An Empty Swear Jar Doesn’t Make You Holy
Neil Armstrong was a man that, from all accounts, counted his words. He did not speak the first thing that came to his mind. His speech was measured, calculated, and cool. He was the antithesis in some respects of the brasher and outspoken, Buzz Aldrin. In a program of cutthroat ambition, Neil Armstrong was known as a man who flew above the water cooler gossip.
All my life, I have been fascinated by Neil Armstrong. One of my great uncles was a career airforce pilot who knew Neil and I’m sure some of the other Gemini and Apollo guys from Edwards and various postings. I have devoured any history I could find on the subject and have tried to emulate some of the characteristics that allowed a handful of men to reach the dizzying heights of space exploration and survive to tell about it.
Neil’s careful and measured speech is something that I have wanted to emulate for years. To not speak my mind, but to carefully sort through my words before “opening that file drawer”. This is admirable, even Biblical. The tongue is a veritable Pandora’s box to unleash on the world around us. I don’t know of anything else that has the same capacity to build and destroy simultaneously.
But, measured speech does not translate or equate to wholesome speech. There is a higher standard here than just being calculated and thinking before speaking. I can be calculated in my speech and cut you down with precision.
A while back, Ezra and I were discussing some blog ideas and he mentioned the idea of discussing whether or not a Christian should swear. I started researching, asking friends that come from different church backgrounds and I received a plethora of responses. I did notice that the absolute prohibition of swearing is more prevalent in the east coast where I spent high school and college than it is in the churches in the northwest where I live now.
The topic was equally fascinating to me because I have grown up in so many different cultures and I speak parts of multiple languages and am fluent in two. There are words in my wife’s language that are considered swearing that have no meaning or translation in English. They have no meaning or place in my linguistic Rolodex. If it has no meaning is it harmless? This “cultural” aspect of the arguments is fascinating to me.
One problem I see with only using a legalistic thought filter is that we can have a “black and white” prohibition of a culturally established vocabulary list and we miss the greater point. There is a higher standard here that I think we as followers of Christ are called to. It is a standard that I noticed for the first time, about a week ago, in Ephesians 4:29.
Maybe I draw the line at calling you a &%$#^$&, but I cut my wife down with a snide or condescending remark, or I constantly use negative input when dealing with my children. I condescend with “pure” speech. To avoid the “four-letter word” is simple and requires very little thought renewal (see Romans 2). To have the mind of Christ and to edify or give grace whenever we speak to people (particularly speaking into the lives of those closest to us that we can often take for granted) takes the renewing of our mind and bending our thoughts and speech to God’s will.
Is it wrong to swear? The nuances of culture, history, and language have been debated by far greater minds than my own. I suppose we could go down the rabbit hole of cultural shifts, the evolution of language, and references to Paul possibly comparing his righteousness to a pile of s**t. But I don’t believe the yardstick should be a predetermined list of vocabulary as set forth by your local religious synod or culture, but rather as we conform to the mind of Christ, we need to ask ourselves a simple question: “Does this provide or give grace to those I am speaking to? Are my words drawing them closer to Christ?”
I believe if we start looking at our words through this lens, we will see the mind of Christ and not another list of laws. I believe we will also see (as is almost always the case) that the standard is much higher and simpler, and more difficult for us to follow. Wholesome speech is not possible through a George Washington-esque “rules for living” program. It takes spiritual renewal and true heart change and the renewing of our mind.