The first thing I assign my students to read every semester is Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts.” Because many of my students are convinced that they are terrible writers who will never excel in an English class, the essay is often extremely encouraging to them. Without fail, I always get at least a few students who write in their homework assignment that the essay should not have used the word “shitty,” and instead should have used a euphemism. They argue that the word alienates readers, makes the writer look unintelligent, or is simply “inappropriate for published work.”

I don’t agree with them, but I know exactly where they’re coming from. (Also: someone should tell Joe Biden.)

I never uttered a swear word until I was eighteen. No shits, no damns, and definitely nothing that starts with “f” and rhymes with “duck.” When I was five, my sister Karen, seven years old of me, tattled to my parents that I’d said “what in the hell,” but I still don’t think I said that. I argued then and I’ll argue today that she misheard, “What in the world.” I also accidentally said, “Oh, my God” while playing with my elementary school friend Kathryn in her room. The guilt I felt was intense.

In my family and church growing up, swearing was strictly prohibited. Until adulthood, I had only heard my parents curse in extremely rare situations, like when the couch fell on my dad’s finger while he was carrying it through the sliding glass door, and he shouted, “SHIT!” I was always a rule-follower, and because I never developed a “colorful” vocabulary, it was never difficult for me to refrain from using profanity.

I knew all of the reasons for not swearing:

  • It makes you look ignorant.
  • Certain words are just filthy and shouldn’t be said.
  • Only unintelligent people swear.
  • Christians don’t use bad words.

And most importantly: it’s in the Bible.

The Biblical argument against what we simply called “cussing” was pretty clear to me. Mostly, I was given verses like that the website Open Bible lists under their “tame your tongues” category. I remember this one being quoted in Sunday School, in particular: “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” James 5:12.

“What does cussing have to do with that kind of swearing?” I had asked, confused. I don’t remember the specifics of the answer I was given, or even which Sunday School teacher gave me an answer, but I remember the idea: it just is. Swearing is bad, and swearing means both cussing and saying “I swear” or “I swear to God.”

And so I didn’t cuss.

I avoided movies with profanity. I tattled on a girl in the fourth grade for calling someone a bastard on the playground. I used euphemisms like “heck” and “darn” and, when I was feeling daring, “crap.” If someone asked me why I didn’t swear, I said, “Because the Bible says we are to control our tongues.”

It all seemed so simple!

Proverbs 21:23: “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”

Psalm 34:14: “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.”

Matthew 15:11: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”

All of this meant we weren’t supposed to swear. Right?

I honestly don’t know what put the first crack in the wall of this absolute view of language. Was it hearing my brother swear with enthusiasm and humor while he was an intern for Teen Mania, a mainstream Christian missions organization? Was it going to college and meeting a girl named Elaine who frequently came up with really creative uses of profanity? Was it–heaven forbid–the negative influence of movies and television? I do remember memorizing Agent Scully’s awesome monologue from “Beyond the Sea” and reaaallly wanting to add that final dramatic phrase of, “you son of a bitch,” but struggling to find an appropriate substitute. Her anger was just so awesome and powerful, and the language seemed, I don’t know, effective.

Oh! And what about the moments in Les Miz, where Javert sings, “Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief! Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase!” Should I not sing along?

All of these thoughts were happening around the same time that I was declaring an English major and beginning to recognize that I have a real love of words and language. It seemed so restrictive, I thought, to label entire groups of words as “bad.”

One day, I simply stopped believing that the Bible prohibits swearing. I opened my little “topic guide” in the back of my pocket Bible and turned to all of the verses that were related to cursing, swearing, or profanity. I realized that I couldn’t find anything that forbade the use of certain words. Despite everything I had been told by my church and my youth group, there was nothing there that said, “Don’t use bad words.”

There were guidelines, sure. Suggestions and warnings, definitely. But none of it had to do with some list of forbidden words. As I was flipping through those thin, worn pages of my Bible, which had accompanied me all over the world and every day of high school, it occurred to me that a list of words wouldn’t make sense, because words and their meaning change over time.

I had no idea at that point that the Bible actually includes profanity, or that cursing can actually help relieve pain, or that plenty of educated, intelligent people swear with fluency.

I re-examined those verses and began to develop a new theory on language, still influenced by Christian principles: we are supposed to be able to control our tongues. That’s not about cutting certain words from your vocabulary. It’s about being in charge of what you say. Know your surroundings. Know if swearing in those situations is appropriate or not. If it’s not, be able to control yourself. It’s not just about swearing, though. The Scriptural mandates about “taming the tongue” are about so much more than forbidden words and acceptable words.

They’re about saying things that help people and uplift them, not things that hurt people. It’s about what kind of ideas and thoughts you put into the world! I want to put ideas into the world that make people feel safe and loved and strong, not defeated. Depending on who I’m talking to, those words can sound very different.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter how I feel or you feel about swearing. What matters to me is that this was the first time I ever stopped, thought about what I’d been taught in regards to what the Bible said, and realized that what I’d been taught didn’t make any sense. It took me eighteen years, but I finally stopped believing that everything I had been told about the Bible and Christianity was right. I realized at that point that I needed to be willing to re-evaluate everything. If something as straightforward as “the Bible says not to use cuss words” wasn’t actually so black and white, what else could be wrong?