[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]
Proverbs 11:9, “With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor, but through knowledge the righteous will be delivered.”
Analysis: How do we destroy our neighbor? Do we do it by saying a bad word, or do we do it by lying, slandering and gossiping? It’s our messages that destroy others, not the technicality of which words we say.
Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Analysis: Have you ever had someone correct you in an angry manner? Didn’t it make you want to keep arguing even though you knew you were wrong? In fact, we sometimes cling to erroneous beliefs out of our desire to vindicate our hurt feelings. When we are corrected in gentleness, however, we are more likely to embrace the truth.
Some might claim that the term, “harsh word” refers to bad words, but it is used in this verse to counter the phrase, “gentle answer.” So again, the word, “word”, refers to a message rather than a specific word. Even if the word, “word,” designated a specific word, there are many words that stir up anger that aren’t bad words, such as idiot or loser. So this verse cannot be interpreted as one that forbids the use of bad words.
Proverbs 17:5, “He who mocks the poor reproaches his Maker; He who rejoices at calamity will not go unpunished.”
Analysis: I’ve known few people who rejoice at calamity, but many of us Christians speak evil of the poor, blaming them for their circumstances and refusing to help them.
Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
Analysis: This sounds like an overstatement. The tongue just produces words. Certainly, words can’t determine life or death. Only weapons and physical destruction can do that.
However, let’s think about suicide for a minute. What drives a person to suicide? Their thoughts do. What kind of thoughts do suicidal people have? They have thoughts of self-doubt, inferiority, self-hatred. Why? Were they born with these thoughts? No. Someone put those thoughts in their head. So it’s from the words others that our suicidal thoughts originate. Likewise, it’s from the words of others that we develop much of our confidence and healthy self-esteem (not to be confused with unhealthy, arrogant pride which the Bible opposes.)
Proverbs 23:9, “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words.”
Analysis: This is a weird one. I would think that we should speak wisdom around those who are foolish. Jesus did it. So did the prophets and the apostles. In fact, there are so many fools around that we’d rarely have the opportunity to speak away from their presence. I think we’ll just have to temporarily write this verse off, because it’s apparent message conflicts with what we see throughout the rest of the Bible. We’ll just count it as another example of why it’s so important to use the every-verse method of Bible study.
Proverbs 26:4-5, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
Analysis: In other words, don’t stoop down to the level of someone who speaks foolishly. Those of us who discuss such important, controversial topics as religion and politics have frequent opportunities to heed this verse. Quite often, our opponents rant and rave, engaging in name-calling and mockery, as they argue their point. Their emotional outbursts convey their lack of logic and calm reasoning. We must never stoop to such a level. We need to take the high road when discussing important issues, treating our opponents with the respect that all human beings deserve and that the Bible requires.
Proverbs 27:14, “He who blesses his friend with a loud voice early in the morning, it will be reckoned a curse to him.”
Analysis: We Christians today are guilty of disobeying this verse when we bless people for show. We have a tendency to address other Christians with religious-sounding talk in order to look like men and women of great faith.
Ecclesiastes 5:2, “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore, let your words be few.”
Analysis: This verse is more of a prayer instruction than anything. We must not take prayer with God lightly. Imagine yourself kneeling before a king when you pray – a king who has the power to exalt you or destroy you. Would you waste a king’s time by rambling on with many words or by bothering Him with frivolous requests? Why then should we talk to the King of the universe any differently?
Matthew 5:22, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”
Context: Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains that we are guilty of the sin of murder when we have hatred in our hearts.
Analysis: Have we finally found words that the Bible forbids us to utter? Interestingly, “fool” is not considered a bad word among American Christians. As for “raca,” I’ve been told that it’s the equivalent of the m-f word in our language, today. That’s probably why Bibles don’t translate it for us.
However, if it’s a sin to utter such harsh words, was Jesus a sinner by uttering them in the Sermon on the Mount? Not at all! Jesus’ point here is that we’re guilty of murder in our hearts even if all we can get away with is calling our enemy a name. It’s not the utterance of these words that counts as sin, it’s using these words, or any others, to insult and judge people whom we deem to be less righteous than ourselves.
Matthew 12:36-37, “And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned.”
Context: In verses 33-35, Jesus explains how good speech comes from good-hearted people and evil speech from evil-hearted people.
Analysis: Jesus uses the phrase, “every careless word,” to emphasize that everything we say is scrutinized by God. So we must monitor our speech. Some might interpret this verse as one that forbids bad words. But that interpretation is inconsistent with all of verses we’ve reviewed thus far which show God’s hatred for gossip, slander, lying, etc.
Matthew 15:17-20, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Mark 7:20-22, “And He was saying, ‘That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, murders, thefts, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.’”
Context: Jesus continues to explain why the Pharisees’ man-made, religious rule of eating with unwashed hands served no good purpose.
Analysis: Not all of these sins mentioned by Jesus are sins of speech. Only false witness and slander are. However, speech can be used to carry out the sins of adultery, fornication and pride. For example, men who are smooth, deceptive talkers are the ones who take advantage of women sexually. Also, slick speech is needed to accomplish both legal and illegal theft in the business world.
Ephesians 5:4, “…and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.”
Context: Paul educates the Ephesians on Christian living.
Analysis: We love to take general terms like “filthiness” and “silly talk” and define them as we see fit. Some of us insist that this verse forbids sexually-related humor. While most sexually-related humor is inappropriate because it promotes sin, I have heard some over the years that doesn’t. Humor that neither promotes sin nor abuses people is permissible.
