Having just seen A Christmas Story for the umpteenth time and watching Ralphy getting his mouth washed out for letting loose with one of his father's favorite expletives, I suppose this is a timely question.
When it comes to considering the practice of cursing, there are three differing schools of thought. When someone asks about cursing in today's society, invariably they mean cussing, like little Ralphy above. Related to that is the use of God's name in vain (and the associated names such as Jesus, Jesus Christ, Lord, and so on). And finally, there is the more ancient and natural understanding of cursing-the invocation of misfortune upon anothe
Almost everyone in the Church knows that taking the name of God in vain is wrong. Indeed, it's included in one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.7). But what does it mean to take God's name in vain? In ancient times to use God's name in vain meant to misuse God's name in some way. Most of us would naturally assume that meant cussing, as in when someone cuts us off on the freeway. And though that particular misuse of God's name would be included, the ancients had a rather different, more powerful view of using God's name.
This is perhaps best seen in the story when Jacob wrestled God. After an all night contest we read: "Jacob said, 'Please tell me your name.' But he replied, 'Why do you ask my name?'" (Genesis 32.29). When God asks Jacob why he wants to know God's name, the question is truly rhetorical. In Jacob's day it was understood that if you knew someone's name, you had a measure of power over that person, or deity as the case may be. Thus, if Jacob knew God's "name" he would have control over the power of God. And so, when we read the prohibition in the Ten Commandments against the misuse of God's name, we're reading a prohibition against misusing the power of God.
Although the misuse of God's name certainly falls under the topic of cursing, the Bible typically understands cursing in a more ancient form-like what we might call the gypsy-curse. Curses in scripture are pretty common, and some of the "best" and most graphic examples are found in the Psalms. Curses were a call on God to bring misfortune upon an enemy (or an ex-friend as the case may be). For instance, Psalm 109 contains a string of curses that would curl the toenails of even a hardened gypsy: "May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes" (8-10). And those are only the beginning.
But this cursing is certainly not condoned, at least not by Jesus. In Luke Jesus tells his disciples to return blessings for curses (6.28) and in Matthew he insists that we love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and to do good to those who would do us harm (5.44). In other words, "Thou shall not curse others" (Romans 12.14).
So, using God's name in vain is prohibited, as is calling down the wrath of God on others in curses. But what about cussing?
The reality is there is nothing in scripture that mentions the use of expletives, other than the ones mentioned above. However, that doesn't mean the Bible is silent about unwholesome speech (and I've yet to hear an argument that cussing is wholesome-indeed, my parents regularly reminded me that only those who have a limited vocabulary rely on expletives). In Ephesians we read: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen" (4:29). And again in Ephesians 5.4a: "Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place.."
That last verse pretty well covers most everything that might include those "colorful metaphors." Then again it also includes most of those water cooler jokes, about 80% of the email stories that cross our transoms, as well as a good bit of our everyday conversations. I've often heard that God gave us two ears and one mouth to be used in those proportions, and perhaps that's what Paul is trying to get across in his writings to the Ephesians.
So, is cursing wrong? Apparently so-no matter how you define it. So, let us take seriously the suggestion in Proverbs: "When words are many, sin is not absent, but those who holds their tongue is wise" (Proverbs 10.19)-a lesson we hope Ralphy learned with the help of a little soap aptly applied.