Monday, 22 June 2009

The spirituality of swearing

Disclaimer: this post may use swear words. If you don't like that sort of thing, stop reading. You have been warned.

Is there a place for swearing in Christianity? Like most good evangelical types, I feel kind of uncomfortable with the idea that swearing in some contexts might be okay. There are certain words I really hate to hear let alone use, and I can't help an automatic feeling of guilt whenever i do swear, especially if it's in anger (something that happens altogether too much).

However, I'm not too sure swearing is always that wrong. Here's my reasoning.

Firstly, swearing is IN THE BIBLE!! Oh, not our sanitised, Good News/NIV/King James versions, but it is there.

Example: Philippians 3:8. Paul describing how much he values Christ compared to his old way of life. This is what he says in the Greek:

ἀλλὰ μενοῦνγε καὶ ἡγοῦμαι πάντα ζημίαν εἶναι διὰ τὸ ὑπερέχον τῆς γνώσεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ κυρίου μου, διὃν τὰ πάντα ἐζημιώθην, καὶ ἡγοῦμαι σκύβαλα, ἵνα Χριστὸν κερδήσω...

Literal translation: "But indeed I also consider everything to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I forfeited all things; and I consider them shit so that I may gain Christ..."

The word in Greek is skubala, and it means shit! Not just excrement, dung or poo, but carries the same vulgar overtones as...shit!

Here's the thing. Paul wanted to find a word that expressed exactly what he felt, how little regard he had for what he had given up for Jesus, and this was the only word that summed it up for him.

I rememeber a little while ago hearing someone speak about the traumatic time she went through with a friend who was suffering with cancer. After months of treatment, pain and insecurity about the future (including a trip to Mexico for some alternative therapy), the cancer suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared.

This speaker said that the phrase to best sum up her feelings in that moment was "halle-fucking-luia".

Maybe there is a place for swearing. Maybe - sometimes - the only way to articulate and express the deepest emotions is by using a word that ordinarily would be considered vulgar and inappropriate. Maybe our evangelical prudishness has made us blind to the legitimate spirituality of swearing.



  1. Nice thought - if you can have a 'nice' thought on swearing! I have often said that Paul's language in Philippians 3 is extremely earthy (without using the word 'shit' in the pulpit).

    I think the issue of swearing is part of the larger discussion about language and how we express our faith in terms that our neighbours can understand and relate to.

    Most people under 30 are not phased by swear words - indeed they don't make the neat distinction between good and bad language that we sound evangelicals do. So how do we help them grasp the highs and lows of Christian experience?

    Not sure this is a big issue but it's worth batting around a bit

  2. Great timing! - You write about swearing the same week the Baptist Times feature your blog...

  3. How wierd ... i was just making the same point on the same text the other day, which I think i pinched from somewhere else, probably from Cole's Organic Leadership, have you been reading it too?

    Either way it doesn't bother me too much but I know it does some of my fellowship.

    I have sworn once or twice in the pulpit but only to shock and becasue the text used was itself shocking to its culture. Can't do it often or it stops being shocking.