When Words Fail

Whether we are standing in awe at the beauty of God’s creation or curled up in horror at creation’s brokenness, whether we are stirred into relief and joy at the grace and forgiveness of God or aching with longing for the new creation, there are times when our regular words are not enough.

Ineffable: too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words

“Excuse my language!” This is often one of the first things people say when, in the course of conversation, they find out I am a pastor. Whether they’ve taken God’s name in vain or used barnyard expletives, when they juxtapose their speech with my vocation, they seem compelled to offer an apology. I find it fascinating and a bit odd that they associate my profession first and foremost with policing language. If someone really wants to confess their misuse of language to me, I’d rather they confess the lack of consistency between their words and their actions or their habit of gossiping.

I was brought up to be careful with my speech, and I am raising my daughters the same way. But could it be that there’s a place for some of the words people apologize to me for saying? (Before you start writing letters to the editor, I want to be clear that I am not talking here about taking God’s name in vain but about other not-so-polite language.)

The biblical argument for saltier language comes from the psalmists, prophets, and apostles themselves. Every once in a while, they used offensive and scandalous language (at times obscured by our English translations) to shock us out of complacency and to shine a light on the pain, sin, and brokenness of our world.

There are certainly some pragmatic arguments for uttering expletives. In her provocative book, Swearing is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, scientist Emma Byrne cites studies showing that swearing can help people endure pain for longer periods of time and face physical challenges more successfully.

Kate Bowler makes a different kind of argument. In her book Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I’ve loved), Bowler—a mother, a wife, an assistant professor of history at Duke Divinity School, and a Stage IV cancer patient—writes about how she took up cursing for Lent.
Wait, what? She didn’t give up cursing for Lent; she took it up? That’s right.

Kate had read an article about how grieving people swear “because they feel the English language has reached its limit in a time of inarticulate sorrow” (127). In the midst of cancer treatments and while confronting her own mortality, Kate found that the English language had reached its limits for her as well.

Kate reflected on her experience of looking for a Good Friday service when she was in Houston during Holy Week. But when she arrived, greeters wished her a “Happy Good Friday!” She noted that during the service, “Jesus stayed dead” for only about three songs. Then it was straight into the resurrection.

A few years later, this time experiencing Lent and chemotherapy side effects at the same time, she found other Christian communities similarly reluctant to lean into the reality of death. “’Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my Lent,’” she said to friends “through gritted teeth and tears” (134).

And so she swears. I swear about cancer. I swear about dry croissants and coffee that cools too quickly. I swear about the budding ulcers in my mouth from intense chemotherapy. I swear about the refugee crisis in Europe . . . I swear about Curious George whining to the Man in the Yellow Hat. I am relentless. Last week I cursed at my mother-in-law in what I imagine was the halfway mark of her complaining about her wrinkles and her droopy parts (127).

And then, she says, one Sunday morning at brunch, she stops—the drive to swear breaking “like a fever.”

I find Kate’s strange Lenten discipline evocative. Even if I never take up swearing for Lent (and I don’t plan to!), there are times in life when the English language—when any language—reaches its limit. These might be times of sorrow, fear, and anger. Or these might be times of joy, surprise, and delight. Whether we are standing in awe at the beauty of God’s creation or curled up in horror at creation’s brokenness, whether we are stirred into relief and joy at the grace and forgiveness of God or aching with longing for the new creation, there are times when our regular words are not enough.

Perhaps some of us are simply silent in these times. Others might cry. Some write, recite, or read poetry. And still others reach deep into the limbic system of our brains (where emotion, instinct, and swear words are stored) and, in a subconscious attempt to reach the limits of language, come out with words that would make our grandmothers blush.

Now, Paul does say in Ephesians 4:29a, “Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.” English translations open up the Greek word for “unwholesome” (sapros) in a variety of ways: evil, harmful, foul, corrupt, filthy. Paul seems to prohibit “bad language.” But might there be rare or understandable times when that same “bad language” is actually “helpful for building others up according to their needs” in order to “benefit those who listen” (v. 29b)? Some biblical authors—even Paul—certainly seemed to think so (check out the King James Version of Phil. 3:8).

I may be pushing the boundaries of what is permissible, but the deepest truth that I am dancing with is the ineffability of our experiences of God and the world. In the words of T. S. Eliot, Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still (“Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets).

Even the heavens, according to the psalmist, are torn between articulation and silence: They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world (Ps. 19:3–4).

