To Curse or Not to Curse, that is the question. Analyzing the usage of “God” and cursing in our conversation

This paper will intend to deal in an inconclusive manner with the question of the use of “God” and general “cursing”[1] in the life of the Christian. Though it is foreseeable that some will disagree, nevertheless it should help to bring the issue to the forefront. Of course, this is not the last word, nor would I want it to be. I will be constantly revising this article in the days and months ahead in order to come to a more reasonably presented position.

The Use of God’s Name

Having experienced a good portion of my life in South America, I understand some of the crucial cultural differences. Brazilians, for example, tend to be laid back and very comfortable with their way of life. Americans, on the other hand, tend to be generally unsatisfied with their lives and are always looking for some form of improvement. Whether their homes, cars, or any other gadgets, they seem never to be satisfied.[2] Another interesting difference relates to the language they use in communicating with one another. Brazilians are not satisfied with a “How Are You?” type of dialogue. They are curious about your well being to the point of annoyance at times. They are by nature very curious, so they may have other motives for wanting to know how you are. On the other hand, Americans tend to be individualistic and concerned primarily with themselves and if necessary with the needs of those closest to them.[3] I remember in college as the multitudes rushed to get to the cafeteria for lunch and there I was taking my God-given time to the cafeteria while my peers literally sprinted to get to the front of the line. They would glimpse at me and ask how I was doing and before I could even answer they were beyond capacity of hearing my response.

In Brazil, it is very common to express frustration out loud, whereas Americans tend to be more reserved and keep emotions to themselves. It is always amusing to meet a second generation American from Greece or South America; they express themselves loudly just like their first generation parents.[4] As a personal illustration, it was common to hear my godly mother say: “O My God, we need to get these checks sent out today.” To which my dad would respond: “Oh, Lord, I better send them out now before I forget about it.” In case you’re wondering, my parents were devout Christians and beyond that they were ardent fundamentalists who didn’t drink, smoke or danced. In fundamentalism, anything that has any remote connection with evil associations (Hollywood, bars, etc.) is forbidden. Nevertheless, the use of “God” or “Lord” in daily conversation was never an issue of church discipline in church meetings. As far as I am concerned when my mom used the name “God” outside of distinctly “religious” conversation[5] she never meant it with disrespect nor did she mean that God was guilty for whatever happened. It was just shorthand for expressing her fears or dismay at a particular situation. I noted a few distinctly cultural differences in the beginning not for the sake of defending one over the other, but to point out that cultures express themselves differently. We find this even in Biblical examples where after the death of a loved one, some wept bitterly for days, while others tore their clothes in grief. Some cultures are superior to others, but perhaps we can learn something from those that are not as Biblically literate or intellectually oriented. Christians ought to be more concerned about those who call themselves Christian but are far from it (Matthew 7:21-24).[6] Those who call him Lord, but betray his very name in service.

But isn’t that a direct abuse of the third commandment which says that: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain”?[7] Not at all! I think that we ought to be very careful about criticizing certain people for saying things that are common to them. The danger is that in the process of accusing someone’s motives, we may be breaking the ninth commandment.

I remember having a speaker come to our church one time wearing interesting attire to preach. In my estimation, he should have been wearing a suit and tie, and I was clueless as to why he would should such an outfit. I was literally enraged at this pastor’s lack of reverence. After the service was over I politely sought him to thank him for his ministry to our congregation. Suddenly, I heard him speak to an older gentleman and the older gentleman replied: “I wore one just like that when I was in Africa. It is the most expensive suit I had when I was there.” At the moment it occurred to me that the pastor was wearing a common Kenyan suit that pastors wear on their Sunday worship. I felt ashamed; he was actually wearing the best they had to offer.

