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.
- What are your thoughts and feelings about swear words or “bad language”? Is such language ever permissible? Why or why not?
- 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?
- 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?
- Which words or actions of Jesus do you draw comfort from in times of suffering and pain?