Q: What is foul language? Is it always a sin to use it?
A: It was not that long ago when it was below the standards of primetime television to allow the use of a “four letter word.” Today those same words are heard with regularity. There is a saying that “what one generation tolerates, the next generation will accept.” There is much truth to this statement; however, that doesn’t always make what is accepted right.
St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
A sin is something that is contrary to the will of God. If we allow ourselves to conform to this age, we will be gravely hindered in the transformation of mind needed to discern the will of God.
In regard to our use of language, St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).
The will of God in regard to our use of language then seems pretty clear.
The key word of foul language is “foul.” Language becomes “foul” when it is used “out of play.” There are degrees in how far “out of play” it can be used.
Take our Lord’s name for instance. Our Lord’s name is the most beautiful and powerful word placed at our disposal. St. Paul reflected on the name of Jesus and how “God greatly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:911). In its proper use, there is no more perfect word.
However, this word is often used “out of play.”
There are degrees in how far “out of play” the use of His name can become. It is often used in vain; that is, without meaning (like the all too accepted “OMG” of this generation). It can also be used vulgarly or even as a curse. So there are degrees of severity in which His name is used “out of play.” Yet regardless of how foul it becomes, it is contrary to the will of God.
God’s will in regard to the use of His name is very clear: “You shall not invoke the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. For the Lord will not leave unpunished anyone who invokes His name in vain” (Dt. 5:11).
So do not be “conformed by this age,” but “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
We likewise have a few words that in their proper theological context have significant meaning. For example, we do believe and readily teach that there is a hell. We likewise hold that those who go to hell are damned. There could be no worse fate of a person than to be damned to hell.
In their proper use, these words are “good for needed edification.” Yet they, too, are often used “out of play.” They then become foul language.
Just like with the use of Our Lord’s name, there are degrees to how far “out of play” the use of these theological terms can be become. They are often used in vain (without meaning) and can be used vulgarly or as a curse. Yet regardless of how foul they become, it is contrary to the will of God. We are to let “no foul language come out of [our] mouths.” This would obviously include those words that by their very nature are vulgar, crude and obscene.
In short, I remember talking to my spiritual director in the seminary about the use of foul language. He simply asked me; “Do you respect people when they make use of that language?” I knew my answer. Then he instructed me to choose to express myself in a respectable manner.
There is another translation of that passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that is a fitting close to this article as it expresses the Lord’s will for our use of language in a beautiful way: “Say only the good things men need to hear, things that will really help them. Do nothing that will sadden the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:29).
Sattler is pastor of the Church of St. Anne in Bismarck. If you have a question you were afraid to ask, now is the time to ask it! Simply email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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