The common misconception of American evangelicals is that the utterance of the word “God” in any sentence that does not have to do with a particular theological doctrine is therefore wrong. What leads them to think in this manner? First, there are certain background preconceptions about the word “God.” Some believe the word “God” to be some sort of magical word that brings blessings when uttered in a proper conversation and curses when used randomly. This may be so with the unbeliever who disgraces the name of God at every moment by living as if His name did not rule His life. Secondly, some Christians treat the English equivalent of “Elohim” or “Yahweh” as if that were His real name. The Jews feared speaking even the name for fear of irreverence, but the Old Testament saints knew that God was not the far away God of the foreign nations, but a personal God. In this sense, God was theirs, just as they were God’s. They could call upon Him when they desired and they could be righteously angry with God when they could not understand their circumstances. God’s Name is comprehensive and covers the entire world, but the utterance of that name is reserved without curses to God’s people alone.[8] Thirdly, Americans in general have learned to impose their pietistic and fundamentalist[9] ways upon Sacred Scriptures. Some have said that drinking, dancing and smoking are clearly opposed to Christianity because it leads to such and such and is a bad witness to the world. But since when is Christianity’s orthopraxis dependent upon the world’s impression of our lives? Christianity frames the way the world lives, not vice-versa. Adding to the Word is also a condemnable heresy (Deut. 4:2, Rev. 22:18).

The Use of “Cursing” and brief commentary on the Third Commandment

But what is the “Name?” Doesn’t it particularly involve a spoken word? Certainly, but it isn’t the exact meaning of it. John Frame summarizes thus:

We usually think of the commandment as a commandment about language, about what we may say and how we should say it. Certainly that is an important part of our obligation, since “name,” literally and narrowly understood, is a piece of language. But the verb here is not amar or dibber, one of the common Hebrew words translated “speak.” Rather it is nasa’, a term usually translated “lift up, bear, carry.

The idea focuses on bearing God’s name. Nowhere will you find in any of the case laws (which, are detailed expositions and applications of the moral law) someone condemned for using “God” in a conversation where amusement was expressed. It just isn’t the intent of the commandment. To make this the intent of the commandment is to rob the third commandment of its actual meaning. We should be cautious of assuming a command says something that is not explicated elsewhere in the text. For instance, Thou Shalt Not Steal[10] refers in a narrow sense to the idea of taking something from someone else. But taking material things is not the only intent of this command, for we see in II Samuel 15:6 that Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel. The broad meaning of this command is found in the Scriptures to mean that one can break the eighth commandment by stealing the affection of someone else. In the same manner, to assume that the third commandment disallows the use of God’s name in a conversation is absurd. Where is this idea found anywhere in the text?

What about cursing? Cursing always has a different meaning at a different place. If a man should curse without the intention of belittling my family or me, I would feel perfectly comfortable with him; but if he cursed my wife I would probably feel a serious tension at that moment. John Frame tells the story of his early days in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church[11] in the following words:

There are other subcultures in which these terms are understood differently. When I left my boyhood church and joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, I discovered a very different subculture, a subculture in which the etymologies of “gosh,” etc. were taken very seriously. In that subculture, the meanings of these terms were different. And, wishing to maintain fellowship with these brothers and sisters, I soon eliminated these terms from my vocabulary. In matters of language and vocabulary, we should certainly be as Jews among the Jews and as Gentiles among the Gentiles (I Cor. 9).[12]

This respect helps to analyze this concept on a broader level. The idea of respect for others who are more sensitive plays a major role when discussing this issue. For the record, cursing is not appropriate in all situations. This is where wisdom plays a crucial role. It is almost equivalent to the common frustration of some (particularly in Reformed circles, though not restricted to it) who finds alcoholic beverages to be a great compliment to a meal or a great drink for a social event. When they have a family member in their home that holds to a different idea of how Christian liberty ought to be exercised, it is at most times wise to refrain from drinking. Though, I would argue at times that it is perfectly legitimate to attempt to teach those who are weaker. Sometimes a bottle of wine on the table can be lead to a helpful conversation.

The Third Commandment condemns false swearing or false cursing. Rushdoony writes that it is “taking the name of the Lord in vain, or “profanely” (Berkeley Version) that is forbidden. Clearly, not all swearing or cursing is forbidden.”[13] The term “profanity” means literally something that is “outside the temple.” So in this sense any speech, actions or living that betrays the God of the temple is blasphemous. Furthermore, even polite language, which does not recognize His Lordship over all of life is a breaking of the third commandment.

