In case you’ve missed the headlines, cursing is more in vogue than ever. Lots of people, including Christians (and, er, a certain politician favored by some of the evangelical bunch) are becoming more comfortable with using crude terms in public.
For the record, I have no stones to throw.
For those less open to the practice, acronyms have become a way of cursing without being offensive. By cramming our crude, angry outbursts into these cryptic forms, we eliminate overt vulgarity in favor of implied vulgarity. Does that make it less vile? Maybe not. But that’s not exactly what I want to talk about.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we find the admonition to “let no unclean communication” come out of our mouths but to only say “that which is helpful in building others up, so it may edify the body.” This text is often cited in reference to gratuitous cursing, but it is much, much more significant than that. That’s what I want to talk about.
Whether we spell it out, use its initials, or convey it with a certain tone, there are all kinds of ways to play dirty with words.
The word for unclean in the excerpt from Ephesians is the Greek term sapros; it is often translated “corrupt” and more specifically means “putrid, rotten, worn out, of poor quality, and worthless.” (Sounds like a lot of stuff on the Internet…amiright?)
While there’s no doubt that definition applies to so-called foul language, it also applies to everyday language that has become fair game even for the church crowd, things like gossip, flattery, lies, slander, derision, bitterness, fault-finding, and a host of other types of speech that are designed to steal, kill, and destroy our effectiveness against all kinds of bad stuff.
Fair is foul, foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air…
I mean, the culture has come a long way since the sticks and stones and all that words-don’t-hurt nonsense, but the idea that our own words can make us weak and worthless in the trenches of life’s battles is a little hard to swallow, no?
What I say can surely strip me of power at a time I need it the most. And it sounds something like this…
I teach high school English. Many of my young students have very little appreciation for the nuances of modern grammar, the dynamism of the written word, the universality of the human condition as evident in story-telling. But they have words. Lots of them. Their gift of speech is often spent on carnal things: criticizing, complaining, mocking, bullying. In these instances, shallowness and self-centeredness drive their desire to make the classroom atmosphere, shall we say, more compatible with their preferences. They gleefully use their words to fire things up a bit.
Pew, pew. Man down.
Fortunately, I am not without the resources I need to end the carnage, only my weapons aren’t carnal but are, according to one expert, mighty.
So what do I do when classroom shenanigans become real WTH moments, as in WTH is wrong with these kids?!
Well, I can try the traditional approach: enraged ranting followed by threats to force-read them Moby Dick. Such lunacy may work for a moment, but in the long run it’s pedagogical suicide. People who already know and respect who’s in charge may occasionally need a loud wake up call, but frantic freaking-out is a weapon that always misfires. (And reading Moby Dick aloud is punishment for me. Sorry, Melville.)
Frustration with people who won’t listen and learn is a given. Even Jesus acknowledged it. But fouling up our power source–the tongue–with poorly-chosen, putrid words is just dumb, as in not smart but also as in hit-the-mute-button-on-this-nutcase.
Pew, pew! Teacher down!
Of course, I can always WTH my way into a teacher’s lounge and practice my default response to aggravation: I can complain bitterly to whoever will listen until my voice is hoarse and their ears are cauliflower-ed. By the time I run out of expletives, I’ll have stirred up the hornets’ nest of ugly feelings that seems to lurk right below the surface of my shallow gratitude.
Complaining about annoyances is just another way of saying I have no interest in being a blessing to people who barely know their left hand from their right. Once I retreat to the unforgiving landscape of my self-righteousness–because, naturally, I’ve never fled to Tarshish when I was supposed to go to Ninevah–I’m stuck trying to find some comfort in the shade I threw, only to have the worm of my discontent chew it up and spit it out at me until all I have to show for my indignation is whale puke and a hot head. (Makes Moby Dick sound positively delightful, doesn’t it?)
Phew, phew, peeee-ew. Definitely down.
Or I can do this. I can remind myself exactly WTH has gotten into people and determine to love the H out of them. I can choose my words carefully, especially when I deliver correction. I can be a presence, not a threat, to those who need extra, uh, attention. I can offer help to those who are struggling. I can encourage those who are doing well. I can teach my young friends how to use their words. I can exercise the authority that humility and wisdom entitle me to.
I can do those things. And sometimes I do. But sometimes I just want people to leave me the H alone. Sometimes, I try–and fail–to beat the H out of people with my vocabulary because I’m H-bent to win some verbal battle even though that’s not anywhere in the overcome-the-world clause of my commitment.
Exactly. WTH gets into me. WTH is wrong with me. And it’s probably wrong with you too. So what in God’s name do we do about it?
We have to acknowledge that the “…tongue is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell….Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing….this should not be.” (James 3:6,10)
Then we have to get the H out of there, as in, rid ourselves of “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language….” (Colossians 3:8) so that what comes out of our mouths isn’t a load of rot.
I guess the takeaway here is if we won’t say something helpful, at least we can shut the H up. After all, even a fool is considered wise when he keeps his mouth shut…
And we allllll down!
That’s the Word, and I’m a witness.