The Mississippi Convention of The Gideons International was held this past weekend in Jackson, and as President of the Oxford Camp I was expected to attend and deliver our camp’s collected offerings at the President’s Breakfast on Saturday morning. I did this but otherwise attended little of the convention; instead my family and I used the opportunity to visit with my wife’s parents, siblings, and niece and nephew, as they live nearby. I had volunteered to speak in a local church on Sunday morning on behalf of the Gideons, but they had more qualified speakers than needed, and I did not receive an assignment. Instead, we attended the early service at First Presbyterian Church, where we heard a sermon by David Strain from Colossians 3:5-11. This was a delightful experience not only because Presbyterian sermons seem somehow more profound and erudite when delivered with a Scottish accent, but also because Dr. Strain addressed a topic I have been pondering for some time. I have thought about writing this post for a while, and now having heard a sermon in which someone more learned than myself reached a similar conclusion, I am a bit more emboldened to opine. My particular interest here is in verse 8:
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.
At the risk of sounding too much like the Pharisee from Jesus’ parable, I am thankful that in his mercy God has kept me from falling into what outwardly seem like “big sins.” I’m not a murderer after all, I don’t cheat on my wife or my taxes, I rarely consume alcohol and never to excess, and by most accounts I live an upstanding life. And yet our Lord had little good to say about those who thought much of their good outward appearances, and often exposed the sin that lay at the roots of even their best deeds. Sure, I may have mostly avoided those sins which bring some sort of public opprobrium, but there is plenty of sin inside that needs to be rooted out, confessed, and put to death. One of these, for me, has to do with language.
Readers who know me personally might be surprised by this, as most of the time the “dirtiest” thing about my speech is the poor grammar and syntax that characterize Southern colloquialisms. (Happily, these rarely find their way into my writing, unless I am trying to emulate Mark Twain.) While I conscientiously avoid the foulest of expressions, I have sometimes inserted mild profanities into my speech, occasionally even when teaching, in an attempt to add emphasis, keep attention, or generate a good laugh. I’ve tried to dismiss this as harmless, but after teaching through Colossians last year and considering verse 8 of chapter 3 at length, I’ve concluded that this is not so harmless at all. Not because the language itself is so bad, but because of what it indicates might be lurking underneath the surface.
You see, what I have suspected for some time, and Dr. Strain similarly stated, is that the list of vices in verse 8 is not just a list of sins to put away, but a continuum of sins that spring from the same root. “Obscene talk,” rendered “filthy language” in other versions, is the last and arguably the least serious of these. Slander is worse, likewise malice and wrath or rage. Anger is at the bottom, and an honest self-examination on my part reveals that, deep down, there is indeed some of that. Suppressed anger, sure, of which I was not even consciously aware, but those mild, seemingly harmless profanities that occasionally slip out are like leaks in the willpower that holds anger and other sins deep inside, in addition to being sinful themselves. Clearly I have had more sin to confess than just a few “dirty words,” and I am thankful that we serve a God who delights in forgiving those who come to him in repentance and faith.
I have sometimes said, only partly jokingly, that American evangelicals’ mores regarding language and other issues are “more Victorian than biblical.” I still believe this. After all, scripture has more than a few metaphors and expressions that can offend more refined sensibilities. God himself refers to the spiritual adultery of the Israelites using surprisingly graphic sexual metaphors, and I’m always amused by the Hebrew idiom, reproduced in the King James Version but not more modern translations, referring to males as “any that pisseth against the wall.” In the end, I’m not arguing for a pharisaic and puritanical policing of one’s speech, but rather a heart examination and repentance of the significant sinful thoughts and attitudes that might lie beneath even the mildest of vulgarities that escape our lips. After all, as our Lord said,
…out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34)