Throughout history various terms that were once used for common everyday language are now used for sensual or sexual intent. One obvious example of this is the word “gay.” The New American Handy College Dictionary defines “gay” as 1) high-spirited; merry 2) bright; colorful; showy. 3) dissipated; loose 4) homosexual. Now definitions 1-3 seemed very common 40 years ago, but “gay” is exclusively used as the fourth definition. Language has certainly gone through change.  Rousas Rushdoony in his famous exposition of the Ten Commandments has this interesting analysis of swearing:

If swearing and worship are so closely related, and if trifling and false usage of the Lord’s “name,” His wisdom, power, justice, truth, mercy, and righteousness constitutes blasphemy, then we must count most preaching of our day to be thoroughly blasphemous. It is amusing to note that some clergymen regard the expression, originally English, ” I don’t care a dam,” in America, usually “not worth a dam” as profanity, but they fail to see how profane much of their preaching is. This expression, ” I don’t care a dam,” came from India through the Duke of Wellington. The dam is the Indian coin of least value; the expression is thus related to, “not worth a sou,” i.e., the lowest of French coins, now long since gone. Thus, “I don’t care a dam” means “I couldn’t care less.[14]

So what are we to say? If my theses is correct, the third commandment has nothing to say concerning cursing as an ordinary day-to-day manner of expressing frustration, worry, anxiety, relief, concern, etc. Rather it has the idea of directly attacking the character of God in action and word. The great blasphemers of history are certainly aware of this now. If a committed Christian happens to use the word God in normal day-to-day conversation, one can be certain that he is not taking His name in vain. However, if he uses God in the context of sexual innuendo and other unacceptable practices, then it is our duty to rebuke our brother. [15]

I recall watching the late Professor Greg Bahnsen debate a Jewish atheist named Eddie Tabash. In the debate, Bahnsen’s opponent blasphemed the God of Scripture from beginning to end. Indeed, the fool says in his heart there is no god. I will never forget Tabash’s confrontational tone. At one point he uttered, “That if there is a God let him come down right now and show Himself!” When Professor Bahnsen stood up to give his response he simply said: “Well, Mr. Tabash ought to feel very fortunate that God did not reveal himself, because if He did it would be in judgment.” Indeed God will not hold the Tabash’s of this world guiltless.

[1] Cursing here is not synonymous with Biblical cursing as found in Scriptures. Biblical cursing is condemnatory and in some cases worthy of death. It entails a high degree of disappointment, public rebellion, and so on. Keep that in mind in the reading of this paper.

[2] Thankfully, my experiences with the Christian community here in the US in the last 10 years have been overwhelmingly positive.

[3] I realize these tend to be generalizations, but I am speaking from personal experience. Bear with me.

[4] In their case, their families were highly motivated to maintain a certain level of pride in their heritage.

[5] It would probably be appropriate to argue as Van Til did that nothing is irreligious. However, for the sake of communication I am going to distinguish religious conversation from non-religious conversation like politics, sports, family and so on.

[6] A modern example of this is found in Word of Faith healing services, where so-called pastors use God’s name for their own profit. This is blasphemous and a breaking of the third commandment.

[7] Exodus 20:7.

[8] Lest I be misunderstood (which, will probably be the outcome of this article), God’s people are cursed at times, but never for mentioning His name in a conversation. It is the unrighteous use of His name that is considered sinful.

[9] These two movements are reactionary movements. They, in some sense arose out of frustration to the liberal attacks on the Bible, and as a result they separated themselves from society at large and embraced a holy life, a life fully committed to God, and as a result they abandoned the Cultural Mandate and turned extra-Biblical regulations into commands. This is a dangerous reaction and we are seeing the result of that retreat decades later.

[10] The Eighth Commandment.

[11] A small Reformed denomination.

[12] Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Christian Life, pg. 118.

[13] Rushdoony, R. John. The Institutes of Biblical Law, pg. 107.

[14] Rushdoony, pg. 117.

