Which words to avoid in our communications? According to Jesus, it’s a word that should never be heard on his followers’ lips:
“I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt 5:22).
Raca, or Raka (Greek Ρακά) in the Aramaic and Hebrew, means “empty one” or “fool.” In Aramaic, it’s either ריקא or ריקה (rēqáh or rēqá’). The Jews used it as a term of contempt — like calling someone a blockhead or jackass. The Lord teaches us to speak graciously (even of our enemies), and to avoid contempt, mocking, and other attitudes and actions unworthy of his followers.
We may instinctively feel that only “swear words” are wrong. But according to Jesus, it won’t do simply to avoid profanity, since it’s the unChristian sentiment behind such speech that is the real issue. This precludes, among other things, merely replacing an inappropriate term with a less offensive one. (For example, I believe this would include such phrases as “You jerk!”, as well as exclamations like “What the… ?” and “bull crap.”)
For more on this, please read Q&A 0463, on profanity, and Q&A 0050, on unwholesome talk. To understand what “taking the Lord’s name in vain” means — I haven’t met many Christians who understand this command — please listen to my podcast on the 3rd Commandment.
I share your concern about unwholesome talk. I distinguish between profanity and coarseness. Profanity is always wrong; coarseness may be more relatively defined, depending on who you are with at the time. I will not repeat profane words, and my wife and I will not even allow our children to use coarse language either, though the latter is very common in the world and even in the church.
There are many, many phrases in English which I think are vulgar (“I don’t give a ____,” “Shoot,” etc). They are often transparent circumlocutions or euphemisms for worldly, profane speech. Eventually, in the evolution of a language, once coarse or even profane phrases may lose their original sense and even become acceptable dictionary entries. (Not that we look to the world for what we may and may not say, of course!) One example of this: the names of the days of the week, which were named after pagan deities: the sun god, the moon god, Ty, Woden, Thor, Frigg, and Saturn!
Yet the phrases I would like to comment on are some things we say that have definite religious connotations. None of these words is “profane” in the common sense of that word. Included are the two words you specifically asked about. Where I have not been sure, I have consulted the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).
I realize that for many people, the religious connotations of these words have all but been lost. And yet to many ears, these words are reminiscent of their original forms. I remember my grandmother correcting me when I said “Gee.” I truly did not understand what was wrong with that, though I changed my speech. That may have been in the ’60s, and yes, the times, they are a-changing, but we are responsible for every careless word that comes out of our mouths. Even today I would hesitate to use any of the following expressions:
Gosh – from God – Golly – from God
Gee – prob. from Jesus
Darn – from damn – Dang – from damn
What ___ – from hell
Holy – implies God, one of the “saints,” etc.
Egad(s) – from ye God(s) – a hangover from paganism
Heavens, Heavens to ___ – mentions heaven
Jesus, Bejesus – a clear taking of the Lord’s name in vain
Christ, Jesus Christ – a clear taking of the Lord’s name in vain
God – a clear taking of the Lord’s name in vain
For God’s/Christ’s/Jesus’ sake – vain
Ever-living – refers to God, “who alone is immortal”
I hope this is helpful. I think we are close to the realm of opinion matters (Romans 14-15) when we draw up lists of words to be avoided. “Each one should be convinced in his own mind.” In the meantime, bear with those whose tongues may not have been fully “Christianized” — it will come! Keep yourself righteous — but not self-righteous. And remember, there may be children listening!
How about this? Use in your communication only the words, ideas and anything similar that Jesus used!
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