Can you keep a secret? Few can. Even in the church gossip rears its ugly head now and then. Unfortunately gossip gets validation in our culture. Millions love the scuttle, the grapevine, the talk around the office water cooler. I’ve read articles citing studies that suggest gossip serves valid evolutionary roles. For instance, gossip is used to gauge the trustworthiness of others with whom we might do business. Gossip about the opposite sex is used to determine the faithfulness of potential mates. It’s used to track the actions of those in power to make sure they aren’t corrupt. Gossip concerns itself with the income and spending of others as a way of keeping score. Gossip teaches the young about social interaction and the way the world works.
Gossip can be positive or negative, though I suspect most people tend to go negative. For instance, sharing with others how Sue looks wonderful with her baby bump is not as tantalizing as sharing that Sue got pregnant because she’s a disreputable woman and the identity of the father is a multiple choice question.
American culture knows that gossip can be hurtful and destructive. But that doesn’t stop us. Even many in the pews don’t take it seriously. We sometimes treat gossip as a minor sin like overeating or cursing. But I wonder if gossip is more evil than we think. The book of Proverbs refers to gossip and gossipers as causing much trouble and pain. Proverbs tells us to have nothing to do with gossip. But let’s take a look at 2 Corinthians 12:20 where the apostle Paul speaks directly to an ancient Christian church. The lesson still applies today. Here is what Paul says:
“For I am afraid that when I come I won’t like what I find, and you won’t like my response. I am afraid that I will find quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorderly behavior.”
Remember Paul is speaking to church people. The Greek word for gossip is psithurismos. It means a whisper; by implication, a slander; a secret detraction. Detraction means the act of belittling the reputation or worth of a person. It doesn’t sound like the characteristics of a safe church.
Yes I know there are folks who probably deserve belittling. Not our job. The problem is we are imperfect humans. We do not always gather and share accurate information without bias. We can think we have direct or accurate information about others, but often our observations and sources are flawed. Therefore we pass along false information. It’s worse when we embellish or intentionally speak false words about another person for then we become a false witness. Bearing false witness is a big “you shall not” in the Ten Commandments. Ah, now gossip doesn’t seem so . . . trivial.
I know a lady—we’ll call her Erin—who often complains about the incompetence of some of her co-workers. Before she utters her complaints she looks around to make sure nobody is near and then whispers her grievance. Erin’s complaints are mostly accurate. Some of her co-workers are indeed below par in a couple of their job responsibilities. Management is aware of the deficiencies of Erin’s co-workers and does not deem them serious enough to take action. Yet Erin continues to whisper her gripes. The root of Erin’s problem is hard to identify. Only God and Erin can ascertain why she feels compelled to belittle the reputation of her co-workers when everyone knows nothing will come of it.
Our growth and intimacy with God gets stifled when we gossip. Of course Christians are not supposed to live in a make believe utopia with a Pollyanna view of life and people. We need to have accurate information about dangerous and unethical people intent on harm. The Bible cautions us to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” We need to cherish truth, confront evil, and somehow remain innocent. This task is impossible if we don’t allow the love of God to work in our heart and ask the Lord to help us identify and confront our flaws. We also need the discernment and strength of the Holy Spirit. Gossip is a lousy substitute for the Holy Spirit’s discernment.
Here’s the bottom line: We will occasionally hurt and offend each other. If the offense is egregious, there is an appropriate response we must follow in Matthew 18. Otherwise our words should encourage and build each other up. It also wouldn’t hurt to grow a thicker skin and get on with life before temptation seduces us into gossip as a coping mechanism. Otherwise joy will elude us.