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The Profane Jesus

 —  September 15, 2013 — 15 Comments

Good morning Simply Insiders,

Rick Lawrence is up to bat with his latest devotional for y’all. Trust me, it’s as interesting as the title sounds! Read on and be challenged and encouraged.

rick_lawrence_BW NEW BY RICK LAWRENCE

Yesterday I picked up my daughter and her best friend from their first-ever Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting—they’re both high school freshmen, excited and challenged by all the “new” swirling around them. My daughter Lucy is on the cross-country team, and her friend Jess made the JV volleyball team. Once they’d piled into the car, the first thing Jess wanted to talk about was how shocking it was to find out that her volleyball coach was the FCA “co-sponsor.”

“I didn’t even think she was a Christian,” said Jess.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because, well, she kind of cusses a lot…”

I couldn’t see Jess’ face in the back seat, but I could feel her sheepish, confused look. How could an adult who uses profanity also serve in a Christian leadership capacity?

Of course, students like Jess and Lucy are immersed in a culture of cursing—the f-word is a primary social lubricant. And the rest of the profanity menu is common fare at their school. A Chicago Sun-Times poll of 10,000 students found that “more and more kids are being exposed to curse words at an early age, and ‘traditional’ curse words such as ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ have been replaced by words once considered too vulgar for adults.” But it’s very difficult to integrate the reality of profanity into students’ expectations of the Christian life. It’s wrong, right? So how can “wrong” coexist with “right”?

To further complicate things, it’s abundantly clear that Jesus used language so strong that it made those around him recoil in offense. A short run-down of the profane Jesus:

• “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?” (Matthew 12:34).

• “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign!” (Matthew 12:39).

• “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:13).

• “Woe to you, blind guides!… You blind fools!” (Matthew 23: 16-17).

• “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean… On the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28).

Maybe “viper” and “adulterous” and “wicked” and “whitewashed tomb” and “blind fool” seem mild to you—hardly worth categorizing as profanity. But you’d likely have the same reaction to “jeepers” and “gee whiz,” which were considered profane references to Jesus when they first surfaced in American culture. Or what about “shucks” and “shoot”? They once were the equivalent of our current “s” word. And when the Eliza Doolittle character in Pygmalion muttered the word “bloody,” it made front-page headlines in England. “Bastard” seems universally derogatory, but it’s considered a compliment in Australia.

No matter how we label Jesus’ “sparring language” with the Pharisees in Scripture, his “targets” most certainly experienced his language as profane. In fact, it was his repeated use of profane descriptions of them that motivated the conspiratorial Pharisees to concoct a plot to kill Jesus.

And that brings us to the most awkward application of WWJD ever: If the question is “What would Jesus do?” why not curse like a sailor? The way you help your students answer this question—and the way you answer it for yourself—really matters in a culture that has smudged the boundaries of Christlike behavior beyond recognition. Two filters to consider:

Words have power. We either build up or tear down with them. And most profanity tears down. That’s why Scripture is full of warnings against cursing, including Proverbs 13:3; Matthew 12:34-37; Romans 12:14; Ephesians 4:29 and 5:4; Colossians 3:8 and 4:6; Titus 2:7-8; and James 3:8-10. “Profane” means “to treat something sacred with abuse, irreverence, or contempt…” So when students use the f-word (for example), they treat something sacred (the act of intercourse) with contempt.

Cursing makes others stumble. We’re warned by God that if our actions cause others to stumble, we’re violating our calling to love our neighbors as ourselves. And profanity has the power to distract and even derail “innocent bystanders.” Tell kids the truth—according to researchers, people who curse are respected less in our society and have fewer deep relationships. Challenge them with this: If they wouldn’t use the word in conversation with God, then it’s not appropriate in any other context. Now, David used some pretty strong language in his prayers, because strong language also conveys strong emotion. So the “conversation with God” standard is not a black-and-white dictum—but it does put our choice of language within the context of our intimate relationship with Jesus, whose Spirit will convict us when we’ve stepped over the line.

Swearing is not merely an issue of niceness—Jesus himself isn’t fundamentally “nice” in the way we interpret that word. He is fiercely good, and therefore often not-nice. But to the extent that we are “under obedience,” we will choose our words to serve others, not ourselves.

Thanks for loving students,

Rick

@RickSkip

 

Rick (rlawrence@group.com and @RickSkip on Twitter) has been editor of GROUP Magazine for 25 years. He’s author of 99 Thoughts on Jesus-Centered Living, the LIVE small-group curriculum Jesus-Centered Living, and wrote the books Sifted: God’s Scandalous Response to Satan’s Outrageous Demand (www.siftedbook.com) and Shrewd: Daring to Live the Startling Command of Jesus (www.shrewdbook.com) as an excuse to immerse himself in the presence of Jesus.

