I’ve worked a number of “blue collar” jobs over the years (landscaping, construction, security, and so on). On each jobsite, my coworkers frequently used profane, sexist, and racist language in their humor and everyday conversation. Should a Christian respond negatively to every instance of this kind of behavior? How can a Christian balance between camouflaging their faith and just being a prude?
I have worked in some of these manual-labor jobs myself. I have also served in the Army for more than 20 years. You are right—there does tend to be a number of folks in those kinds of positions who often use language that might make some of us squirm.
I’d like to offer a number of practical suggestions based on some of my life experiences. However, I want to begin with what Scripture has to say about dealing with the sins we see around us. We want to look through a biblical lens so that we can respond in a way that brings glory to God.
In my last year of college, my father got engaged to a woman he’d had an affair with. I went to my pastor for some counseling regarding how to treat my new stepmother. He told me: “Dogs bark, trees shed their leaves, and sinners sin. It’s just what they do. It shouldn’t surprise us when we see it.”
Sin shouldn’t surprise us when we see it.
Expecting perfect behavior from anyone just sets us up for disappointment and accusations. But remembering humanity’s weakness (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 5:12)—especially if a person is not a Christian—helps us to adjust our expectations and our responses.
How should I respond to my new stepmother? Among other things, my pastor reminded me that she was one more person to whom I could show God’s love. Those were life-changing words that have stuck with me for 40 years.
Choose Your Battles
So we should not be surprised when we hear words that take the Lord’s name in vain or disrespect others. And I do not think a Christian should respond negatively to every instance of this kind of behavior.
This should not mean, however, that we stay silent and allow it to continue indefinitely. Jesus took us out of the world to send us right back into the world as salt and light, to make a difference right where we are (John 17:14–19).
There are two major questions we must ask to determine our approach. The first: How damaging are the words that are used? And the second: Is this coworker a Christian?
1. How damaging are the words that are used?
Jesus took us out of the world to send us right back into the world as salt and light, to make a difference right where we are.
In basic training, I had a drill sergeant who constantly used foul language. After a while, I became numb to it. Although I now actively discourage soldiers who work directly for me from using profanities, there is not much I can do to diminish its use in others. Sadly, foul language has become part of military culture. But when I weigh the actual damage that occurs when those kinds of words are said, the effects are minimal.
However, some foul language and coarse joking do real damage (Prov. 18:21; James 3). When coworkers use words that are disrespectful of people of different ethnicities or cultures, or are denigrating to women, I have to draw the line. A healthy workplace will not allow talk that detracts from the dignity of other human beings. Perhaps God has placed you in this place for such a time as this (Est. 4:14), in order to take a stand.
The conversation must start with a loving and private discussion with the offender. (It’s always good to pray first, both for your heart and also for that of your coworker.) If they refuse to listen, perhaps you take it higher, or wait to see if it changes.
2. Is this coworker a Christian?
If your colleague is not a Christian, telling them to “clean up their act” will not bring them closer to faith in Christ. You are looking for fruit they may be unable to produce without the Holy Spirit’s help. In this case, if the language is not hurting or disrespecting others, you may be forced to ignore it as best you can, while keeping your own language appropriate and God-honoring.
If your colleague is not a Christian, telling them to ‘clean up their act’ will not bring them closer to faith in Christ.
But if your coworker is a brother or sister in Christ, then you have a leg to stand on when encouraging them to be mindful of the effect of their words. Remember (again) to pray first, for both them and yourself, and to examine your own language patterns before speaking about someone else’s. One option is to ask for their help so that you can both grow in grace. (“I want to work to make my language more honoring to God. Can we hold each other accountable in this area?”). Sometimes a gentle nudge is enough. (“I’ve been thinking about honoring God with my tongue. What do you think that means? What language is appropriate and what isn’t, do you think?”).
Finally, remember that you are accountable to God only for your own language. Even while you may have some success in cleaning up your coworker’s bad language, it is the state of your heart, and theirs, that matters most.