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Lesson 13: Have You Heard--About Gossip? (2 Samuel 13-15)

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A church bulletin listed the sermon topic for the morning as “Gossip.” Immediately following was the hymn, “I Love to Tell the Story.” While that hymn concerns telling the story of the gospel, all too often God’s people love to tell someone else’s story. I think that, along with pride, gossip is the most widely tolerated and most destructive sin in the church.

We tolerate gossip because we’ve all been guilty of it. It’s easy to condemn people for sins you’ve never committed, but it’s not so easy to face up to sin which you have done and have encouraged others to do by listening to their gossip. So we tend to shrug it off. Or we spiritualize it: “I just wanted you to know so that you could pray.” But we need to own up to gossip as a serious sin that can destroy people.

To develop and protect proper relationships in the church, we must deal with the sin of gossip.

One of the tricky aspects of this subject is defining the term. Sometimes we fall into the sin of gossip because we’re fuzzy about what it is. Sometimes it involves a judgment call and we cross the line inadvertently. But if we would just deal with what we’re clear about, it would go a long way toward healing broken relationships and preventing further damage in the church.

What is gossip?

Webster defines gossip as either “a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts,” or as “a rumor or report of an intimate nature.” One of the biblical words used means “a whisperer” (Rom. 1:30, 2 Cor. 12:20) which points to the intimate nature of the material shared. Another word means “busybodies” (2 Thess. 3:11; 1 Tim. 5:13). Another word means to meddle in business which doesn’t pertain to you (1 Pet. 4:15). Another word comes from a verb meaning “to babble,” suggesting that gossip is empty, pointless talk, often not completely factual (1 Tim. 5:13). Another word, translated “malicious gossips” (1 Tim. 3:11, Titus 2:3) is the same word that is most often translated “devil.” It comes from a compound word meaning to throw something against someone. It ought to scare us to realize that when we gossip we enter into the very nature of the devil!

I’m going to boil all these nuances down by defining gossip as sharing information which damages another person’s reputation with those who have no need to know. It may be completely factual. More often, the one sharing it has not bothered to check out the facts, which get distorted for the sake of making it more interesting. If the one who is sharing the information knows that it is not completely true and his motive for sharing it is to damage the other person, it moves from gossip to slander. The Hebrew word most often translated “slander” means to give an evil report about someone. The Greek word means to speak against someone. James says that if we do that, we make ourselves the judge of both our brother and God’s law, usurping God’s rightful place (James 4:11, 12).

To help us understand how gossip and slander work, let’s look at a case study in 2 Samuel 13-15. Absalom was a young man who was deeply hurt by his father, King David. Absalom’s full sister, Tamar, had been raped by their half-brother, Amnon. David got angry, but he didn’t do anything about it. Absalom let his bitterness simmer for two years. Then he murdered Amnon in cold blood, and fled the country.

Three years went by and David longed for Absalom to come back, but he felt like he couldn’t do it. But Joab, David’s top general, used trickery to get the king to admit how badly he wanted to bring Absalom home. So David consented. But, to keep up the appearance of “justice,” he refused to see Absalom. Two more years went by with Absalom living in Jerusalem without seeing his father. Finally, Absalom couldn’t stand it any longer and forced the issue. The father and son met and David kissed Absalom. But by now, he was a bitter, rebellious young man.

Now watch what happens (read 2 Sam. 15:1-6). First Absalom organized a loyal following and took on a self-appointed role (15:1, “provided for himself”). Then he began to befriend those who had complaints. Gossips always look for those who have a complaint because they will readily listen to the damaging rumors. He took an interest in them by asking them where they were from. It was a superficial interest, because Absalom wasn’t concerned about them, but about furthering himself over his dad whom he was mad at. But they couldn’t discern that. They just felt like here was someone in government who cared. Gossips project that image: “You can trust me; I care for you and I understand what you’re going through in trying to deal with this impossible person.”

Absalom gave them personalized attention like they had never seen before. He put himself on their level by kissing them rather than letting them prostrate themselves. He was signaling, “I’m just a regular guy like you. I’m not royalty like the king. I know what it’s like to be a working man.” He made them feel that here was someone who cared for them and understood their problem. In the process, he subtly maligned the king (15:3) and suggested himself as the answer (15:4). He would give them the justice they now were having problems obtaining. (It makes you wonder if some modern politicians haven’t studied this text!)

That’s how it often happens in a local church. A person gets hurt over some incident. They feel like the church failed to meet their needs. They grow bitter, blaming the leadership for not caring about their problem. The hurt person intends to go talk to one of the leaders about things, but it doesn’t happen. Then, one day he runs into someone else from the church who seems caring and concerned. So he shares his complaint. The “caring” person replies, “Well, it doesn’t surprise me. You’re not the first to have this kind of problem with the leaders, you know.” “Really?” “Oh, yes, in fact I was just talking with another family who ran into the same brick wall.” [He goes on to describe that situation.] “Those pastors just don’t seem to care. We need some leaders who would care about the needs of good people like you.”

