Hey, did you hear what Bob did the other day after work? Well …”
“You will never guess what happened to Judy on Friday night [laughter] but don’t worry, I will fill you in!”
“Oh my … I have a very private prayer request to share with you … You see, I heard that …”
Have you ever heard statements like these? Have you ever had a conversation where this sort of thing was said? Then you have probably been involved in some way with gossip!
Now, immediately, your internal lawyer and mine loves to object to any accusation of wrongdoing. We like to think that we are not that bad … certainly there are valid reasons to say such things! Surely, we can share prayer requests without it being gossip, right?
Well, yes and no. Those are good questions, and as we begin to explore gossip, we need to clarify what we are talking about. To understand this issue, we will first define our terms, and then we will spend some time exploring why this is such a problem/temptation in the first place.
Defining our terms
Let us begin with what the Bible tell us about gossip. We see gossip mentioned many times in the Bible, and always in a negative way. Proverbs speaks of the dishonest man who spreads strife, and the whisperer who separates close friends (Prov.16:28). This verse introduces us to the concept that gossip may include dishonesty, but it definitely spreads strife. Furthermore, we almost get the picture of the gossip in the term “whisperer.” This refers helpfully to the way that people often demonstrate that they know what they are saying is inappropriate by looking around first and speaking quietly. We have all seen it happen, and perhaps you have even done it yourself. But when someone leans in to whisper some secret, we need to stop and ask, “Is this something which is going to build up friendships or bring strife and division?” The problem is that all too often, we find that gossip is enjoyable and “important” for us to hear in the moment. Proverbs 18:8 explains why that is, when it describes the words of a whisperer as being like delicious morsels. There is a powerful “rush” or “high” of sharing or receiving gossip, and we need to be on our guard lest we get sucked into the excitement of the moment. But where does that rush come from? Why do we find it so delicious to hear of the troubles or drama of others? The fundamental reasons vary from person to person. While one person feels better about themselves when they hear about their neighbour’s troubles, another person might simply have an excessive curiosity which sinfully enjoys the voyeurism of getting a peek into someone else’s life and troubles. A different person may simply delight in knowing some secret which others don’t know (then they enjoy the rush of being the one to share that secret). Regardless of gossip’s personal appeal to you, one of the key things for overcoming that rush is to remember the danger associated with gossip. In Proverbs 26:20, we learn that “for lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarrelling ceases!” When we remember the pain and fire of sharing or receiving gossip and the destruction which it brings, THEN we are better able to bring a stop to it.
We are beginning to get a fuller picture of what gossip is all about. It is sharing information about others which is exciting to share, but which we naturally know should not be shared. Sharing this information does not build others up, but instead brings quarrelling, the separation of close friends and pain. The New Testament repeatedly puts gossip in the class of envy, murder, strife, deceit, slander, jealousy and quarrelling (See Rom. 1:29 & 2 Cor. 12:20). In 1 Timothy 5, Paul speaks against some women in the church who went about from house to house being “gossips and busybodies.” But it isn’t only women who struggle with this sin – it could be any one of us! Even though it may seem harmless at first, gossip is a destructive practice which destroys people and friendships and dishonours the Lord.
Now that we have a picture of gossip from Scripture, how do we define what information might be gossip, and what might be legitimately shared? Oxford Languages defines gossip as “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true.”1 Even with that definition, it can be hard to label what is gossip, because people often look at the same issue from different angles. For instance, you might not want someone to tell others about that embarrassing thing you did last week, but other people would voluntarily tell others if it had happened to them! Therefore, on a personal level, we draw the lines of what is appropriate very differently from one another.
My father was a minister in the USA, and he always spoke of gossip as “speaking of something when you are neither part of the problem or part of the solution.” I have always found that immensely helpful. If you are part of the problem, and you are speaking to another person who is a part of the problem then it is not necessarily gossip. If you are only complaining and slandering others involved in the problem, then it probably is gossip (or a closely related sin of your speech). However, you can legitimately speak of a private problem with your pastor or someone who may be involved in bringing a positive resolution to a given situation. Consider this: if you were never allowed to share private information about someone else, then you would never be able to obey Matthew 18! God actually commands us to confront one another when we fall into sin, and if the sinner refuses to listen to us – then we must tell two or three others so that they can be witnesses of the situation and assist in confronting the person ensnared in sin! The difficulty is that we far too often tell too many people, or we share the prayer request further than is necessary because we want the rush of sharing that information with others.
