I Swear…

It’s been fascinating, the little war on spam comments that has erupted behind the scenes on this lil’ ol’ blog.  And while I admit that it’s sort of cool to see the number of visits to this site climbing into the hundreds and several hundreds, it’s sort of depressing to know that it’s not legitimate hits from actual people, but the result of some crazy group of folks who figure that this is a good place to leave spam messages.  I don’t get it, personally.   And it’s irritating enough to make me want to swear.

Which, by the way, apparently is a good way to reduce pain.  This article from Time summarizes a study where swearing is shown to be effective at reducing pain (or prolonging the time period that someone can endure a specific type of pain).  Thanks to Clickette for sending this article to my attention.  Many pastors would be dismayed to hear of a study that seems to promote swearing for quasi-medicinal purposes.
I’m not real worried about it, though.
I had a discussion a few years ago in a Church Council meeting where one of the officers was angry that a high-profile member had released a YouTube clip that featured a copious amount of profanity.  Granted, this is not the sort of thing that I prefer to have high-profile members doing.  But she was pushing on Biblical grounds that this person needed to be chastised in some way, and her argument centered around the Ten Commandments and the idea of swearing.  And that was where I took exception to her argument.
The issue of the second commandment (depending on how you number them) is not about swearing.  It is about taking the Lord’s name in vain.  While this is sometimes part of swearing, it isn’t necessarily so.  I draw a distinction between taking the Lord’s name in vain and profanity or vulgarity.  While I believe that profanity and vulgarity are to be avoided as Christians, it isn’t an issue of breaking the Ten Commandments, per se.  
I dislike profanity and its pervasiveness in our culture.  I particularly dislike the casualness with which it is now uttered and shouted.  People in crowded places like airports seem to think nothing of swearing up a blue streak on their cell phone, regardless of who is around them.  There seems to be the assumption that this is just the way people talk.  Not that long ago, such language was saved for momentous occasions or at least environments where women and children weren’t loitering about.  Which leads me to suspect that before long, the words long considered vulgar and profane in our culture will lose that stigma all together.  New words will be found, no doubt.  For people of a certain age, the old words will retain their offensiveness, but for younger folks, they will become meaningless, almost.  They will lose their punch, and so new ones will come along.
Otherwise, how are we going to endure pain better?
Seriously, though.  Is it appropriate for a Christian to swear?  Probably not.  Depending on the motivation and purpose of the swearing, someone is far more likely to be violating the spirit of other commandments – assuming they’re leaving God’s name out of it. The Commandments against murder, for example, or bearing false witness against your neighbor come to mind first.  Since Jesus in Matthew 5 demonstrates that the commandments include intent and the heart, not just the hands, swearing is probably an example of ways that people are breaking those commandments.  
But it’s not the specific words that are the problem, but rather the state of the mind and heart that allow (or demand) they be uttered.  Complicated?  You betcha.  So try to control your tongue – it’s a good idea.  But remember that what you say (or don’t say) isn’t the measure of whether or not you’re breaking a commandment!

5 Responses to “I Swear…”

  1. Car Hire Says:

    Thank you for the work you have put into this article, this helps clear up some questions I had.

  2. Melani Says:

    ha ha…I saw the title of this post and had to read it. I agree with you that certain words are not for us Christians to use. I for one, admit I have a “potty mouth” or I swear. I try to work on this daily, trust me, I do…I have respect for people around me when I am in public, in other words, I don’t go on a swearing streak. I have prayed for God to remove this from me.

    I read that article, it made me laugh, because I have stubbed my toe and swore, LOL but I didn’t think it made the pain any easier to endure.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Melani Says:

    what happened to my comment? I was looking forword to reading your reply if any. and comments from maybe my mom.

  4. Paul Nelson Says:

    It just took me a little longer than usual to check for responses and post them – it’s there now!

  5. Paul Nelson Says:

    I think an important distinction to draw is *why* swear words are not an issue with God (banned in the commandments, for example), yet we strive to avoid them as Christians.

    In terms of our relationship with God, what we say matters in two directions.  It matters what we say about God, and it matters what we say about one another.  In terms of what we say about God, we never wish to diminish his power and glory, nor assert that He is one of several options.  This takes care of the first two commandments.  

    In terms of what we say about each other, it’s going to vary from culture to culture.  Each culture has slightly different ideas about what is acceptable speech (whether words or topics of conversation).  For example, when we have worked with international students from Asia, they are very open in talking about the fatness of Americans (or me, specifically!).  That’s considered a major faux pas here, but it’s not in Asia.  Culturally we have issues regarding how we talk about sex and certain bodily functions, so our major swear words have to do with these two areas.  If someone from Japan were to say the equivalent  word for one of our taboo swear words, we wouldn’t consider that person as improper.  Despite the fact that they’re saying something equivalent, the sound/word has no actual meaning to us, so there’s no offense – even if we know what the word means.

    Whether or not swearing helps to relieve pain is not a theologically issue, then, but a biological one.  However how and when we choose to swear or speak on certain topics could be a theological issue in terms of how we are relating to those around us.  Are we violating the commandments in what we say to or about another person?  Am I expressing sexually impure thoughts or ideas?  Am I expressing derision or hatred?  Am I saying or implying untrue things?  Are my motivations for saying what I’m saying borne out of jealousy or envy?  These are the questions that would determine whether our choice of words or what we’re trying to convey is sinful or not.  

    And because certain words are loaded in our culture, we need to be aware of this.  The report indicates that the pain-relieving quality of swearing is less for those who swear habitually.  I think it’s interesting that biologically we are reflecting the psychological rendering of certain words or phrases as no longer objectionable or disgusting or rude.  A powerful reminder of how integrated we are in body, mind, and spirit!

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