Content Warning: This article contains profanity—not to be offensive, but for the purposes of self-reflection and understanding.
You slice your finger chopping onions. Dammit!
Your sister reveals her husband is cheating on her. That bastard!
Someone cuts you off in traffic, nearly causing an accident. What the hell?!?
You’re watching a political debate and can’t help but roll your eyes. Bullsh*t.
Your kids make you late for church. Again. Crap.
You look out your window and see your neighbors’ house is on fire. Holy sh*t!
Sometimes we only think the words. Maybe they slip in under our breath. Perhaps we shoot from the hip in an argument, or worse, aim with deliberate calculation. Whether it’s a moment of shock or sudden pain, the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or some ordeal that’s just begging for a curse; whether the words come out hot or cold, accidentally or intentionally, for the dumbest of reasons or for the most grave and wretched of reasons—even though we know we’re not supposed to—we swear.
What does swearing even mean, however? Why do we do it? Is it ever okay for Christians to swear? And how (aside from Ralphie’s gag-inducing soap) can we, a people of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5), make the words of our mouths pleasing to God (Psalm 19:14)?
The Sacred and the Profane
According to Jonathan Pageau, the public world that is reasonable, coherent, and communal can accommodate only certain kinds of realities if we’re going to function properly together as social beings. Both the sacred and the scandalous need to be set apart from our everyday interactions, Pageau says: one is “too high” for common life and the other is “too low.” Traditional societies placed both the holy and the taboo out of bounds.
The ceremonial law and the ritual purity laws were given to the Hebrews by God so that they could “distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10). The sacred was circumscribed for the sake of worship, safety, and solidarity: its elevated specialness bound people together and acted as a source of unity. All Christians still do this today to varying degrees. We set people apart through baptism, and we take communion as a source of unity; we set certain spaces apart (the church sanctuary) as well as certain days (like Christmas and Easter). The more liturgical your tradition, the more committed it is to embodying these distinctions.
So goes the sacred, but what about the unmentionables? People exclude the scandalous or the “unclean” from public life because certain acts which are licit in private become shameful when observed: their visibility triggers social breakdown. That which reminds us of our all-too-animal bodies retains its permissibility through privacy. What happens in the bedroom and the bathroom is necessarily a secret—not morally wrong, of course, just veiled.
We still set apart the sacred in our secular democracy today, but we don’t do it for the same reasons that traditional societies did. The high and the holy, which we can no longer agree on in our pluralistic society, are treated less with reverence than with embarrassment. Today, being religious in public is more like the scandal of nudity than the holy source of our unity. (Apparently it’s better that nothing be considered holy than that we fight over it.) If someone implies that you should “save it for Sunday” or talks about the separation of church and state, they’re saying, roughly, “Get a room—that’s private.” Public faith is indecent exposure.
Even though our culture pretends as if nothing were holy anymore, we still speak as if certain things were holy. We show our hand through swearing. Profanity implies that there’s something there to be profaned. To act or speak in a profane manner is to do one of two things (or perhaps both at once): to drag the sacred down into the everyday and treat it as nothing special and/or to dredge up the scandalous from its secret place and expose it to the world. Strip clubs, drag shows, porn, exhibitionism, graffiti, vandalism, and urinating on the sidewalk do physically what swear words do verbally, and they all contribute to social disintegration. The majority of our swear words follow this pattern of either dethroning the holy or laying bare our bodily functions. Sometimes we slap both together, as in the classic “holy sh*t.”
The second commandment forbids us to use the name of God—His gift of self-disclosure—in a trivial or disrespectful way (Exodus 20:7), and yet it’s common in our society to take the Lord’s name in vain. Catholic cultures have a broader repertoire of sacrilegious swears beyond the Lord’s name: the worst French Canadian obscenities involve liturgical objects used in the Mass. In my public high school in the ‘90s, profanity of the lower sort prevailed: not a day went by that I didn’t hear somebody say “f**k that sh*t,” the most offensive combination of the joint taboos of excrement and sex.
The Way We Use Words
We use our day-to-day language like we use tools in a toolbox, selecting the right ones for the job at hand. Not all words do the same thing: language can both describe and decree. Some speech may merely name a reality that we are witnesses to (“What a lovely sunset.”) while other “speech acts” make things happen (“I now pronounce you man and wife” or “You’re fired!”).
Profanity falls along these lines too: whether it’s the cuss that slips out after a stubbed toe or the tear-soaked swear aimed at a devastating loss, both describe something that ought-not-to-be intruding into your world. I have heard people shattered by sexual abuse or sexual betrayal utter profane words simply as a reflection of the reality of having been profaned by another person. There are times when, to properly name evil as evil, only the worst of words will do.
But the swear as “speech act”—the personal invective or abusive ad hominem—is much more of a curse, in the Old Testament sense. It’s less about naming reality than decreeing someone excommunicated from well-being (as in “Damn you!” or “Go to hell!). One swear acknowledges the intrusion of harm from the outside into your ordered world; the other swear is an act intended to thrust someone else outside of the light and into the darkness. The same word might be used, but the harm is flowing in opposite directions. We swear when we’ve been hurt; we swear when we want someone else to hurt too.
The Case for Cussing
It makes all the difference whether you’re hurling a swear at someone or whether a swear is spoken as a descriptor of what life has just hurled at you. In the latter case, a too-quick turn to platitudes about Providence and God working all things together for good does little but provide cover for chaos and tragedy, tucking them neatly out of sight so that our theological systems of meaning can carry on without a hitch. What a well-timed, honest swear can mean in such moments is a refusal to pretend or engage in false pieties—a brave and Job-like lamentation that will not let God off the hook too easily for the horrors of existence. (After all, He created this world ex nihilo, and He didn’t have to.) God didn’t punish Job for saying this isn’t my fault—it’s Yours.
