No, I am not reflecting on the use of various languages in the services of the Church, though that is a serious issue. I mean the use of coarse and vulgar language by those of us who are Orthodox Christians, and even by those who have no Christian faith at all. I am grateful that I was brought up in a household that tolerated no bad language at all. Having been trained in such a way I find it easy to avoid bad language, and disturbing when others use it, especially when people use it in a casual manner. Over the last decade or so there has been a significant increase in the use of bad and coarse and vulgar language, such that many people seem unable to speak without using profanity.
What should we think about such language? In the first place, the Bible has much to say about the way we speak. St Paul writes to the Colossians, people who had become Christian recently and still had many things to learn about the Christian life in the Holy Spirit…
You yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Col 3:8
He writes these words when speaking about all the other sinful behaviours we are to turn away from. But he is not creating a new Law, with a new and longer list of commandments. The reason we are to avoid filthy language, as well as these other things, is because…
You have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him. Col 3:9-10
We are a new person if we have become a Christian, united to God in the Holy Spirit, and the sign of this new life, among other things, is that we do not use filthy language. This belongs to the corrupt and decaying life without God.
St Paul says a similar thing in his letter to the Ephesians, where he speaks about the Ephesian Christians putting off the old man, like a cloak, and putting on the new man, who is created in God for righteousness and holiness. What does he write…
Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. Eph 4:29-31
If we are Christians then we are to be concerned about the effect our words and speech have on others. Are our words like a corruption, a poison, that harms others? Or are they filled with grace and are such that they will build people up. It is not only a matter of using vulgar words, but the things we speak about. Do they provide a positive encouragement to others, or are we dragging them down, causing them to be in conversations that are sinful, filled with bitterness, gossiping and evil ideas. This really matters, not because we are breaking a rule that someone has created, but because our speech, if it is sinful and vulgar, will grieve the Holy Spirit, who will withdraw from us.
There are many who use the name of God, or our Lord and Saviour, as if it meant nothing. When I hear people speak in such a way I offer a prayer for them, because those who are not Christian speak out of ignorance. But when those of us who are Christian use the name of God and of his beloved Son in casual expressions, then we take them in vain, and this cannot help but affect our spiritual life. In the book of Exodus, God himself speaks to Moses and says…
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. Ex 20:7
It is not enough for us to say that it means nothing. God himself tells us that it means a great deal. And we can surely see this. When someone who is often in prayer sees an ambulance speed past and says, “O God, have mercy!”, this is one thing. But when someone is joking around and just says, “O G-d”, with no thought of God at all, and how the presence of God might affect their behaviour, then there are consequences. As we devalue the name of God, and the idea of God, then we find ourselves growing apart from him. As we value the presence and divine Person of God more and more, we do not speak his name lightly.
What does our Lord Jesus himself say to us, in the Gospel of St Matthew. He speaks to those who are saying evil things about him and says…
How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Matt 12:34
He was addressing the Pharisees, and the point he wanted to make was that how we speak, and what we speak about, reflects the contents of our heart. Are we filled with grace and divine life and light? Then our speech will reflect this. Are we filled with sin and darkness and corruption? Then our speech will reflect this in one way or another, both in the way we speak, in the words we use, and in the things we talk about with others.
The language we use is a good clue to our spiritual health. We should not think so much that swearing and being coarse and vulgar are sins, and that as long as we avoid them we will be OK. Rather we should consider that if this is the usual way that we speak then it tells us what our heart is like. It is a symptom of a much more serious spiritual sickness.
What I mean is this. In the letter to the Ephesians, St Paul continues and is discussing exactly this same issue of using bad language. He says…
But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Eph 5:3-5
If we are holy people, if we are saints, and this is what the Bible calls us, and this is what we are to become by God’s grace, then we should not even be talking about unclean things, or joking about things we would not speak of in front of our priest or bishop, or even our parents. They are not the behaviour that belongs to saints, and we are all of us to be and become saints. If we give ourselves up to unclean thinking and speaking then this is what God will allow us to experience. He will not stand in our way. He will respect our free will. But if we choose uncleanness then we cannot experience the presence and Kingdom of God.
