Did you know that you carry a lethal weapon with you wherever you go? And it would be impossible for anyone to make you check it at the door, because it is attached to your body. The Spirit of God led Solomon to write, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). That is an amazing statement! And truer than we care to think. James said the tongue is full of deadly poison (James 3:8). A frightening thought!
The story of what happened to a family in a small North Dakota community illustrates this truth. The mother had not been well since the birth of her second baby, but everyone knew she did all she could to create an atmosphere of love in the home. The neighbors could see the father being met at the door each evening with hugs and kisses from his wife and two small children. In summer when the windows were open, they could hear the laughter and joyous fun coming from inside the house.
Then one day a village gossip whispered that the man was being unfaithful to his wife, a story completely without basis. It was passed on by others, and eventually came to his wife’s ears. It was more than she could bear. One evening when her husband came home, no one met him at the door. There was a deathly silence in the air. His wife had taken her own life and those of her two children. He was overcome with grief. His innocence was proven to all, but the gossip’s tongue had already done its work. Death and life are in the power of the tongue. It is full of deadly poison.5
Most of us who know the Lord want our conversations to honor Him. We want our communication habits to promote love and unity in the Body of Christ. But too often we use our built-in weapons system to accomplish the very opposite effect. Then we wonder why there is so much conflict among God’s people. A study of Scripture may help us find the antidote for the poison of gossip.
While the word is not prominent in Scripture, the idea of gossip is sprinkled throughout the Bible. It mentions talebearers, people who whisper derogatory information about others. It mentions backbiters, people who talk about faults of others behind their backs. It mentions slanderers, people who speak against others, often with a desire to do them harm. It talks about speaking evil of people or maligning them. We can sum it all up with one word, gossip. It is an ugly word. You can even hear it hissing at you when you say it. It is so ugly, hardly anyone will ever admit to doing it. They have valid concerns. They want to share a matter for prayer. But they never gossip!
We studied a critical spirit, that is, preoccupation with faults of others. Gossip is talking about those faults to people who cannot do anything about them, people who are neither a part of the problem nor a part of the solution. And talking about them to others is gossip, whether it is rumor or fact, true or false. God says, “Do not speak against one another, brethren” (James 4:11). That injunction does not say anything about whether it is true or false. It is evidently unacceptable to speak against other believers even if the story is true.
It is even wrong to do it in the form of a prayer request: “Pray for John. He’s been seeing another woman.” Or in speaking to the Lord publicly, we say, “Lord, deal with John. You know he’s running around on his wife.” It is wrong to spread accounts of the sins of other people, to put them in a bad light, to say things that will cause other people to dislike them, disrespect them or distrust them. Gossip is listed alongside the vilest sins imaginable. Listen to Paul’s lineup of gross sinners:
“Being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful” (Romans 1:29,30). Yet gossip seems to be another one of the Christian’s favorite pastimes. Why?
Most of us want others to think well of us. If we were honest, we would admit that a good bit of our thought-life is occupied with our acceptance level: “Do they know who I am? Do they like me? Do they respect me? Do they think I know what I’m talking about? Do they think I’m attractive? Do they like what I’m wearing? Do they want to be with me?” The lower our self-esteem is, the more we worry about things like that, but all of us give some thought to them.
And that is why we gossip. We want to make ourselves look better and gain greater acceptance. If we have confidential information others do not have, it makes us appear important, knowledgeable and superior. People will listen to us. If we fear somebody else excels us in some way, cutting them down helps us excuse our failure to achieve what they have achieved. If we are jealous of the attention or acclaim they get, pointing out their faults makes us look a little better by comparison. If somebody has injured us, putting them in a bad light seems to us to be a fair way of retaliating, balancing the scales and restoring some of our self-esteem. It can also be an effective way of winning people to our side in the conflict. We seem to think that having more people on our side gives us greater worth. It would help us more though, if we realized that God loves us as we are, that He has accepted us in Christ and considers us a valuable part of His team with a significant role to fill. We don’t need to put others in bad light to establish our own importance.
There are other reasons we gossip. For one thing, we may have had a poor example. We grew up hearing our parents gossip and so were led to believe it was an acceptable part of life. Another possibility is that we have not developed our minds to the extent that we have anything else to talk about but people. Somebody has suggested that folks with great minds talk about ideas, folks with average minds talk about events, and folks with small minds talk about other people. It would help to develop our minds.
