Because certain words can be considered offensive or foul language in one context and not in another, the intent of the speaker is central in determining whether a given use of a word is profane. If a child says what appears to be a cuss word, sometimes our sensibilities are shocked, but it would never be right to punish a child that says a “bad” word ignorantly. The same kind of consideration is given to people who are not native speakers of a given language since profanity is normally considered a “specific intent” sin. That is to say, it is the desire to offend or the reckless disregard of the sacred meaning of particular words that makes them sinful, not the mere sound of the letters, as I will show. Furthermore, it is evident from Scriptures that God defines the meaning and boundaries for language use. Several examples will illustrate this.
God’s Holy Judgments
“Hell” and “damn” are words used of the Holy Wrath of God. In at least one passage the two words are paired together:
Matthew 23:33: Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?
Some people use these two words of judgment flippantly (as if God does not really judge unbelieving sinners in wrath), rather than regard these warning words with fear and dread as they should. Frequently, though, the words are used in anger, as if the speaker is in God’s place. But only God can damn a man or send him to hell. “Let every man be…slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” (James 1:2)
Humanity, the Offspring of Man
“God created man, male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness…” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question #10).
Some words can be used to strike at the very humanity of people. These words are not often included in lists of curses, but the effect of their use is the same. One of these terms is used by dog breeders for a female canine. Another is the N-word. We should probably consider this second term culturally racist and religiously indecent. But certainly no one can deny that it is often used to denigrate a whole race of people. A third example of a fine word otherwise used as an execrative can be found in the King James Version of the Bible. The word “bastard” is used to describe a child born out of wedlock. But used in anger or derision, like the other two labels, it denies the personhood of its target.
The reason using the word bastard can be considered an attack upon God is because it assaults two of God’s holy things: Holy Matrimony and Holy Offspring. God has a lot to say about the holiness of marriage and procreation:
I Corinthians 7:14: For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.
Hebrews 13:4: Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled.
Much of the vulgarity of the day is designed to attack the sacredness and intimacy of the marriage bed. It takes what should be a holy relationship and publishes it to the world as if it were nothing sacred. Some of the bad language having to do with certain body parts is designed to cause disrespect for the notions of privacy, procreation, and modesty associated with Holy Matrimony.
In my previous essay I pointed out how we become desensitized to attacks upon God when we hear them and fail to be offended (or weep) as we ought. Additionally, the world is never content with dulling our senses. In order to offend God and His people, it will try to push the envelope until every last vestige of decency and respect for a Holy God and His things is destroyed. This is often done by combining profanity into forms describing things too shameful to discuss.
Remember, the very definition of profanity is related to God’s Temple. Most of the expressions I have discussed can be categorized as desecrating the Name of God and His Things by taking them “outside the Temple,” that is, beyond their lawful boundaries. But there is also the sacrilege of bringing things inside the Temple that do not belong there. Furthermore, God’s presence was also seen as being in the midst of the community of Israel:
Deuteronomy 23:12: And it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee: For the LORD thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thine enemies before thee; therefore shall thy camp be holy: that he see no unclean thing in thee, and turn away from thee.
Under the new covenant, profanity will be found anywhere where God’s omniscience and omnipresence is not honored and recognized. By way of example, then, words referring to body waste can be used profanely when they are used to soil a conversation, bringing the filthy into the pristine. God is not in our conversations if we use profanity, whether it is an attack upon His Person, Character, Name, Judgments, or Things.
May we, like the priests of old, learn to distinguish between the Holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean. God is Holy. We are, in our fallen natures, profane. We need God’s grace.
Part Three: “Mild” Profanity and Euphemism, Holiness vs Legalism.