Obscenity has been making news lately, especially obscene words. Jonathan Curiel, a staff writer with the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “The United States is in the middle of a culture war that shows no sign of abating. It began with the Janet Jackson incident then snowballed with the FCC’s $495,000 fine over radio provocateur Howard Stern, which prompted Clear Channel to remove him from six of their radio stations.”
Some people think obscene words shouldn’t be an issue at all. They claim it is simply a matter of free speech—a constitutional right. Other people believe obscene speech is not a matter of free speech—ever! Rather, it is insulting, unacceptable, crude and infringes on the constitutional rights of other citizens, including children. What is the truth about this burning issue, which is being hotly debated in our society right now? How can we know what is right and what is wrong about words used both publicly and privately? After all, words are just words, aren’t they?
If we only rely on men for the answer to this question, we cannot get a definitive answer. It then comes down to just opinions, and how are we to know which opinions are right and which are wrong? There is a source we can go to which will give us the truth about words. That source is God’s Word, the Holy Bible. John 17:17 says: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” Words mean things. Obscene words convey obscene meaning. In Webster’s Dictionary we read the definition of obscenity as: “Offensive to accepted standards of decency or modesty. Repulsive; disgusting.” Therefore it is not an issue of free speech, but rather a question of what is right and what is wrong.
Words flow from thoughts: “…a good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Obscene words are generated by obscene thoughts. Dirty words, dirty thoughts. Dirty thoughts, dirty words—they are intertwined and inseparable. But let’s take it one step further. Actions also flow from our minds: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7).
So the way we think determines what we say, what we do and what kind of individual we are. Therefore, it is essential that we develop good, clean and right thought patterns. A pure mind and heart produces wholesome, upright words and actions. We become upstanding citizens who respect our neighbors and contribute worthwhile, positive and lasting standards in our communities and neighborhoods. We build a legacy of virtues and values for our families to live by that leads to decency, good comportment and lasting success.
Right thinking will always lead to right words and actions and is clearly described in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” So words are more than just words! They reflect thoughts and indicate character and personal qualities. Sooner or later, we are known, not by our actions alone, but by what we say as well. The language we use becomes part of our reputation—good or bad, clean or dirty. Therefore, we should carefully consider our words to insure that we are speaking with class and propriety, and keeping in mind the feelings and dignity of our fellow human beings. This is a tall order since controlling the tongue is much easier said than done.
The power of speech cannot be overstated. People can live or die based on what others say. A false report can break up friendships, families and whole companies. Citizens have been wrongly arrested, sentenced to prison and even death based on statements from false witnesses. In the book of James, we read from God’s word how powerful and hard to control words can actually be: “For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body” (James 3:2–3).
Have you ever seen a beautiful, powerful, sleek horse in action under the control of a skillful and caring rider? It is a thrilling sight to behold a strong, eager thoroughbred stallion, ready and anxious to charge out of the gate and run like the wind. He can easily be guided around the turn and then home, hurtling down the stretch in excess of 40 miles per hour—controlled with a simple signal on the reins by an experienced jockey. He will start, stop, speed up and slow down at the slightest command from his rider. He will also stand perfectly still on command. Yet he is a thousand pounds of muscle and bone—all heart and grit, with explosive speed and fire in his veins. He could easily overpower his rider and dash off to do his own thing unfettered and as free as the breeze. But he will never do that when trained and directed properly.
Not always so with the human tongue. All too often, it is completely out of control and running wild, with frequently devastating results: “For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (vv 7–10).
Consider how effortlessly a prodigious ocean–going vessel can be controlled. The captain of the ship can steer it to the left or to the right, reverse course or send it churning around in a 360 degree turn right out in the middle of the ocean—and with one hand. The amazing engineering that goes into a ship like this makes it a routine matter to slip it through strong ocean currents over vast, open, endless miles of sea. It glides along under full power, carrying megatons of material from ports in some distant part of the globe to other ports thousands of nautical miles away under full control of the captain and crew.
Passengers will crowd onto super class cruise ships to sail off into the sunset heading for exotic, thrilling adventures and wonders of the world, never giving even the briefest thought to whether or not their floating city is on course and going in exactly the right direction. They are confident they are in good hands and that everything is well under control.
Seldom is that the case with the use of words: “Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell” (vv 4–6).
On the other hand, words do not have to enslave and victimize us. We can bring them under control, and when we do they become a potent force for good and produce monumental lasting benefits for everyone who hears and reads them. In order to achieve this result, we need to develop meekness and wisdom and ask God to help us think carefully before we speak or write, since words mean so much and can be very compelling, whether written or spoken. As Edward Bulwer–Lytton said, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
The speech we use and the words we read and listen to should fit this beautiful description found in Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” They mirror our innermost being and project profound influence and impact on all who hear them. Obscene, hateful, careless or lying words have no legitimate place in society. They are out of place in a home or life that stands for quality, decency and respect for every individual.
Words are far more than just words. They can make all the difference between peace or war, happiness or sorrow, success or failure and, as John 6:68 shows us, even life or death: “Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”
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