The Apostle Paul suggested that we may gossip because we do not have anything better to do. He talks about young widows who “learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention” (1 Timothy 5:13). Gossip here is foolish talk, especially talk that incriminates others. Their gossip is tied both to their idleness and to their tendency to be busybodies, that is, meddling in the affairs of other people. If they invested their time and energies into spiritually profitable activities such as visiting rest homes, ministering to shut-ins or caring for children, they would not have time to chatter about other people. But the cause for gossip is not nearly as important as the damage it does.
The book of Proverbs is like a textbook on the tongue, and it mentions several damaging effects of gossip. The first is that it separates friends. “A perverse man spreads strife, and a slanderer separates intimate friends” (Proverbs 16:28). “He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends” (Proverbs 17:9). Sometimes gossip is done purposely and maliciously by a jealous person who resents the friends someone else has. If he can dig up any trace of disreputable information, he will use it to drive a wedge between friends so he can try to move into the gap. He finds that to be easier than winning friends by showing genuine, unselfish kindness to others. “I don’t mean to be talking about her, but …” “I don’t want you to think I’m gossiping, but …” And in goes the knife!
On the other hand, there may be no malicious intent. It is just idle talk, or an effort to appear on the “inside.” But the result is just the same. You may have heard about the conversation where Ellen says, “Suzie told me you told her the secret that I told you not to tell her.” Jane answers, “Why that blabber mouth! I told her not to tell you I told her.” So Ellen replies, “Well, I told her I wouldn’t tell you she told me, so don’t tell her I did.” That friendship is doomed. Friends have to be able to trust each other. “He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy conceals a matter” (Proverbs 11:13).
We alienate our own closest friends by gossip. They begin to suspect that if we talk about others to them, we will also talk about them to others, so they hesitate to share their souls with us. And if we do talk about them, you can be sure it will get back to them, usually exaggerated by a few degrees. And no matter how much we protest that we did not say exactly that, the friendship could be irreparably damaged. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it [that is, love to use their tongues] will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). If we use the tongue for good, we will reap good from it. If we use it to cast shadows, those shadows will eventually fall on us.
Another consequence of gossip is that it wounds people. “The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, and they go down into the innermost parts of the body” (Proverbs 18:8). How do you feel when you find out that people have been talking about you unfavorably? They may have enjoyed it as one would enjoy a dainty morsel, but it hurts you, doesn’t it? And the hurt reaches down to your innermost being. While we know the Lord wants us to forgive them, we usually stew on it, worry over it, fret about it, feel sorry for ourselves and get angry with them. Sometimes it begins to affect our ability to function properly. And it may take a long time to heal. Think about that the next time you are tempted to share some juicy tidbit about someone. Would you want that told about you, even if it were true?
Gossip not only wounds, but it also destroys. I have a pastor friend, in his late sixties, who put his arm innocently on the shoulder of a single female missionary who had just returned from the field. A few old biddies in the church saw him and nearly ended his ministry. Another gracious, godly and extremely capable pastor in my acquaintance was forced to resign his pastorate because an associate began to sow seeds of suspicion and doubt about his abilities, even making insinuations about his sanity. Ministers have been destroyed by other men in the ministry who thought they knew what their colleagues believed, but misrepresented it publicly and attacked them personally. How that must grieve the heart of God!
Gossip likewise instigates anger. “The north wind brings forth rain, and a backbiting tongue, an angry countenance” (Proverbs 25:23). Some of the angriest people I have ever talked to have been the victims of vicious gossip. They were furious. The resentment they have built up as a result of the anger is sin, and they need to resolve it. But the person with the runaway tongue will still answer for his disobedience to God’s Word.
Did you ever turn a garden hose on with the nozzle partially open? It flops around, bangs into things and soaks everyone nearby. Those people are not very happy with you, are they? A flopping tongue, spraying poison of gossip, has even worse consequences. Husbands and wives have made their family and friends furious with their spouses by talking about faults. Some who have heard the dirt have never been able to forget it and accept the one about whom the gossip has been told. The anger lives on.
That leads to the final consequence of gossip we want to mention. It causes contention and strife. “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down” (Proverbs 26:20). We all have known of churches which were wracked with strife. But there never has been one where the strife would not disappear if people would stop gossiping. “Do you know what he said? Do you know what she did? I’ll tell you what I think he’s after. If he would just do his job, everything would be all right. Do you know what that board is up to now?” Blah, blah, blah! Foolish talk. But it is like wood on the fire. It gets other people stirred up, and they get other people stirred up, and what started out as a spark turns into a raging fire.
