I’ve never done well at following religious lists of do’s and don’ts. Something in me resists conformity, and the rebel in me likes to push buttons. At home as a child, I was frequently taken to the tool shed. In school, teachers kept their eyes on me with grave concern. In church, well . . . let’s just say my Sunday school teachers reminded me on a regular basis and with a good deal of exasperation that I was the preacher’s son.
Following rules has never been my forte. Sad but true.
About ten years ago, I was at a conference where a nationally known pastor spoke. He was good, passionate, engaging, and he swore. Some in the crowd smiled. Others gasped, “Did he just say what I thought he said?” Yup.
I remember thinking, “Cool. If he can do it, so can I!” Like William Wallace in Braveheart, my soul cried, “FREEDOM!”
About a month later, I dropped a relatively mild word in one of my sermons. It was more like a firecracker than a nuclear bomb (and it certainly wasn’t the F-bomb), but I got mixed reviews. Honestly, though I don’t like being a cookie-cutter preacher, I don’t like getting into trouble either, so I backed off of the public swearing.
Occasionally, however, I would use language in conversations that wasn’t crude or crass, but definitely over the line.
Fast forward to a conversation I had with my wife on a recent road trip. She said, in her gentle way, “Honey, I don’t understand why you like to use those words, and it concerns me.”
Of course, I went into my practiced arguments about being “culturally relevant and real . . . how words are just words and how it’s really not that big of a deal.”
For the next couple of hours on I-90, I did a lot of thinking. I’ve heard and used all the relevancy arguments. I’ve justified my use of some words in certain situations as being non-hypocritical. I’ve always resisted being put on any super-saint religious pedestal, and I saw my language as a means to being a real pastor in a real world.
Then God had the audacity to interrupt my rationalizations as He spoke to my heart, “This is a heart issue.” Not what I expected or wanted to hear.
Immediately, I flashed to these words of Jesus, “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart” Luke 6:45 NLT.
Hmm . . . what you say flows from what is in your heart. Busted. Again.
There was no denying the fact that the overwhelming majority of the time when I used bad language it was because of something bad in my heart.
Contempt for a person or a thing.
Sure, occasionally, I used a word as a descriptor or to define something in a positive way, like, “That was a heck-of-a-ride!” But generally, my words expressed my scorn or disdain for a person, place, or thing.
Here’s what Paul wrote, “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior” Ephesians 4:29, 31 NLT.
It’s hard to really argue with the clarity and power of this admonition to control our tongues. But I know what some of you are thinking . . . I’ve been there. However, I would challenge you on two points:
1) What’s in your heart when you color the air with your words?
2) Is everything you say “good and helpful . . . and an encouragement to those who hear” you?
For the record, here’s where I’ve landed: I can be relevant without being rude. I can be real without being foul. And I can be holy without being hypocritical.
Truth is, I simply want to be more like Jesus, and I find it hard to imagine Him saying anything unwholesome or unholy.
For those of you who figured this out a long time ago, God bless you, but please don’t say, “I told you so.” Even my wife just smiled.