What is a Profanity?
Because of who he is and what he has done for us, the names of our Lord and Saviour are treasured and precious to us. It is distressing when others do not trust in him and when along with their rejection of him they desecrate the holy names of the Lord of all. God, Jesus, Jesus Christ and Christ are hurled about carelessly, irreverently and coarsely in exclamations of abuse, anger, annoyance, surprise and astonishment. There is no thought given for the honour of our triune God, no regard for his position as our Lord and Creator, no acknowledgement of his role as our Saviour, no invocation of his names for a solemn and pure purpose. While these misuses of the divine names have been continually with us, in the past they have been largely limited to informal conversations. Today they find their way into novels, plays, radio, television, and even interviews and informal talks. They filch from God the honour and glory due to him. Rather than singing his praises to the nations, they cast his name down into filth.
In a similar vein is the use of hell and heavens (above) in exclamations of annoyance and frustration. Their use reveals an indifference to the true spiritual import of the words and their constant repetition blunts our sensitivity to the horror of hell and the beauty of heaven.
Concealed or Minced Oaths
In earlier centuries people could be fined if they were heard uttering profanities like these. But instead of abandoning these impious practices, people, with the typical perverseness of human beings, merely set their skills to contriving concealed or hidden versions of the divine names to circumvent laws and prohibitions. We were endowed with the stupendous gift of language and what we do is distort it to obscenities. And so developed:
gosh, golly, (and more remotely) for heaven’s sake for God cripes, jeepers, gee, gee-whiz, jees for Jesus and Christ.
Similar claims have been made for crikey that it originated as a concealed and euphemistic form of ‘Christ’, although this is not so certain as the Oxford English Dictionary can record only that ‘it was perhaps one of the alliterative or assonant substitutes for sacred names’.
In the same category we can include:
heck for hell
darn for damn.
These evasions or euphemisms have often been called “minced” oaths, that is, oaths in a milder or more polite form (from mince ‘express oneself politely or delicately, moderate one’s words’). Despite their objective in trying to make our speech less offensive, to an extent minced oaths are even more reprehensible than the open form of the profanities: there is a certain hypocrisy about them, a simpering dodging of truth. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
However, we must exercise caution and be rigorously fair in this matter. With the passing of time many in the community are no longer aware of the histories or supposed histories of some of these minced oaths, just as they have forgotten – or never knew – the background of other words, for example breakfast, happy, Thursday. Words do change in their meanings and connotations even in the lifetime of a person. Think for example of what has happened to gay! Consequently the use today by some people of what were originally minced oaths can only be registered as neutral exclamations of surprise or amazement, and the terms in their practice take their place alongside other inoffensive and acceptable items such as wow, amazing, (good) shot.
What’s the Problem with Them?
Obviously, using sacred names in profane oaths dishonours and demeans God. It is taking the Lord’s name in vain: a breach of the second commandment.
But the utterance of the oath itself – especially an oath that expresses anger with someone else or annoyance at the failure of equipment, etc – compounds the sin. There is a degree of self-pitying: a selfish cry of “Why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve such trials.” The oath intimates a refusal to acknowledge sin and our role in causing the upheaval and disarray in the world today. God made the world “very good” (Genesis 1:31). That it lost its pristine state came about because we sought to depose God, to be gods ourselves. As a result God decreed in his holy wisdom:
Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life … It will produce thorns and thistles for you.Genesis 3:17-18
When things go wrong in day-to-day affairs, rather than being outraged we might humbly reflect on our role in the disarray. It is time to recall our sins and to praise God for his forgiveness and the salvation he has provided for us in Christ. That we curse and swear shows the need for reminders from God.
Profanities are also a misuse of language. They do not add real meaning; they only allow us to rant and rave. They certainly do not edify. Yet God wants us to use words to enlighten, lift up, comfort and strengthen. Our language, just as our thoughts, is to be true, noble and pure.
Continued use of profanities can lead us in the end to thinking lightly of God. If we scatter the divine names around loosely and without care, can we say that we love God, that we hold him in reverence and awe?
Today there is a special sadness about profanities. So many who use God and Christ in all kinds of exclamations do not acknowledge the Lord at all. They reject God and despise him. Some would even be hard put to say who Jesus really was. The Lord of glory has been reduced to an empty oath. How Satan has blinded the minds of people! How tragic is their situation, how comprehensive is their bondage to sin! What an irony that in the very act of uttering God’s name they are displaying contempt for him.
Where Do We Fit in?
If we are Christians devoted to our Lord, we can only be dismayed that members in our community are discounting him so crassly. And we can only feel distressed at their spiritual condition. But we must also ask ourselves how far we have contributed to their darkness. Has our witness to the Gospel been so clear and winsome to help and enlighten them? Do our words and lives cause them to pause – and then to think of their Creator and Saviour? Could God require their blood at our hands?
We need to be on guard as well about our own language practice. We hear so often these open and concealed profanities that our speech can become contaminated with them. We start adopting these expressions unconsciously and end up giving way to oaths unnecessarily. The atmosphere around us can be insidious and demands great alertness on our part. We do well to follow the instruction of our Lord and let our ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and our ‘no’, ‘no’ (Matthew 5:37).
An Opportunity for Witness
By the same token profanities on the lips of others do give us opportunities to witness to our Lord. The matter needs to be handled prudently and sensitively. A direct accusation against a person of the sin of profanity may not be the reasonable and wise approach.
But a polite request that they should not misuse God’s names in our presence, coupled with an appropriate explanation of what Christ has done for us and hence why his name is precious, may come as a surprise to some. They may have never had anyone speak to them lovingly of Christ or know of his saving work. They may be led immediately to seek further information, or later on return to take up the subject with us of who he is.
This is not to diminish, play down or disregard the seriousness of profanity in God’s sight. But today many have to hear and learn about our Lord and Saviour –and even his existence – first before they can appreciate that profanities are wrong. Faith comes by hearing; and good speech comes through believing.
And always we need to be striving to keep a close control over our own behaviour and language practices. Our speech and conduct must bring glory to our Lord and testify to what he has done for us and is doing in us.