What Makes Bad Language Bad

Most Christians try to avoid bad language. Few would intentionally train their children to use obscene, foul language, even though culturally foul language has become an accepted part of everyday speech. Movies, television shows, and sporting events have become common venues for four letter expletives. So, there is no question that children are exposed to indecent talk on a regular basis. Seventy years ago, in Gone with the Wind, Clark Gable uttered the first curse word in a popular movie. How things have changed!

In training your children, it is important for you to understand biblically what makes words inappropriate to use. Is it a matter of focusing on the negative? Is there a certain set of words that you should list as inappropriate and correct your children whenever they say them? Here again, if you focus only on what is wrong you will miss the mark of bringing honor to God. For example, let’s say that you compile your list of words that are “bad.” In their place you have a list of words that are acceptable alternatives. For example, words like darn, shoot, heck and doggone it, might be considered as acceptable alternatives to their similar sounding bad counterparts. So, when you can’t find your keys, instead of using an unacceptable word, you use the corresponding acceptable word to express your frustration. But does the substitution of words rise to the standard of doing all that you do in the name of the Lord Jesus?

Consider this scene: your five-year-old son is carefully observing your search for the keys. As time passes your search becomes more frantic. Your child might hear you say something like, Where are the _____ keys? You are careful to fill in the blank with a word from the acceptable list. You would not want your child to hear you using a bad word. However, what is the underlying attitude behind using words from either list? The reality, in this situation, is that words from either list are not helpful or honoring to God. If your child sees a parent who is increasingly frustrated, angry and irritated, the language itself is primarily a symptom of a deeper issue.

Fast forward to the afternoon – you hear angry words coming from the playroom. You come in and see your five-year-old angrily storming around the room looking for a favorite toy. He says to his sister, be quiet, I can’t find my darn truck! You correct your son and tell him he should not be angry and that if he is calm he will have a much better chance of finding his truck. He looks back at you with a look of confusion and, perhaps, exasperation. He starts to say something, but still not getting the connection, you say something like:

It is not right for you to talk back to me. God says you should not be angry. Now calm down, be nice to your sister, and maybe you will find your truck. If you were more careful to put it away in its right place, as I told you to, you wouldn’t have such a hard time finding it.

You walk off thinking you have given helpful instruction. However, the real instruction took place in the episode with the keys in the morning. What happened in the afternoon was hypocrisy. This is an example of at least one way to provoke your children to anger, which Ephesians 6:4 warns against. As Tedd Tripp powerfully demonstrates in Shepherding a Child’s Heart, it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). What was overflowing from the heart in the hunt for the lost keys? Was there a confidence in God’s care? Was there an abiding trust in God’s sovereignty over something as seemingly mundane as misplaced keys? Was there any thought of showing your child that being short, irritable and frustrated with lost keys is okay for parents but not okay for children? God is present with us at all times. He causes all things to work together for good for those whom he loves. This is the attitude that should dominate our hearts when things don’t go as planned, even when the keys are missing.

In this particular instance, using a word from the accepted list does not really address the primary heart issue. And if you mentally congratulate yourself at not using a bad word, the real issue–lack of trust in God–has been buried in misguided self-righteousness.

Bad language often expresses displeasure with events in life. Ultimately, this displeasure indicates a mocking spirit toward God and toward his commands for living in his world. Ephesians 5:4 makes this point:

Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

Notice that Paul says here that foul language is out of place. Why? Because this language is not compatible with hearts that are overflowing with thanksgiving. Such sinful talk flows from hearts angry at God and his laws or his providential ordering of daily life. The world is bitter because it cannot have its own way. Obscene, foolish and coarse speech reflect this attitude of discontent and arrogance. The Christian, on the other hand, knows that the goodness of God is all around him. He knows that the riches of heaven have been lavished upon him (Ephesians 1:8). He knows that gratitude for the forgiveness of sins should dominate his life.

Don’t settle for merely substituting one set of words for another in an attempt to make your language pleasing to God. Rather, look to your heart. Is it filled with the wonder of God’s grace to you–grace that is totally undeserved? This is the legacy of grace that God calls you to give to your children.

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