use “damn” and “hell” regularly.
But I would never have used them, say, at worship, except in their true sense. I’ve never heard, “Oh,
what the hell,” in a sanctuary. Using those words made the next step easier. Right around the corner,
“B.S.” lay waiting. I would never have used that in several places, including home. But I remember
the surprise on my platoon sergeant’s face the one time when I did use it. Slips from an attempted
control led me to review the first step.
It is this attempted control, or lack of it, that makes Jake considerate, and others inconsiderate (at this
point). Jake knows that his words offend some people. He cares about that and about the image of the
National Park Service. He spares others.
What about those who do not control their language? Are they, as is claimed, more “honest”? Such a
claim stands on shaky ground. “Honesty” implies being open and frank, but we can talk openly and
frankly without profanity. Honesty’s Latin root comes from “honor.” Webster describes its synonyms
as “strictly regarding what is morally right.” Claiming “honesty” as a virtue when using profanity
distorts the meaning.
People offer mixed claims to justify profanity. Confront some teens and they respond, “What’s your
problem…You don’t like it? Close your ears.” More sophisticated college types defend these words as
being “part of life” that helps get authentic feelings across.
Here, two different claims defend profanity: 1) It’s not important, and (2) it is important—helping
people express themselves. Both claims are self-centered. The first displays indifference to people
who are hurt by vulgar words and misuse of their Lord’s Name. The second claim actively says, “Me
first, others second.” Both positions offend other people and therefore lack “charity”–that self-giving
love that the Greek New Testament calls agape.
The Christian life is not self-centered by Christ-centered. Our Lord says, “By this all men will know
that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Christ moves our focus from
self to others. Both concern for others and obedience to Christ (recall the double commandment—
Matt. 22:37-39) rule out profanity from a Christian’s words.
The excuses uttered in defense of profanity parallel a meditation on household garbage: “no big deal”–
but it must be thrown out; “so what?”–but you don’t carry it around in your pockets; “it’s more
expressive”–would you eat it? “It’s natural”–Amen!
Most Christians listen to, “you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
But many forget that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man”
(Matt. 15:18). Jesus says, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes
from the evil one” (Matt.5:37). James also warns about this and describes the danger of the tongue
Simple speech gives an important testimony. Our words witness to our Foundation. Being like our
peers in language does not advance our witness. Vain language destroys. Words become useless. Our
words should show purpose. They should point beyond ourselves. The should reflect the image of
God. When our words are self-centered, those around us cannot see God through us.
Our world needs to recover a purpose for its wandering words. Each Christian is called to minister to
this need, to be a beacon, to shed light, to not walk in darkness. This is a hard task, for as Carl Henry
“The modern world of words has toppled from its divine intention. . . . free, good true, holy, love, and
others—have yielded to cheap and carnal imitations. Only by restoring human speech to the Word of
God can the present futility of words be canceled . . . .”*
*Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1976), vol. 1, p. 28.
[Article pub. In Evangelical Friend, February, 1982]
More Essays for Moms and Dads…and Grandparents, too.