A while back I joined a group of colleagues for an evening get-together after a particularly long week of work. Throughout the course of our time a friend began to process an issue with another colleague who was absent from the gathering. She was understandably irked by an earlier interaction with him and sought affirmation for her feelings. However, what began as time of processing and affirmation soon turned into gossip and slander. “Can you believe what he said!” “Ahh… He’s so annoying when….” “Why is he always so…” Jabs like these continued as his character, personality, and even fashion sense were picked apart.
Returning home that night I sat in silence with a palpable sense of guilt resting upon my heart. Not only was this person a colleague but he was also a friend; and although I didn’t participate in the gossip I did very little to quell the torrent of insults (and anyways even if he wasn’t a friend what had happened still wasn’t right!). So on the couch I sat; head hung low as a I offered a plea of contrition, “God, I’m so sorry I was a part of that. Help me to do right by both You and him next time."
“You must not testify falsely against your neighbor." - Exodus 20:16
Today we look at the ninth of God’s 10 Commandments to the nation of Israel. Without wading too far into the weeds of the text we can safely say that gossip is one sense in which we “bear false witness” against our neighbor; for through gossip we both slander and misrepresent the person not present. If you’ve ever been gossiped about you are likely painfully aware of just how damaging it can be. Gossip is a sure way to break trust, sever relationships, and wound the soul. Sadly, one way we deal with being gossiped about is to perpetuate gossip thereby perpetuating its damaging effects. As James warns the tongue is "A small flame can set a whole forest on fire.” (James 3:5). To be fair, there are times we simply need to process through a situation regarding another person; after all we are relational beings. But when does processing cross the line and become gossiping? There are three questions we can ask ourselves as a sort of litmus test to help us figure this out.
Question #1: What is my intent?
Being honest with yourself and asking why you feel the need to share this information about the person is a good place to start. Often times the things we share aren’t so black and white as to fall into a gossip or not-gossip category. Taking the time to uncover the motive that drives your conversation can put the brakes on the gossip train. Like David we can ask God to search our heart so that our true motives might be revealed and dealt with (Psalm 139:23-24).
Question #2: Is this the person to share this with?
If the person you’re processing with already has unflattering views about the one you’re speaking about it’s probably best to find another sounding board. The book of Proverbs expounds the numerous benefits of seeking wise counsel, this includes talking with and listening to the right people (24:5). Seek out someone who is fair-minded, willing to remain objective, and values reconciliation over the tasty morsel of gossip (18:8).
Question #3: Would I be willing to say this while the other person is present?
If what you’re doing is simply processing then there should be no concern that, given the proper mediation, what you are saying can be heard by the person you’re speaking about. This allows the other person an opportunity to explain his or herself thus providing a potential climate for reconciliation. An example of this is alluded to in Galatians 2 where Paul is transparent regarding a conflict he once had with Peter. Paul did not merely speak about Peter behind his back but discussed the issue openly with him.
Perhaps its best if God’s perfect word has the final say, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29).
We know that words are powerful and the tongue is not easily tamed. When you find yourself in a position where you might be disclosing more than you probably should take a moment to do a bit of soul searching. You owe it to others and yourself.
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