Ultimately, this sin and the struggle against it comes down to love: love for God demonstrated in self-control of our words and attitudes, and also love for others in what and how we speak about one another. In most cases, if we were to put ourselves in the shoes of the person whom we are tempted to talk about – we would never gossip. We would quickly recognize how destructive it is to the other person and we would hold our tongue! But even then, you might still find it hard to stop!
Why is gossip such a temptation?
What is it that makes self-control of our tongues so difficult? If you have your Bible nearby it might be worthwhile to turn to James 3. That is the classic passage which describes the relentless and dangerous evil of our tongues/speech.
James warns us that not everyone should seek to be teachers, because there is a stricter judgment for those who teach. He goes on to explain that danger by elaborating on how common sins of speech really are. If someone never stumbles in his speech – he must be perfect! James is emphatically stating that no one can escape the danger of the tongue except for someone who is perfect (which is no one – just in case you were wondering.) James then uses the examples of reins on a horse and the rudder of a ship to explain the power of the tongue. Both examples work the same way, powerful forces are controlled and directed through a small member. The same is true of the tongue – it may be small, but it is powerful. If you are not careful with your speech, you could seriously steer your life off course.
James’s overarching message is very quickly understood. We often have a problem with gossip and other sins of speech because we have not properly guarded our tongue. James 3:6 explains that a great forest can be set ablaze by such a small fire, and the same is true for our lives. We can set our lives on fire by the spark of the tongue, which is a world of unrighteousness set among our members. We can tame all sort of animals, but no man can tame the tongue, for it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. And yet, James is not seeking to drive us to despair. He is not intending to point out flaws and sins which we cannot change and then leave us there. Instead, he is driving us to recognize what does not belong in the life of the believer, so that we might deal with it! We should not have both blessing and cursing coming from our mouths. Instead, we need to tame our tongues through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. No mere mortal can tame the tongue, but God can! Through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we can grow in our love for God and our love for our fellow man.
But how does that work? Many of you reading this article who struggle with gossip or slander or other sinful speech may have been believers for many years. So, how are you supposed to change?
First, you must recognize what is sinful and destructive about your speech. Gossip is wrong even within a family. Gossip can be destructive even within your own little circle of friends. Gossip is not loving, but hateful toward others and disobedient to God! So, first, admit that gossip is wrong.
Second, you must confess your sin to God and to those whom you have harmed with your sinful speech. Begin this process of confession and repentance in prayer to God. Ask God to show you the ways that you have sinned in your speech through gossip or slander. Ask the Lord to forgive you and wash you clean from this sin. Furthermore, ask the Lord to remind you of the people and situations where your sin has caused harm. Then, as God informs your conscience, be prepared to go and confess your sin to those who have been affected. Sometimes, a person might recognize that this has been a pattern in their life, but they are unsure how far into the past they might need to go to make things right. In that case, it might be good to do a general confession to those closest to you. Simply confess to your friends or family that you have recently been convicted of your sins of speech (and in particular gossip) and ask them for their forgiveness. You can also ask your friends and family if they know of any specific situations where you have hurt them with your words. Be ready to listen if they do raise something with you. Listen with humility, confess what you have done wrong and don’t worry about trying to defend yourself. Let God be your defender and aim for making things right as your primary objective. This may be hard, but I can promise that it will also be very freeing and helpful in your fight for pure speech! Repentance and confession help prevent you from falling into this sin again in the future.
You can experience God’s wisdom from above when you adopt God’s priorities and directions for life, and you walk in step with the Holy Spirit. As James tells us, God’s wisdom is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:17-18). Those attributes and results flow from a sincere faith in Christ lived out in daily life. And as you will notice, those effects are the exact opposite of what flows from gossip and the whisperer! The solution to gossip and the sins of our speech must begin fundamentally with repentance and confession of this sin. Then we continue to grow in our ability to resist this sin by growing in our love for God and others.
Most of all, remember that you cannot do this in your own strength. You cannot defeat or tame your tongue by yourself. Therefore, you must fight this fight with prayer, with the word of God, and with the help of your fellow brothers and sisters in the faith. Humility and love are the biggest weapons that God has given us in Christ to fight this battle. And Christ alone is the source of strength that we need! Rely on Him, and you will find that Christ is the One who can tame your tongue!
1 Gossip. (2020). In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/definition/gossip
Mr Daniel Wilson is the minister of the Reformed Church in North Shore.