This is not a matter of an out of date rule that our parents are insisting on. It is a spiritual reality. If we choose to be unclean then we cannot become holy. If we do not wish to become holy then we cannot receive the grace and the life of God. If we choose to seek the life that God gives, the abundant life that makes us truly human, truly the person we were created to be and become, then we must turn away from all those things that are anti-God and anti-life. Uncleanness of speech is a sign that we are drifting away from God.
How do we change? Not simply by watching what we say when we are around our parents or priests. St Paul teaches us in letter to the Philippians when he writes…
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. Phil 4:8
It is not enough just to avoid bad language. If we are really seeking to experience the abundant life, the divine life, that God promises to those who are united with him, then we need to concentrate on the true, the noble, the righteous, the pure and lovely things in the Christian life and in the world. These positive things have to become the focus of our life, and we have to cut away, like an infected growth, the corrupt, and unclean, and sinful things that we think and speak about.
It is surely worth it. Life with God now, with the indwelling Holy Spirit pouring peace and joy and love and courage into our hearts? Or life without God, enjoying the empty freedom to think and speak in unclean ways that drive the Holy Spirit away from us. We all fall into sin through our weakness. It is not the lapse into bad language that matters so much. But it is the direction of our life that counts and what we are putting our effort into. If we fall we can rise again by God’s grace. But if we have chosen uncleanness, expressed in filthy words and thoughts and conversation, then God will respect our choice and we find such uncleanness filling our lives and smothering us in darkness.
Let us choose the light, and life in God, and watch what we say and speak and think, so that we might become those saints he has created us to be.
Let me add a paragraph or two more. Even in the world outside the Church, those who use foul language mark themselves our in negative ways they might not consider. Someone who swears is unlikely to be selected for any sort of job that involves dealing with people – that means working in a shop, but it also means working as a doctor or pharmacist. Who would want to drive away customers and clients by having someone representing their company who used foul language.
Those who use bad language also mark themselves out as lacking self-control. It is one thing to swear at home, but if you use obscene language in front of those you work among, or study with, then it suggests that you don’t know when your own behaviour is inappropriate or offensive to others. What others things might you do? If you can’t even control your language when in the company of colleagues then you might be unable to control yourself in lots of other situations. This would very reasonably affect not only employment but promotion
And using bad language is also an indication of a lack of imagination, especially when it has been picked up as a habit from others, and is repeated as a means of fitting in and looking cool. Those who have imagination and a sense of identity don’t need to copy bad language. They are able to express themselves properly and more richly. If someone uses the F word in every sentence it does not mark them out as cool, it suggests they are rather stupid and do not even know how to use their own language to express themselves. Why would someone want to employ a person who only knew how to copy others, and used bad language as a way of trying to fit in with the herd, like a sheep?
If using bad language means that I am not to be trusted in front of other people, and that it seems I don’t know how to control myself appropriately, and I lack imagination and identity, then I should be aware that this will limit my life choices. Go ahead and use bad language and make coarse jokes and conversation. You are free to do so. But others around you are also free. They are free to say that they will not employ someone who behaves in such a way. They are free to say that out of all the prospective students you are the first to be dropped from the list because your use of inappropriate language made you less attractive to them.
So what we say has consequences. It’s not a matter of just breaking another rule. It truly separates us from God, because it shows us what our heart is already like, and it leaves us at a disadvantage even in the secular world. But we do have a choice. We can begin to change right now if we want to. Not just in our speech, but in the quality and substance of our heart. What does our Lord say?…
Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart.
Let us be careful then, that the things which are in our heart are pure, so that our speech is pure. And let us be properly concerned that if our speech is impure it is not only our words which are unclean, but that we need to seek a cleansing of the heart, by repentance and the seeking after God. He wants to fill us with his life, and when we are filled to overflowing our speech will always be divine.