That’s gossip and slander in operation! The person who felt hurt had no business telling anyone about it except the one against whom he had the complaint. The gossip tested the waters by saying, “It doesn’t surprise me. There are others, you know,” implying that he had inside information he was willing to share. The hurt person took the bait by saying, “Really?” Then the gossip took up the offense, assumed the position of neutral judge (which the Lord had not assigned him) and shared more damaging gossip which he had no business sharing. Through it all he showed a concern for the hurt person by subtly contrasting himself with those insensitive leaders. Satan uses that scenario over and over to destroy churches and church leaders.

I want to deal with two questions: First, How can I deal with my own gossip? Second, How can I deal with gossip in others?

How can I deal with my own gossip?

1. See gossip as serious sin and confess it to God.

One of the main reasons we don’t deal with gossip is that we excuse it as no big deal. It’s not seen as a “bad” sin, like adultery or homosexuality or armed robbery (but see 1 Pet. 4:15). So we rationalize it and tolerate it. But we need to see the destructive power of our tongues and confess and forsake the sin of gossip.

Proverbs 18:21 states, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, ...” The Japanese have a proverb which says that though the tongue is only three inches long it can slay a man six feet high. Proverbs 16:27, 28 states, “A worthless man digs up evil, while his words are as a scorching fire. A perverse man spreads strife, and a slanderer separates intimate friends.” Gossip spreads contention and contaminates those who come in touch with it: “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down. Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a contentious man to kindle strife. The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, and they go down into the innermost parts of the body” (Prov. 26:20-22).

Professional boxers need to be careful not to get into fist fights outside of the ring, because their hands are considered lethal weapons in a court of law. We need to see our tongues that way. James 1:26 says, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.” The tongue, like an unbroken horse, needs to be bridled or restrained. James also says (3:2) that “the man who can claim that he never says the wrong thing can consider himself perfect, for if he can control his tongue he can control every other part of his personality!” (Phillips paraphrase). Until we see that our tongues are capable of terrible evil and confess our loose tongue as sin, we won’t conquer gossip.

2. Realize that you can’t conquer gossip in your strength.

James 3:7-8 asserts, “For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.” No one can tame the tongue! That shows the power of sin over fallen human nature. Jesus said that evil speech stems from our hearts, which are evil (Matt. 15:19). Until we realize the utter depravity of our hearts and cry out to God for His deliverance, we will never conquer the sin of gossip.

3. Yield your tongue to God as an instrument of righteousness.

Paul says (Rom. 6:12-13) that rather than let sin reign in our bodies, where we go on presenting the members of our bodies to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, we are to present ourselves to God as those alive from the dead and our members as instruments of righteousness to God. It is a choice of masters: Either we serve sin or we serve God.

Memorizing Scripture is a powerful weapon for overcoming sin. A verse that has helped me in the battle to control my tongue is Proverbs 12:18: “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” The word picture is that my tongue can either be a sword or a scalpel. I can speak rashly and wound another person like sword thrusts; or, I can consider what I say and use my tongue as a scalpel to bring healing. That leads to the next step:

4. Make a commitment to build others in Christ, not to tear them down.

Ephesians 4:29 gives us this contrast: “Let no unwholesome [lit., “rotten”] word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Have you ever bit into a rotten piece of fruit? You want to spit it out of your mouth and rinse your mouth out. That’s how we ought to feel about speech that tears others down. When you say things behind someone’s back which tear them down or ruin their reputation, it’s rotten speech. It may even be true, but the person you’re sharing it with has no need to know.

By way of contrast we are to say things which build up others according to their need, that it may give grace to those who hear. That doesn’t mean that we paper over people’s faults or make them look good when they did us harm. Paul sometimes warned his readers of individuals, whom he named, who were causing problems for the church (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 1:15; 4:14, 15). He told the church in Rome, “Keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them” (Rom. 16:17). So we aren’t to have a “Pollyanna Positive” view of people where we never say anything bad about anybody. But we need to make a commitment to build up others, not to tear them down, whether in our presence or not.

5. Fill your life with meaningful work.

In 1 Timothy 5:13-14, Paul talks about younger widows who were idle and went about from house to house as “gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention.” He instructs them to “get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach.”

Even though men are as prone to gossip as women, most of the New Testament injunctions against it are directed to women. In Titus 2:3-5 Paul writes that, among other things, older women are not to be malicious gossips so that they can teach younger women to love their husbands and children and to be workers at home. One requirement for deaconesses is that they not be malicious gossips (1 Tim. 3:11). Whether for men or women, it takes time to spread gossip, so if you want to avoid the problem, fill your life with meaningful work and service for the Lord.

6. Examine your motives for sharing information about another person.

Why do I need to share this with this person? Is it to make me look good and the other person look bad? Maybe I have a gripe about the other person, and I’m trying to win people to my side by running down the other guy. Perhaps I want to share information because it feels good to be in the know. Then others will look to me as one who always has the inside scoop. Perhaps the other person threatens me and I’m trying to put him down to make myself more secure. There are a lot of fleshly reasons for sharing something about another person behind his back.

