The following is a guest post from Dr. Michael LeFebvre, pastor of Christ Church Reformed Presbyterian in Brownsburg, Indiana, and author of Singing the Songs of Jesus: Revisiting the Psalms and Exploring Ecclesiastes: Joy That Perseveres.
We encounter it in movies. We hear it at school and at work. We see it in print. Our society has adopted curses as a normal part of speech—almost as though curse words were just another kind of adjective or adverb.
As defined in the dictionary, to curse is “to wish or invoke evil, calamity, injury, or destruction upon.” In modern American society, cursing is typically done through one-word invectives: the so-called “four letter words.” When done properly—and there is a right use of cursing—a curse is a call upon God to visit his just condemnation on someone or something. For example, in Genesis 9:25, Noah uttered a curse upon the house of Ham due to the evil Ham himself had brought upon his lineage. A curse is a declaration that someone or something is condemned before God. We don’t have the right to decide for ourselves who is condemned and who is not; but there are times when God’s condemnation is to be declared—in all reverence and warning—in a holy curse. But in our day, cursing has become something trite and personal.
In the modern day, the expletives used to curse are quite specific. Some of them declare that the person or event being addressed is to be detested and treated as excrement. Elijah shows us the proper use of such a curse in his pronouncement of God’s decree upon wicked Jezebel: “the corpse of Jezebel shall be as dung on the face of the field in the territory of Jezreel” (2 Kings 9:37; cf., Jeremiah 8:2; Psalm 83:10).
Another popular American expletive declares that another deserves to be shamed by rape. It is actually quite shocking that our culture so lightly invokes a “rape curse” on others! There is no positive use whatsoever of that curse, although wicked societies are known to have practiced the shaming of enemies by rape. The men of Sodom famously uttered—and sought to enact—this curse against Lot and his guests (Genesis 19:5, 9).
There is a reason why certain words (the “four letter words”) are used as curses in our society, while other expressions of frustration (“Oh man!” or “Not again!” or “Why!?”) do not provide the same level of emotional release. By uttering these unholy curses, a person who has just suffered a great frustration asserts his or her own justice. The alternative—to simply express frustration with a lame expression like “Ugh!” or “Bummer!”—is weak by comparison, because such alternate expressions merely vent frustration. Only a curse adds the emotional power of self-vindication and proclaimed condemnation. But we ought to beware, for to pronounce a curse on a frustrating person is presumptuous. And to pronounce a curse on an event is to judge God’s providence for allowing it to happen! Such proclamations feel powerful, because they are—they are bold assertions that puff up the heart with self-declared retribution.
Now, most Americans are not thinking deeply about what they are doing when they swear like this. But even if one who curses is not consciously reflecting on what he or she is doing, the individual does fully understand what is taking place at an emotional level. That is why they are called “curse” words—because we fully understand that they are words uttered to curse. And that is why shouting a four letter expletive gives a greater sense of personal power than simply saying something mild like “Oy” or something edifying like, “Heavenly Father, help me to bear this disappointment with grace!” Even if a person is not thinking seriously about what he or she is saying, when a curse is uttered it is done with full emotional comprehension of the purpose: the one cursing completely understands that a curse is a presumptuous condemnation and self-justification.
There is a proper place for the practice of cursing. A curse can be a legitimate act of judgment declared by someone who is in a position to pronounce that judgment against grave evil. But taking the authority to curse into ones own judgment is like pronouncing a death wish on someone out of anger. There is a legitimate time to pronounce death upon the wicked. Anyone who supports the legitimacy of at least some war efforts affirms that point. Holy cursing has a proper place. But it is grossly evil to go around punching or pulling a gun on others or verbalizing a death wish on them (or a hope they will be raped) simply to vent anger.
While cursing is an unholy way to deal with extreme frustration or anger, the frustration is often real and does need to be expressed. Psalm singing is one way that Scripture trains our hearts to express our angst in holiness, and to rest in Christ’s just condemnations on wickedness. With faith in Christ’s coming judgment (Rom. 12:9), Christians must learn the high calling to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39), to “bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28), and to accept the senseless sufferings of life with faith in God’s goodness (James 1:1–5). To curse in the face of frustration reveals a lacks a willingness to trust God’s goodness even in hard circumstances. It demonstrates that a person wants to destroy rather than redeem those persons or circumstances that are broken or wrong. And most sobering is the realization that God takes all cursing seriously: the Bible is full of warnings that the person who curses lightly will, in fact, receive those curses upon him or herself. In Psalm 109:7, for one example, our Lord declares of those who freely curse: “He loved to curse; let curses come upon him! He did not delight in blessing; may it [that is, blessing] be far from him!”
Christians are called to bring blessing into the world. Yes, we also announce to the world the curse that King Jesus has already declared upon sin. We do have a duty to articulate the curses which Jesus—in his authority as Judge—has already decreed (2 Peter 3:10–12). But, apart from announcing Jesus’s curses on sin with all reverence (not with trite curse words), and apart from legitimate civic positions of judgment, our calling as Christians is to bless. To bless is the exact opposite of cursing.
To bless is to declare that something or someone broken or offensive ought to be loved, to be borne with, and to be brought to life and wholeness. Blessing is to be the constant fruit of Christian lips, without mixing in faithless curses. The Apostle James writes, “from the same mouth comes both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way” (James 3:10). The Christian is to “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14) and to “let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
Controlling the tongue is among the most difficult—and among the most important—expressions of true Christian faith: “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). As Christians, this includes taking curses seriously and guarding against the flippancy with which our culture invokes them. The solution is not simply to bottle up the anger we feel at frustrations; we must nurture faith that transforms our perspective toward difficult people and hard events.
Rather than cursing God’s providence for allowing frustrations to happen, we ought to trust in God’s goodness even as we face severe disappointments. When dealing with difficult people, rather than presumptuously condemning them as dung or worse, we ought to pray for God’s love and a vision for redemption—even of those who grieve us.
The Christian calling is to “bless those who curse you [and] pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28). May God cleanse our hearts and our lips, to make them vessels to proclaim the love of Christ, with the patience of Christ!