I play a few games of pickup basketball every week at the YMCA (now politically corrected to simply, ‘The Y’) next to
my place of employment. As you might imagine, a bunch of guys playing pickup games can get a little rough at times, as well as a little foul. No, I’m not talking about body odor. I’m referring to the language. Competition has a way of drawing it out of even the most unassuming individual like nothing else. But at the Y, there’s one thing that sets the court apart from most others you may have seen, or from your typical outdoor court at your local park. The following verse is placed above the doorway walking into the gym…
“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”
I will say that, for the most part, the guys I play with generally keep to this principle. We still have disagreements about who that ball went out on, and whether that was a foul. But there is a reason that scripture was placed above the doorways into the basketball court. Whether complaints arose, or its reputation preceded it, the basketball court is commonplace for not so edifying language. Even at a “Christian” based establishment like The Y.
Language is admittedly a pretty subjective thing. What is a curse word in one language or culture might be harmless and common in another. Take the word “bloody”. In England it’s a mild profanity. Something they wouldn’t necessarily want their children saying, but used regularly among adults, especially when emotions run high. In the U.S., that word is nothing more than a physical description. We would no sooner use the word “bloody” to convey our feelings than we would the word “squishy”. But does the subjective nature of cursing mean it is something we should be soft on in view of our Christian conduct? I think not, and here’s why.
Take another look at Ephesians 4:29, and notice with me a few key words that are quite clear in their meaning, no matter what language you speak. Using the Greek definitions here, we have:
• Unwholesome: corrupted, rotten, unfit for use, worthless
• Edification: the act of one promoting Christian wisdom, piety, happiness and holiness
• Grace: that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm and loveliness
We all know, within our language and culture, what words are unwholesome, what words edify, and what words give grace. If you’re having trouble distinguishing where your own speech might fall in respect to those descriptions, you’re probably making a lot of relativist arguments in favor of how you talk around your friends, or the laissez-faire attitude many around you have regarding your language. That’s fine. You can make yourself comfortable with those excuses for the rest of your life. But correct me if I’m wrong, last I read I thought we were supposed to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” and not be “conformed to this world”. (Rom. 12:2).
The “world” doesn’t consider their language in light of whether it edifies or gives grace. The “wholesomeness” of their words is secondary to whether those words convey an immediate emotion, usually that of anger or carelessness. As Christians, we are called to move away from this type of attitude. It may be the case that we used to curse like a sailor and only censor ourselves depending on the present company. But part of putting on the “new self” (Eph. 4:24) is “renewing the spirit of your mind” (Eph. 4:23). We watch our language now at all times, not just in certain company. We seek to edify, which necessitates the promotion of Christian characteristics like piety and holiness. Our language gives grace: it is charming and sweet, we are a delight to speak to.
Cursing accomplishes none of the above. It doesn’t edify. It doesn’t “lift up” the one to whom you’re speaking and encourage them to something better. It only further enrages and reinforces whatever negative emotion the word inherently conveys. It isn’t graceful, it’s not charming, and contrary to the one using such language, it isn’t a delight to hear.
A friend recently defined modesty to me as a “moral absolute that is culturally relative”. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that as it pertains to modesty, but I think that’s pretty accurate regarding our language. Whether it be the “F-word” in American English, or the “K-word” in Japanese, cursing is squarely within that category of “unwholesome words” that should not be leaving our mouths. One final verse to consider…
“It is not what enters into the mouth which defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”