Bob Russell

“Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matt .12:34)

In the first home game following the terrorist attack in Boston, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz uttered an expletive in a pre-game ceremony at Fenway Park. Two days after the bloody April 15th bomb blast, Ortiz told the sellout crowd, “This is our _______ city, and nobody is going to dictate our freedom.” Afterward, “Big Papi,” as he’s affectionately known to fans, said it was an unplanned outburst, according to the Associated Press.

A few hours later David Ortiz got a supportive tweet from Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski. Genachowsk later stated that the FCC would not censure Ortiz because after all, “He was speaking from the heart.”

Really? Is it not possible to speak from the heart without using the f bomb or resorting to gross profanity? While I’m thankful for the unified and determined spirit that is evident in Boston, I’m disappointed in the vulgarity that has become commonplace in movies, rap music, literature and everyday conversation.

Anyone who attends a college football game, drives in heavy traffic or sits in a college classroom is aware of the increase in profanity that has somehow become totally acceptable in America. To me, it’s another sign of the moral decay that is eroding the foundation of our country. While it’s considered hate speech to use racial or gender slurs, the use of the name of God or Jesus in vain is dismissed with a shrug. None of the above should be tolerated.

I was told in high school that the use of profanity was an indication of a poor vocabulary. Today it’s, “Speaking from the heart.” We probably can’t do much to reverse the trend but as followers of Christ we do have a golden opportunity to be distinctive in the way we speak. If we don’t resort to profanity, even though we don’t make an issue of it, others notice and we eventually gain credibility and a right to be heard.

The book of James has a great deal to say about the importance of controlling the tongue. The tongue is directly involved in the sins of profanity, bigotry, boasting, criticism, complaining, slander, gossip, lies, coarse joking, blasphemy, sarcasm—the list goes on! To tame the tongue is a tough challenge for us since we live in a world of awful verbal pollution.

While working in a foundry one summer as a student in Bible college I was appalled every time I heard one particularly offensive four letter word. It was used constantly. But after a couple of weeks I became accustomed to hearing it, and it didn’t repulse me as much. Toward the end of the summer that word would pop into my mind when I was startled or angry. Although I didn’t use it, the temptation was certainly there.

I went from repulsion to tolerance to temptation in just three months. That summer I gained a new appreciation for Christian people who work in sinful environments year in and year out and yet are able to control their speech. That has to be a constant battle!

James used three analogies to illustrate the importance of taming the tongue:

(1) The horse’s bit. “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal” (James 3:3). There is a sense in which our speech reveals what is really in the heart. Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:34). But James says there is another sense in which our tongue controls our heart. Just as a small bit can determine the direction of a powerful horse, we can manage how we think, feel, and behave by controlling our tongues.

(2) The rudder of a ship. “Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts” (James 3:4-5). The rudder is tiny compared to the massive boilers that power the ship but the rudder determines the direction and ultimate destination.

(3) The spark that begins a forest fire. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:5-6). Recent fires that ravaged thousands of acres of timber and dozens of homes in Arizona were all started by just one match—just one tiny spark. So much damage can be done by just one little word or one seemingly innocent phrase.

Fans of the classic movie “Gone With the Wind” know of the famous line from Rhett Butler: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give…” Yet when the movie was released six decades ago a preacher in Boston objected to the use of that one four letter word in the movie. He insisted that if that one word were permitted there would be no end to the profanity that would be heard in future movies. He was a prophet. It all began with one word that many considered innocent.

On the other hand the tongue can be used to teach the gospel, encourage the discouraged, rebuke the sinner, heal the hurting, and give testimony to the lost. Solomon wrote, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). That’s why James makes an appeal for speech that is controlled, pure, positive, and consistent. “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21).

-Bob Russell is a  retired Minister living in Louisville, KY

(Reprinted from