Amber Cassady

Amber Cassady

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Marketer for Simply Youth Ministry and Group Mission Trips. College-aged girls small group leader. Coffee lover. Fan of skiing and hiking as much as she can!

15 responses to The Profane Jesus

  1. Rick, the best practical devo for engaging students that I have read in a very long time.

  2. Loved this devo! The best lesson I’ve ever learned as a youth pastor on grace, forgiveness, and humility ties into this. I had been a youth minister for about a month. I was a 100% volunteer with no training in youth ministry and was blindly feeling my way through this youth ministry world. I had been in the military and had matured there, so cuss words were just part of the culture I was accustomed to.

    We decided to take our youth group bowling. We had a great time, we had a awesome small group lesson as we ate dinner, and were wrapping up. As we loaded up, by bowling ball bag strap breaks, sending the ball crashing down onto my foot; breaking my big toe. I dropped a s-word, then I realized oops! I felt completely defeated. After apologizing profusely, we loaded up. I was talking to my wife back at the church when one of our students came up. She gave me a hug and said, ‘Pastor Kev, it’s ok. Jesus is bigger than one cuss word. He can forgive that. Didn’t he curse a tree?’ ‘Yes he did hon. That was a little different but thank you.’

    I know one time was a lot different than cussing a lot, but I got a smile on my face when I read this. Best lesson I’ve ever learned, also the most painful!

  3. Great thoughts and insight! Thanks Rick!

  4. Rick,

    Great, thoughts and insight!

    Thanks,
    Andrew

  5. I think it is good to remember that Jesus was not always “nice” in the way He talked to people – particularly religious leaders. And I agree with the application, that we should help youth see the importance of watching what they say because of the result.

    But, I think there is a difference between strong language and profane language. Using God’s name in vain would be profane. I might say many of the things Jesus said were strong and not nice, but not necessarily profane.

    One more comment… I don’t think Jesus’ repeatedly calling the Pharisees and leaders vipers and white-washed tombs was THE reason they conspired against Him. The Bible also mentions them conspiring to kill Him because of the claims He made about Himself.

    • Rick Lawrence

      Nice observations, Christian… Though, if “profane” is largely connected to using God’s name in vain, then a lot that we call profane in the culture… isn’t. It’s merely “strong” language. You’re right, of course, that the Pharisees were incensed by Jesus’ claims to “be somebody,” but plenty of other “false Messiahs” had made similar claims. Jesus certainly backed up his claims with a force the others didn’t. But I think the Pharisees were every bit human, and their rage was fueled (primarily) by the language Jesus used to describe them, right to their face…

  6. I’m left a little confused with the article. I’m always bothered by youth leaders in church or parachurch organizations, that use questionable language. While you certainly don’t look down upon others when they slip up in language, as a parent, youth leader, teacher or leader of a Christian organization, there is a higher standard. To him who much has been given, from him much is to be expected. There is great youth ministry maxim that “whatever adults might handle in moderation, kids often take to excess.”
    As a youth minister and pastor, I am always bothered by youth leaders who use questionable language in effort to gain attention or ‘relate’ to youth culture. It always reminded me of something Elton Trueblood once wrote that how the church in seeking to become relevant becomes irrelevant.
    How we talk outwardly, says much about us inwardly as was Jesus’ point with the Pharisees. When Jesus changes who we are, that always changes what we do. The outward reflects the inward, and that includes our language.
    I applaud your filters regarding our words and only feel they need to be emphasized more strongly.

    • Rick Lawrence

      Thanks for this, Mark… The hard truth is that a bare-faced understanding of “Christlike” would have to include offensive language and behavior, because Jesus was undeniably offensive to many, not just the Pharisees (see John 6). But His “offensiveness” was targeted and intended for redemptive impact—the only hope the Pharisees had of getting jolted from their arrogant self-righteousness was to be offended out of their complacence, I think… Jesus said He never did anything He didn’t see His Father doing first. His strong language and behavior, thus, give us plenty to think about relative to God’s nature and behavior…

      • I see a real difference between profane and offensive. I get that Jesus was offensive and that the gospel is offensive. There’s one way to the Father and that’s through me. It’s pretty narrow and that can be offensive. I also understand calling sin, sin and if it’s offensive, okay, but as Scripture says, “Speak the truth in love.” I just think that your daughter’s volleyball coach and FCA Sponsor cussing isn’t offensive in a redemptive sense. I hang on your illustration from years of discipling students to walk with Christ and the disappointment many of them express from leaders and students in Christian organizations and churches, whose walk or talk doesn’t resemble much of Jesus. And that following Jesus is more than dodgeball.

  7. Beautifully insightful and interesting. I never knew that those phrases were considered as vulgar of words as our curse words, although this makes sense. It shows just how much Jesus meant the words he was speaking to these hypocritical pharisees, and the passion behind what he was saying by choosing to use words like this. This opens up a perspective of Jesus I never saw before.

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