[15] Galatians 6:1.

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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14 Responses to To Curse or Not to Curse, that is the question. Analyzing the usage of “God” and cursing in our conversation

  1. Pingback: To Curse or not to Curse…follow-up comments. « Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

  2. Jonathan says:

    Good post Uri, I will have to think about it. If I recall accurately, Bahnsen said some people were “asses” in that debate.

  3. apologus says:

    HAHA…John, I remember distinctly hearing from ne of the CCC guys who heard the debate in Capshaw’s class how offended they were when Bahnsen said that. I frankly think it gave more support to his argument to acknowledge that indeed some Christians are asses. If he has said some christians are “hard to get along with” it would not have caused such an impression.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Well, after thinking about it briefly here are a few of my thoughts off the top of my head:

    1. Even if “do not take God’s name in vain” doesn’t pertain specifically to using God’s name superfluously in our speech one may want to argue that God’s name should never be used superfluously on other grounds (i.e. His holiness).

    2. You point out that “God” is not really God’s revealed name to the Hebrews. While this is true, one may want to point out that language is for the most part a convention and what makes a word “good” or “bad” is the concept which the word denotes. There is nothing inherently holy about the letters g-o-d but it is the idea we are expressing through them.

    2b. This same line of thought can be taken to other “curse” words. While the Bible may not explicitly command us not to curse we are to have a specific spirit about us. Our words can be expressions of our attitudes, thoughts, perspectives etc… The Christian should not have certain attitudes but perhaps he shouldn’t express certain attitudes either.

    3. You already touched on this but… your audience has some relevance. However, we can never be sure that some bird won’t carry our words in secret to the hearing of those who find it offensive.

    I’d like to discuss this more. I certainly don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with certain words but I’m not sure that the meaning they convey is always conducive to a Christian spirit. Take for example the word “ass”. Now, if I were to call my friend an “ass” after he just did something stupid we may have a good laugh about it, I don’t see anything wrong in this context, however, if some guy cuts me off on the road and I call him an ass then I would say this is not right.

    Speech is very important; it gives expression of our heart and connects us to the world. I’d like to hear more on the subject.

  5. Jonathan says:

    You guys got to listen to that debate in apologetics?? We never got to do that in Dr. Ebert’s class. Had I heard Bahnsen debate in apologetics I would have probably been Van Tillian much sooner. I was never able to take any classes with Capshaw, I had Mr. Trainer for OT Survey.

    I thought it was hilarious when he called them asses, I actually rewound the tape and listened to it again.

  6. apologus says:

    John, this article as I mentioned above will be in constant change. I will maintain my these, but I will add more cogency to the arguments. I will get back toyour response as soon as I can. Thanks.

  7. Missy says:

    I am no theologian of course, but I would have to side with Jonathan’s contentions of your thesis on speaking “God’s” name. I understand your point about things being cultural and common, but what is common is not always right. I believed David called these sorts “presumptuous sins”. Is it not the nature of mankind, whole cities and countries to err to the sinful? There are those principles in scripture to which culture and situation can be applied. The ten commandments are not such. They are a list of commands to which few exceptions are made (excepting circumstances like Jail lying, etc.). In such cases it was for reason of the sanctity of life. Hardly the same as doing it because you feel like it. (And even so, that was not against God’s own name)….Your comments sound as though you would take the extenuating exceptions and make them the rule, rather than the other way. But with culture in mind (being the context giver), then it is safe to say that it is wrong for Americans to say “God” flippantly. In America, even the unregenerate have a general sense that it is wrong and would/do acknowledge, “I shouldn’t say that.” If it is fine to utter his name without intended acknowledgment of its wonder, than God has been preserving this wonderful truth through the unregenerate. And centuries later, His people, the Church are just now becoming aware of this truth/their “liberty” which the World has long known. I do not believe that the problem is that enough people do not realize it is okay to do this, but rather that even devout Christians err and speak it with without reverence. The point is not whether it was said with intended disrespect, but that not giving it the respect it deserves is disrespect (intended or not). I was reading through some of the Puritan Prayers in Valley of the Vision and these Saints also were convicted of saying it without reverence in their PRAYERS. Can you believe that? That is the total opposite of the scenario we are creating now. Devout Christians, doing something godly, being convicted about/and confessing their sinfulness even while intending well. I fear that the holiness and wonder of our God has been so seriously degraded that we hardly speak His name with the fear we ought. Remember the well intentioned man who stuck out his hand to catch the ark and was slain on the spot. He meant no ill. Christ has fulfilled the law, but this often seems as an excuse to use sin (sometimes called liberty) that grace may abound. His holiness has not lessened and neither should our response toward that.