In this Lenten season, when words slip and crack under the weight of our pain or under the weight of glory, I am thankful for the freedom to groan as in the pains of childbirth. I am thankful that the Spirit also intercedes with wordless groans (Rom. 8:22, 26). And I am most thankful that our eternal God not only speaks to us, but also pierced the ineffability of God’s being and the ineffability of creation and the fall with the Word made flesh, who made his dwelling among us.

Jesus is the Word not only heard, but seen. And not only seen, but touched. Jesus is the Word who not only lived, but died. Who not only died, but lives. Jesus is the Word who is not only at the right hand of the Father, but is with us. When our words fail and we crack with cuss words or slide into silence, may Jesus’ effable words and ineffable presence be our only comfort.


Discussion Questions

  1. What are your thoughts and feelings about swear words or “bad language”? Is such language ever permissible? Why or why not?
  2. Were you aware that some biblical writers used “saltier language” that is obscured by our English translations? Do you know of any examples? If so, was such language warranted?
  3. Can you recall and share times in your life when you find that our regular words were not enough, when our language had reached its limit?
  4. Which words or actions of Jesus do you draw comfort from in times of suffering and pain?

About the Author

Heidi S. De Jonge is the pastor of Westside Fellowship CRC in Kingston, Ont., She enjoys cycling, cake decorating, and digital scrapbooking. She and her husband have three young daughters.

See comments (3)


     Thanks, Heidi, for an interesting article on the use of naughty words.  You’re right sometimes words just cannot express what’s in your mind or heart, even naughty words.   But we resort to words or language that might better express what’s inside, anyway, potty talk.  Does such talk help me to express my anger or joy?  For some, maybe.  For others, probably not.  I think using such expletives may be a way of emphasizing a point, a way to bring it home to others.  For some it’s a way to get another person’s attention.  For some it may just be  a way to fit in with a peer group.
    Also, it’s good to remember context will make a difference.  I remember coming to a new church (for our family) in a rural community, a farm community.  We had moved from Grand Rapids, a community of spit and polish.  Our boys knew proper English, a good use of words from bad. We were standing with our family after church having coffee when one young member came up to his mom and announced to her that Joey had just “shit” his pants.  What stood out most to me, was the big smiles on our boy’s faces and hearing them say to each other, “I think we are going to like this church.”
      I often think that poetry has a way to bring deep meaning to our thoughts.  After reading this article, I realize there’s another alternative. But, Heidi, I wouldn’t recommend using that word (that my kids appreciated) in a sermon to make a point, or using it too freely when having coffee after church in Grand Rapids.  Thank you for giving us a broader perspective on how we express ourselves.

I empathize with Kate Bowler about churches that seem too eager to skip the Good Friday part to get to Easter as though the messiness of Good Friday with Jesus' being beaten to a pulp made them uncomfortable.  There is a good reason--if only one?--that the Passion of the Lord is included in the Bible, and I can see why it would make us uncomfortable.  He endured this for our sakes, but we don't like to think about that because most people like to delude themselves with the notion that they are good people even if the Bible clearly teaches otherwise.  

On the other hand we don't want to dwell on the violence He endured too much either lest we verge on voyeurism.  Anyway, in our church all our Good Friday services are focussed on Christ's Passion, and we wait until Easter to celebrate His resurrection.  To do otherwise seems to disrespect the pain that not only He endured but also that of His followers.  Maybe she attended Good Friday services in churches that preach the Prosperity Gospel?  Those churches do tend to emphasize health and wealth at the expense of reality.

This evening I read a story about Nina Simone and the time she wrote the song the song "Mississipi Goddam" after learning that civil rights' activist Medgar Evers was shot in the back on June 12, 1963 and that four girls were killed on September 15 of the same year because white supremacists had planted more than a dozen sticks of dynamite beneath the side steps of the African American 16th St. Baptist Church in BIrmingham Alabama.  According to one witness, their bodies flew across the basement like rag dolls.

Although I certainly don't condone using God's name that way, people who suffer that much don't need to be reminded of the Ten Commandments. They need compassion.  The same God who gave the Law to Moses also said, " I desire mercy, not sacrifice."  Those who should be reminded of the Law are those who murder people because of the color of their skin or because they say something they don't want to hear.  Murder is as much a sin as swearing, after all, and you don't need to bury a corpse for someone to have died.  I often say that rape is psychological murder, so the people who abuse others sexually and then condemn them if they have an anortion should worry about facing God on Judgment Day.  Remember Matthew 18: 6?

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!"