James tells us where the original spark comes from. He said it “is set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). And Satan must be laughing himself silly over it. Gossip is his game. The name devil means “slanderer.” And he is called “the accuser of our brethren” (Revelation 12:10). But God hates it. He says the person who spreads strife among brothers is an abomination to Him (Proverbs 6:16-19). Well, what are we going to do about it?
The first suggestion for eliminating gossip from our conversations is to obey the command of Christ and confront others directly. “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matthew 18:15). God wants us to confront those who wrong us. If somebody does something to offend us, slight us, wrong us, take advantage of us or fail us in some way, or if we are aware of a serious sin which somebody has committed, we are to talk to that person about it. Nobody else! Just him alone. If it is some petty little thing, maybe we should just forgive him and forget about it. But if it is important enough to talk to anybody else about, we must talk to him about it first. And if it is not important enough to talk to him, then there is no need ever to mention it to anyone else.
I have asked people on occasion if they have confronted the person who offended them and their answer has been, “Yes, and it didn’t do a bit of good.” So now they feel justified in telling others. But there is a second step prescribed by our Lord, and it is not to spread the word among our friends. “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed” (v. 16). Have you done that?
Then there is another step. “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax gatherer” (v. 17). Have you done that? Nowhere in this procedure does it say, “O.K., now you can blab it to all your friends.” That is never a biblical option! And consistent biblical attempts to resolve the problem will help eliminate the temptation to talk about it to others.
The second suggestion for eliminating gossip is simply to refuse to listen to it. “He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, therefore do not associate with a gossip” (Proverbs 20:19). If all of us would follow that advice, the gossips would have nobody to infect with their venom. When Mrs. Motormouth calls a friend at church and starts to unload her dirt about Gracie Gadabout, her friend should say, “It would be good if you talked to Gracie about that. I don’t feel comfortable with the information.” She will call another friend and try again. But if she gets the same response four or five times, she will either clean up her speech habits or look for a new church. In either case, that church will be spared the poison of her gossiping tongue.
It is difficult not to listen when somebody starts giving us some high level, top-secret information. It makes us feel important to think that they would choose to tell us. Our old sin natures prompt us to take it in and store it up so we can use it someday to enhance our own image. But the listener is just as guilty as the gossiper. People talk because other people listen. If nobody listened, gossip would cease.
A third suggestion for overcoming gossip is to be more open about our own weaknesses. We like to keep our problems under cover for the sake of our image. If we’re not getting along with our spouse, or one of the children ran away from home, or we’re having difficulties on the job, we don’t want anyone to know lest it destroy our reputation as a good Christian. But our secrecy not only deprives us of the healing which the rest of the Body can minister to us, it also provides grist for the rumor mill. If we openly shared those problems and personally solicited the prayer support of other believers, we would be helped immensely, and the mystery on which the gossip feeds would be done away. There is no reason to gossip if everyone knows about it already.
God wants me to be open about my weaknesses, and you to be open about your weaknesses. But that is where it stops. He doesn’t want me to be open about yours, nor you to be open about mine. Openness itself can turn to gossip when we misuse it. You all have heard of the three preachers who were out in a boat together fishing. They decided to get honest with each other about their secret sins. The first preacher said he liked to gamble when he got away from home. The second said he took a little nip on the bottle when no one was looking. “What’s yours?” they asked the third. “Mine’s gossip,” he answered, “and I can’t wait to get out of here.” That is not the kind of openness we are talking about. Let each of us be honest about our own shortcomings.
A fourth suggestion is to learn to love. We learn that primarily by observing God’s love for us (cf. 1 John 4:19). And when we truly learn it, we will not gossip any more. “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions” (Proverbs 10:12). That idea was borrowed by Peter who said, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). The worst thing about gossip is that it is totally unloving. We are showing no loving consideration whatsoever for the person we talk about in a derogatory manner. We are tearing him down before others, whereas love builds him up (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:1).
Before we open our mouths it might be good to ask, “Will this build respect for the person I am about to mention? Will it build trust? Will it build love?” If not, it would be better to leave it unsaid. There are many things I have said through the years that I wish I could take back. But it is too late! Thoughtless, loveless words can never be reclaimed. Learn to love!
There is one more suggestion, the most obvious and most important, yet probably the least used. Ask the Lord to help you guard your tongue. The psalmist did. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). God loves to help people who humbly admit their need and ask Him for help. Will you try it? He will help you conquer the gossip habit.