In 2017, Emma Byrne published a book titled, Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language. Of note, this book was peer reviewed. It is academic in nature and demonstrates a number of things that cursing does for the human body and mind. The book even showed how cursing can be used to help stroke victims recover their language and it explores the connection between Tourette’s and swearing. The study made me ponder how Christians should approach this taboo subject, or rather, are Christians thinking about cursing properly.
Cursing is a social issue. Societies determine which words are and are not appropriate and these words vary from place to place. The terms also change from time-to-time as specific terms lose their effectiveness and become more common. There is no set list of expletives that is recognized across languages and cultures, but if there was, the F-Word would likely be close to the top of the list. In places where it is considered profane, it is usually seen as one of the worst.
Christians have often quoted Ephesians 4:29 as a reason why Christians should not use curse words. The verse reads: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” In context here the passage has very little to do with using curse words and instead has a lot more to do with our manner of speaking to others (I have recently written on this issue). We are not to use our words to intentionally hurt others. Often our most hurtful words are not profane, but they are statements that cut people to the heart. This, however, does not mean that cursing gets a pass. While we are not to use our speech to purposely hurt others, many times when we curse, our words are still aimed at people. This is something we should not commonly do.
Perhaps using curse words when you get angry is the result of constantly hearing that kind of speech around you, but that may not be it entirely. There are typically two kinds of cursing, reasoned and reflexive. Reasoned cursing is the act of thinking about what to say and then saying it in a specific situation. An example would be when someone is rude to you, and you let them have it. Reflexive cursing “is what happens when your emotions override your rational thought.” Reasoned cursing originates in the same part of the brain where we store our language. Reflexive cursing originates in the amygdala, the part of our brain that manages our emotions and our fight or flight tendencies.
When we hit our thumb with a hammer and we let out a curse word, it allows us to better deal with the pain. This is because in those reflexive moments, our speech comes from the part of our brain where our emotions reside. Cursing in these situations releases chemicals like dopamine that increase our abilities to withstand pain. Studies have also shown that the more one curses, the less effective the words become over time. In other words, cursing seems to help us in times of emotional distress, but when overly used through reasoned cursing or too many emotional situations, the words provide less ability to deal with the pain.
So, what does all of this mean? First, curse words are simply words. They only have the power we give them. Second, as Christians we should refrain from using reasoned curse words to tear others apart. We should seek to use our words to build others up. Third, because we are human, we must understand that sometimes our emotions get the best of us and we must learn to cope with this.
Studies such as those explored in the book listed above have also shown that people who curse tend to be more honest than those who do not. Some psychologists have argued that cursing provides pain relief (as mentioned above), that it provides a non-violent outlet for our anger (at ourselves or others), that it helps us cope with difficult situations, it gives us a sense of control or power over negative situations, cursing aids in social bonding, it increases blood circulation, produces serotonin and gives an overall sense of calm, and it can spark our creativity (which may be why many actors curse when trying to get into a specific character).
So, if there are health benefits as well as signs of honesty that are the result of using curse words, should Christians re-think how they view the practice of using profanity?
I think the answer is yes and no. I do not think Christians should just immediately begin cursing like sailors, but I also think we should perhaps not make such a big deal out of a person using a curse word. As stated above, words only have the power we give them. If we as Christians elevate curse words to a special place of power, then there will be an aww factor associated with using such language. This factor will draw some towards using this kind of speech, it will cause others to elevate cursing to a new higher level of sin. Scripture is still clear about how we are to speak to and about others. Our speech should not involve spewing hate whether laced with profanity or not.
I am not suggesting here that we simply embrace the cursing. I have chosen for myself not to make a habit of using curse words. I simply find them in poor taste and prefer to try and express myself with other vocabulary. While studies show that cursing may have benefits, studies also show that people cannot replace bad habits with nothing. If you feel like you have a bad habit of cursing, in order to break the habit, you must replace that habit with a different habit.
Here is my practical advice for helping someone break a bad habit of cursing too much:
- Remember that God created us as emotional beings and that we have got to make room to experience our emotions.
- Recognize that our emotions are a valid part of who we are. Our emotions are a piece of the puzzle of our character.
- Do not make it a habit to practice reasoned cursing, but do not beat yourself up if a word comes out now and then in a highly emotional moment (especially if you are trying to deal with pain or anger).
- Think of several words or phrases that you can use to replace the words or phrases that you want to stop using. I recommend breath prayers that can point your focus towards God.
- Practice using those words in common speech to help introduce them into your vocabulary. When something happens and you become very angry (at yourself or others), try to use these phrases instead of the terms you wish to avoid saying.
- Keep practicing, adopting any new habits take time.
I am not simply suggesting that we replace curse words with secondary words such as darn, heck, dang, etc. Here is an example of something you could say: “Jesus Help Me”
If you are driving and someone cuts you off, quickly say “Jesus help me” and mean it. Saying something that places focus on God, helps you deal with the situation, and keeps you from sinfully acting out in anger against the other driver. Again, it takes time to adopt these kinds of new habits, so be patient with yourself, give yourself some grace as you adjust, and keep at it so that over time it becomes a new habit.