God has wronged me and drawn his net around me. Though I cry, “Violence!” I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice… He tears me down on every side till I am gone; he uproots my hope like a tree… My skin and flesh cling to my bones; I have escaped only by the skin of my teeth… the hand of God has struck me. (Job 19:6-7, 10, 20, 21b).
Sometimes that “Can I get a witness?!” sort of profanity precedes prayer like a preamble, a form of “vertical kvetching,” Peter Kreeft says, like we see in the Psalms. (Job’s words above are the prelude to his more famous and faithful, “I know that my Redeemer lives.”) Such complaints don’t have to include swears, but they commonly do.
Years ago, a dear friend of mine was hospitalized with a cancerous tumor. With her dark sense of humor and justifiable anger, she named her tumor “that f***ing b*tch,” which struck me as both accurate and appropriate. If there is any aspect of reality that calls for such a curse, it’s the self-destructive enigma of cancer attacking a young person whose life is saturated with love and prayer. Of course she prayed way more than she swore, but I learned something from her that day about the value of calling things what they are. When my friend gathered up all the pieces of her life to present before the LORD in her cries for help, she brought that f***ing b*tch with her.
He Became a Curse for Us
Believe it or not, but swearing actually leads us to the heart of the Gospel, and to a great mystery. The God of all Holiness—He who is Goodness, Love, and Beauty as such—in becoming man and dying for us on the cross, became profane. The Highest descended to the depths of hell; the Center of Reality went to the outer edges of darkness and became shameful, became nothing. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13).
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ metabolizes and redeems all of reality, even its darkest and dirtiest parts. In becoming a curse word Himself out of love for us, He inverts and transforms the profane into the holy. He is both the pure offering for sin and sin itself at the same time—both the spotless Passover lamb and the sin-covered scapegoat sent outside the camp.
“For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He who appeared scandalous to the Jews (σκάνδαλον/skandalon—“A stone that causes people to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall”) was vindicated as the “chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:4-10). He became a malediction, a curse word, to transform us into a benediction, a good word. This is why Christians honor the cross—an instrument of shame, torture, and execution—as their holiest symbol.
Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always
If you struggle with swearing when you know you shouldn’t, perhaps the first step isn’t also the last. (“STOP IT!” as Bob Newhart would say.) Perhaps the first step is to simply connect the scandal of your speech to the cross of Christ: He became a curse that I might bless and be blessed. He became profane that I might become holy.
If you’re going to swear, let your profanity mean something. That might be the first step towards realizing you don’t need it nearly as often as you thought. The first time I watched Good Will Hunting as a teen, I was shocked by the f-bombs being dropped continuously, ubiquitously, the way other people use “like” and “uh” as pure filler. It bothered me at the time, but I get it now: their speech was profane because something about their lives and situation felt profane: worthless, trapped, pointless, stuck—a life that didn’t mean much and that wasn’t going to get any better. A person whose life is saturated in profanity doesn’t need cleaner speech so much as they need hope for a meaningful life.
There is theological import behind our choice to swear or not to swear, behind the habit to let it fly freely (like the hopeless boys of Boston in Good Will Hunting) or to refuse to ever swear at all—if it’s a desperate defense against recognizing a tragedy that doesn’t fit into some grand design.
If the choices over swearing are Never, Rarely, Sometimes, or Always, I’d go with “rarely,” only because Christ Himself became a scandal for me. The cross, after all, is a swear. It’s always some kind of suffering that provokes profanity from me, suffering which I need His company in the midst of and His help to handle. It’s better to take that f***ing b*tch to Him in desperation than to feign that life is all rainbows, butterflies, and #blessings. Swearing as a rare, honest, profane “preamble” to prayer sounds, well, human. There may be a better way, but I don’t know it.
“Behold, This Has Touched Your Lips”
When the prophet Isaiah had a vision of the Lord sitting on His throne, high and lifted up, when he heard the angels crying “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” he was undone.
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:5-7).
The early church fathers saw in this passage the mystery of the Eucharist. St. Cyril of Alexandria (5th century) saw the burning coal as “clearly a symbol of Christ, who, on our behalf, offered himself up to God the Father as a pure and unblemished spiritual sacrifice with a most pleasing fragrance. In the same way, Christ is received from the altar.” St. John of Damascus (8th century) exhorted, “[L]et us receive the body of the Crucified One. With eyes, lips, and faces turned toward it, let us receive the divine burning coal, so that the fire of the coal may be added to the desire within us to consume our sins and enlighten our hearts, and so that by this communion of the divine fire we may be set afire and deified.”
Even today in Orthodox churches, communion is administered with a holy spoon that symbolizes the tongs from Isaiah’s vision. (Think of all the meaning we miss—all the sacredness we make ordinary—by using those little plastic cups for convenience!)
Jesus said it was those things that come out of our mouths that defile us, for what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart (Matthew 15:11-20). And yet, it is what comes into our mouths, what touches our lips—the body and blood of Christ—that takes away our guilt and atones for our sins, that burns away our shame and turns despair into joyful obedience, as we feed on Christ by faith. Unlike Ralphie, we don’t need Lux or Palmolive to wash our unclean lips. God provides for His people:
Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body, which will be given up for you.
Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me. (Eucharistic Prayer)
Perhaps the next time you participate in communion, remember Isaiah’s honest confession and God’s response with the burning coal. When the Most Holy touches the profane in this way, He isn’t infected—we are cleansed, like the leper who couldn’t contaminate Christ but was rather healed by His touch. The meeting of the Sacred and the profane can look like a swear word, but it can also look like our salvation.