The only right reasons for sharing damaging information about a person behind his back are to seek to bring help to the person or to warn someone who could be damaged by this person. You must be very honest before the Lord in this, because it’s easy to play games! If a person is not directly involved in the problem and isn’t a part of the solution, and if they don’t need to be warned for their own protection, they don’t need to know details. If they ask questions, you can simply say, “Yes, there are some problems, but I’m not free to divulge details.”

7. Refuse to listen to those who want to spread gossip.

Proverbs 20:19 states, “He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, therefore do not associate with a gossip.” If you listen to gossip, you’ll be tempted to pass it on. If you refuse to listen to it, you won’t have fuel for that fire. A gossip will contaminate you with damaging information which may hinder you from relationships which could help you grow in the Lord.

I read of one pastoral leader who once spent a year with a certain fellowship working with their pastoral team. Before meeting them he had heard good things about one of the leaders and wanted to pursue a friendship with him. He mentioned this to one of the other leaders who responded, “Oh, you’ll find he’s no good for personal things.” The first man said, “But I’ve heard so many good things about him.” “Sure. He’s a great speaker. But he’s really rigid and aloof. Nobody here tries to talk to him much anymore.”

Unfortunately, the first man listened to this unfavorable word. But during the year he was puzzled because it didn’t seem to add up. In the last few weeks he was there, he finally got to know the man and found him to be extremely helpful and personable. By this time, the one who had given the bad report was dropping out of the group. The man’s own problems had prevented him from having a good relationship with the other man. (Told by Gerry Rauch in “Pastoral Renewal,” 9/83, p. 13.)

You ask, How do I refuse to listen to someone who wants to spread gossip? That leads to the final question:

How can I deal with gossip in others?

It’s never easy because sometimes it sneaks up on you. But often a gossip will test your spirit before he gives you the information. If you seem interested, he will give you more. Sometimes he will create curiosity by dropping comments that indicate that he knows something that would interest you. If you take the bait, he tells you more.

Bill Gothard shares five questions to ask before you listen to an evil report. I find that often I can’t ask these before, but as a person starts to share something with me, I’m mulling the first one over in my mind, and I ask it as soon as I can.

1. What is your reason for telling me?

You’re asking the person their motive for sharing this information with you. Is it so that you can be involved in the solution? Why you and not someone else? If it’s none of your business, then tell the person, “I am not the one to talk to about this matter. You should go directly to the person involved.”

A few years ago, an elderly lady in our church didn’t like the fact that we started using the guitar in our worship services. She started calling other women in the church, trying to win them to her side, running me down in the process. But she made the mistake of calling the wife of one of our elders, who told her, “You have no business calling me or any other person. You need to talk to Steve.” Then this elder’s wife told me what was going on. I went to visit this lady and gently tried to tell her that if she had a problem, she should go directly to the one she had the problem with. Well, that was totally foreign to her mode of operation! The next time I called on her she snapped at me, “Have you come to bawl me out again?” But, to my knowledge, she stopped spreading dissension in the church.

2. Where did you get your information?

If a person refuses to identify the source of information, he is probably spreading an evil report. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was open about his source of information: “I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you” (1 Cor. 1:11).

3. Have you gone to those directly involved?

Jesus was clear: If you have a problem with your brother, go directly to him and seek to clear it up (Matt. 18:15). If a person has not done this, he is not interested in helping restore an offender, but only in spreading gossip (unless he’s never been instructed in how to deal with such matters). You can say, “I can’t verify the things you’re saying. Before you talk to anyone else, you need to go directly to this person and talk to him about it. If you need help on how to do that, I’ll be glad to coach you. Then I’d like you to tell me how it went.”

4. Have you personally checked out all of the facts?

Often, gossip is based on hearsay or misinformation. Or the person spreading it has listened to only one side. Proverbs 18:17 (NIV) observes, “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” By the time gossip travels down the line, it gets even more distorted. We are to speak truth with one another (Eph. 4:25). If you haven’t checked the facts, it’s only a rumor, not verified truth.

5. Can I quote you if I check this out?

A gossip doesn’t want to be quoted because he’s not sure of his facts and he doesn’t want to be involved in the solution.


A professor at Princeton University ran an experiment to test the velocity of gossip. He called six students to his office and in strict confidence informed them that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were planning to attend a certain university dance. Within a week this completely fictitious story had reached no less than 2,000 students. City officials phoned the university demanding to know why they had not been informed. Press agencies were frantically phoning for details. The professor observed, “That was a pleasant rumor--a slanderous one travels even faster.”

If we want to develop and protect loving relationships in this church, we’ve got to deal with the sin of gossip. First we need to confront it in our own lives. Then we’ve got to deal with gossip in others by refusing to listen to it and by gently correcting anyone who tries to spread gossip to us. Let’s love to tell the story of Jesus, but let’s hate to tell anyone else’s story unless it builds up the body of Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can you know when a good story about someone crosses the line into sinful gossip?
  2. Are you listening to gossip if you read news articles about the sins of Christian leaders? Why/why not?
  3. Is it gossip to seek the counsel of a third party before you go to the one with whom you have a problem?
  4. Is it always wrong to share your negative impressions about a person to a third party? When might it be O.K.?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character Study, Fellowship, Hamartiology (Sin), Relationships, Spiritual Life

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