Here in the political season, we are hearing a lot of idle talk from the media, the candidates, and our friends on Facebook and via email and other forms of social media passing on partial truths as if they are facts. As Christians engaging in and perpetuating this malicious gossip is against what we are taught in the Bible.
Not only is gossip commonplace today, there are people who advocate that it is positive! Robin Westen reported in Psychology Today about social scientists who have researched gossip: “In the vast majority of cases, they contend, it’s beneficial. Gossip serves important social and psychological functions; it’s a unifying force that communicates a group’s moral code. It’s the social glue that holds us all together” (“The Real Slant on Gossip,” July 1, 1996). Keep in mind this is a worldly view. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
You might expect that defining gossip would be unnecessary, but in light of articles such as the one cited above, perhaps defining gossip is very necessary today! According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, gossip means: “A person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others” and “rumor or report of an intimate nature.”
Idle comments are often delivered in a way that makes them seem unlike the traditional definition of gossip. People mask gossip in several ways, such as speaking in jest, offering others’ personal details “as an example,” and disguising the spread of information as a prayer request. Of course, not every tease or illustration is gossip. And the body of Christ is certainly called upon to pray for those facing hard times. Therefore, we must be able to distinguish between worthless chatter and wise speech.
What matters is the heart’s motivation. “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Ps. 19:14). When the intention is to mar a reputation or create instant camaraderie with another person, lips move loosely—this often happens while discussing someone else’s misfortune. But a desire to please God and reflect His grace prompts us to speak only that which builds others up (Eph. 4:29).
What does God say about gossip and about taming the tongue? “You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people,” God instructed the congregation of the children of Israel in (Leviticus 19:16). Clearly God was not referring to some benign social interaction. “Talebearer” is translated from the Hebrew râkìyl, which “refers to spreading rumors or falsities about someone. It is always used in a negative manner”. The Enhanced Strong’s Dictionary defines this word as “a scandal-monger (as travelling about):—slander, carry tales, talebearer”. Gossipers love to secretly reveal embarrassing and shameful details of associates and even friends. Furthermore, their desire to share is so great that it is “like a burning fire” on their lips—they feel theymust spread the word! God speaks plainly about a gossiper: “An ungodly man digs up evil, And it is on his lips like a burning fire.” (Proverbs 16:27).
James, the half-brother of Christ, explains why gossip occurs: “But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). Sadly, it seems that everyone eventually finds himself or herself the recipient of gossip and tempted to gossip about others. The tendency to gossip is part of human nature, and taming the tongue requires God’s help. “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26). These are strong words! But according to this verse, the religion of those who slander is worthless!
Isn’t it uncomfortable to think that you or I would be made to answer for every time we gossiped? Gossip is so serious that—unless we are repenting and seeking God’s help in taming the tongue—we will indeed answer for it. “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).
The words we listen to, as well as those that come out of our mouths, indicate our inner character. Jesus said, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). How we communicate is clearly something our Creator takes very seriously. It is also clear that gossip greatly angers our Heavenly Father, just as a human father becomes angry with his children for hurting each other!
Psalm 15:1-3 discusses the character required to dwell with God. This psalm has been called an “entrance liturgy” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), with a would-be worshipper asking the conditions for entering a relationship with God: “LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1). Believers today can understand the two questions of Psalm 15:1 as follows: Who is truly in God’s Church and who may dwell forever in His Kingdom?
David answers these questions by telling us to add three righteous characteristics to our lives: “The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart;” (verse 2); and to remove three evil characteristics from our lives: “whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbor, and casts no slur on others;” (verse 3 NIV). These characteristics that we are to remove include or can relate to gossip: “He who does not backbite with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor does he take up a reproach against his friend” (Psalm 15:3NKJV).
So, is gossip a sin? David’s psalm answers this question once again: Yes, gossip is a sin. And James summarizes: “The [unbridled] tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).
As a contrast, the apostle Paul tells us how to use our words for the benefit of others. He encourages us: “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. … Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:29, 31-32). So T.H.I.N.K. before passing on “information”, ask yourself is it True? Helpful? Inspiring? Necessary? Kind?