  8. Uri Brito says:

    Missy, let me begin by making some general points:
    a) I think I may have to revise some of my points for the sake of clarity when I have time. I have stated that this is not meant to be definitive. However, I can’t change my general premise.
    b) I think I tried to make clear that my general premise among other things is that the third commandment does not forbid cursing, nor does it have to do with saying the name
    “God” in a conversation. My lecture on the third commandment may calrify this a bit more. The third commandment would be more in line with the Matthew 7 principle where people did things using God’s name as if they were being faithful to Him, but in essence they were betraying his Name by performing miracles and such. Further, we could add “healers” in “churches” who purport to use God’s name, but when in reality they are taking God’s name in vain.
    c) I do not argue that some things are common and cultural, therefore they are OK. If I have done so, please point me to the paragraph so that I may alter what I have said. I think my point is that because certain things are not common here in the US, it does not mean that when it is done somewhere else it is wrong. That’s my point. We are not the sole arbiters of RIGHT and WRONG. Further, I am theonomist, which means I believe God’s Law ought to be applied by all people and all places at all times.
    d) Though I highly agree with the Puritans, they are not my standard of perfect righteousness in all their practices. Though, I still cannot find where I would disagree with them, with the exception of their interpretation of the second commandment, but that’s another question.
    I will take another look at my article tonight and see if I can make some adjustments to make my position clearer. Thank you for taking your time and interacting.

  9. Missy says:

    Uri, as for the cultural thing, i found it in your explanations and implications. Examples of your parents who were godly but were Brazilian and the African suit.

  10. Uri Brito says:

    Missy, that was a mere example of how cultures differ, not that culture condones something wrong.

  11. Uri Brito says:

    Missy, I have made some general revisions of the article.

  12. Uri Brito says:

    Missy, a few more observations. I might as well make them now before classes resume on Monday.
    You wrote: Remember the well intentioned man who stuck out his hand to catch the ark and was slain on the spot. He meant no ill. Christ has fulfilled the law, but this often seems as an excuse to use sin (sometimes called liberty) that grace may abound. His holiness has not lessened and neither should our response toward that.
    In II Samuael 6:6 we find the example of Uzzah that you used. Old Testamen5t literary analysis and Biblical symbolism would lead us to believe that touching the ark was equivalent to touching the tree of good and evil in the garden. There is so much to speak of in this great passage, but it is not necessary for the general point. His well-intention was the well intention of Eve in the garden.
    Christ is the goal/end of the law, but he has not fulfilled the law as in done away with the law. Please look carefully at Matthew 5:17: I have come to fulfill, not destroy it. Meaning, he has come to bring it into full force. Therefore the law is even stronger in the New than it was in the OLD.
    I understand your concern about speaking God’s name irreverently. I have said that when it is used in improper context, it is dangerous, but God’s name is not a magical word of enchantment. All religions refer to their almighty as “God.” If you are concerned about the holiness of God as you have always been since I’ve known you, then be concerned as I am about the faithfulness of the preached Word, the righteous administration of the sacraments, singing reverent songs of praise, not infantile songs with no Biblical fervor, and also expressing our God-exalting, Christ-honoring view of His SOvereign COvenant with his elect. God’s holiness is seen in those actions (and many more), not, I believe in saying His name in a conversation with no bad intention.

  13. Pingback: The Brito Blog » Blog Archive » Swearing and Bush

  14. Pingback: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Analysis and Application Part IV « Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

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