Titus 2:6, 8, “Likewise, urge the young men to be sensible…sound in speech which is beyond reproach, in order that the opponent may be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us.”
Context: Paul instructs his understudy, Titus, on church management.
Analysis: Unfortunately, many Christians might limit their interpretation of this verse to the choice of good versus bad words, when, in reality, this verse opposes all of the sinful speech we’ve covered thus far. One reason sound speech is so important is that we must represent God in a manner that’s fitting, so that the world will experience God’s character through the words we say.
Colossians 3:8, “But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.”
Context: Paul instructs Christians to stop living as they did before knowing Christ and to conduct themselves as Christians should.
Analysis: Unfortunately, the NIV, which is considered by many to be a thought-by-thought translation rather than a word-by-word translation, translates the words “abusive speech” as “dirty language”, thus making this verse the one most commonly quoted as a command forbidding bad words. That’s a shame, because “abusive speech” covers a multitude of messages that harm others; whereas, “dirty language” implies that we must only refrain from several words that hurt no one.
The concept that we offend God by uttering a given word, even when no one is around to here it, is preposterous. No verse in the Bible states that any word offends God, nor does the Bible ever record God, Jesus, or any of the apostles being angry over someone’s use of a given word.
2 Timothy 2:14, 16, “Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless, and leads to the ruin of the hearers….But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness….”
Context: In Paul’s last letter, he gives Timothy advice on running the church.
Analysis: The instructions of the epistles (Paul’s letters to the first century churches) address church issues of which we are often unaware. We don’t know which words the Christians wrangled about or what kind of worldly and empty chatter they shared. All we can gather from this quote is that we should avoid saying things that lead “to the ruin of the hearers” or that “lead to further ungodliness.”
In examining every speech verse in the Bible, we’ve found no verses stating that the utterance of any given word is a sin, yet we’ve found numerous verses opposing lying, slander, gossip, and quarreling. God’s speech priorities throughout the Bible align with His purpose for the entire biblical law – that we love others as ourselves and abstain from hurting others. Lying, slander, gossip, and quarreling oppose love because they hurt people. They may do so by cheating people out of their money, costing them friendships, ruining their relationships, creating divisions in the church, plummeting people into depression, and even leading some to suicide. God wishes to spare us these sufferings, so He has promised His wrath to those who practice these sins of the tongue.
Despite God’s opposition to harmful speech, many Christians practice it, not only in private, but even in the church. In church I have heard pastors, Sunday school teachers, and congregation members slander celebrities, politicians and even Christians from other denominations. We Christians also gossip about opponents, quarrel with each other, and tell lies to support our viewpoints. Most amazing of all is that many Christians who witness these sins nod their heads in approval while nobody objects.
But if someone were to say in the presence of these very same Christians, “I got home last night to find that my dog shit on the floor,” all eyes would pierce the speaker while stunned, judgmental silence filled the room. Yet who does this statement hurt? Does it cause anyone to lose a friend, lose money, or fall into depression? It hurts no one and, therefore, in no way violates the purpose of the law, which is to protect others from the harmful effects of our selfishness.
Words don’t hurt people; messages do. When we use any word, whether it’s a bad word or not, to lie, slander, gossip, or quarrel, we hurt others and sin against God. When we avoid these sins in our speech, we are guiltless before God, even when we use a bad word in a harmless context as I have in this example.
The concept that it’s a sin to say a given word is bizarre. Words are merely tools used to convey messages. Yet we Christians today focus on the tools we use to speak rather than the biblical crime of saying things that hurt others. It’s the equivalent of sentencing someone to life in prison for shooting a gun, even if it’s used on a paper target, but then letting someone go free for committing murder with a knife, because the knife is an acceptable tool.
Like many man-made religious beliefs, the so-called sin of saying bad words is a measurable sin. You either say a bad word or you don’t; there’s no grey area. Lying, slander, gossip, and quarreling, on the other hand, are difficult to define. Lies appear to be true when we first hear them, and some lies contain some truth (like fish stories or deceptive arguments) that makes them difficult to label as lies. Slander is a little easier to define, but is often deemed necessary to present examples of evil to Christians so they can avoid sin themselves. As for gossip, it’s difficult to determine whether we’re gossiping or just sharing information about others. And quarreling may be the most difficult of all to define, as it’s hard to determine at what point a thought-provoking discussion over a theological issue becomes a quarrel. The fact that these sins of speech are hard to define leads us to downplay their importance, because they’re harder to eliminate from our speech than a few bad words.
Avoiding bad words is easy. All we have to do is use substitute words that mean the exact same thing. On the other hand, obeying God’s commands to steer clear of lying, slander, gossip, and quarreling is difficult. That’s one of the primary reasons that we Christians preach against saying bad words more than we preach against the biblical sins of speech.
The avoidance of saying bad words also serves as an excellent way to wear the Christian uniform. It’s a measurable change in behavior that new Christians can practice immediately after converting to the faith. It’s also an easy concept for children to grasp.
I’m not trying to say that we Christians should curse like rappers. Most bad words are words of frustration. We do not sin by being frustrated or by expressing frustration. But if we express continual frustration, we prove that we lack the contentment that Christians are called to have. Also, continual expressions of frustration and anger ruin other peoples’ good moods. Turning other peoples’ cheer into depression helps no one.
The main purpose of this chapter has not been to promote the use of bad words, but to alert Christians to our distortion of God’s biblical will regarding our speech. The church’s emphasis on avoiding the utterance of bad words has distracted us from God’s will. As a result, many Christians continue to oppress others with lying, slander, gossip, and quarreling while ignoring God’s repeated biblical attempts to eliminate such behavior.