The Sins in Gossip
In lesson 11 of our commentary on the Epistle of James we outline the right way to deal with problems. Here let us consider further a wrong way that is sadly very prevalent: gossip. True gossip, lurking in the shadows with evil accusations, is wrong for many reasons.
- It is unloving. As we have already stressed, the Lord has told us exactly what to do if we spot a flaw in a fellow believer. The course of love in compliance with the Lord’s guidelines is to confront our brother with a gentle and kind rebuke. Then he can defend himself if he is innocent or correct himself if he is guilty. If he refuses to correct himself, we can bring in others to help us deal with his sin. But he should always be the first to hear our criticism. Never should we go instead to a third party, even a pastor. And never should we soak up and circulate a complaint about our brother that he himself has never heard. All violations of the Lord's guidelines are simply gossip, and gossip is unloving, because it treats someone in a way that we ourselves would never want to be treated. It trashes the Golden Rule.
- It is always in some measure untrue. It tells only one side of the story, so it is not free of the accuser's own bias. Indeed, even though it sounds absolutely convincing, it may be altogether false, perhaps because it springs from a hidden agenda. Whether it is one-sided at worst or nonsense from start to finish or something in between, gossip is a form of lying.
When doing marital counseling, I never ceased to marvel at the different pictures a husband and wife might give me of their marriage. Each one might be a saint in his own eyes, a monster in the eyes of the other. Who was telling the truth? Often both were lying for selfish purposes.
Sometimes untrue words have a less sinister origin. They may, for example, be words of rumor, full of wild distortion because they were born out of credulity and slightly modified at each retelling. Some years ago on a night set aside at our church for family fun, we were forced inside by rain, and one of my little grandsons cuddled up to me and began to cry. He had heard from some other child that a tornado was coming. It was a false report with no basis whatever, so I used the incident to warn him against rumors.
In matters of public opinion, skepticism is often the shortcut to truth. Yet people when they hear gossip are prone to think that it must have some basis in truth, or it would never have begun to circulate. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But that sort of thinking is inexcusably naïve. This is a world whose prince is the father of lies (John 8:44).
- It is unjust. At the heart of our judicial system are three principles of justice: 1) a man is innocent until proven guilty, 2) a man accused has the right to present the best possible case in his own defense, and 3) a man accused has the right to confront and cross-examine his accusers. Except where these principles are honored, judgment should be withheld. Yet gossip scorns them all. Needless to say, the standard of justice among Christians should be no less demanding than that upheld by secular law.
Gossip is like a beast lurking in the shadows because there it has the best chance of survival. The accused is so often denied a chance to speak for himself because otherwise the conversational life of many people would suddenly become rather dull.
- It is destructive. It tramples underfoot a person’s valued possession, his good name. It vandalizes his reputation. Moreover, if the gossip is what Christians are saying about a fellow Christian, it may leak beyond the borders of the church and harm the reputation of the church itself, confirming scoffers in their claim that all Christians are hypocrites. They will reach the same conclusion whether or not they believe the gossip. If they believe it, then the accused is a hypocrite. If they do not believe it, then the tale-bearers are the hypocrites.
- It is malicious. The motive behind gossip is never love. To speak evil about a brother always arises from love’s opposite, malice. To gossip behind someone’s back puts you in the same league as the unscrupulous and vicious enemies of Jesus (John 7:45-52).
In conclusion, we see that gossip is a violation of the Sixth Commandment (the commandment against murder), because it does injury to another, and who can say that the injury might not drive him to despair and death, thus becoming murder? I recently read a news story about a teenage boy who committed suicide because someone told a lie about him on Facebook. Furthermore, gossip is a violation of the Eighth Commandment (the commandment against stealing), because it is robbery of what rightfully belongs to someone, his good reputation. And it is a violation of the Ninth Commandment, because in some measure it is exactly what the commandment forbids: false witness.