Several years ago I came across a story about the ancient philosopher Socrates, who was reputed to hold knowledge in high esteem. An acquaintance came to the great philosopher with a tale he had just heard about a friend of Socrates. Before he could relate the tale, Socrates halted him and told him that, before he listened to the story, he would first like the man to pass the Triple Filter Test. The man had not heard of the test, and so Socrates went on to explain.

Before he would allow the man to relate his juicy titbit, he asked him to subject his story to three filters: truth, goodness and usefulness. First, had the man made sure that the story was true? Second, would it portray his friend in a positive light? Third, would the story prove to be useful to Socrates?

The man answered negatively to all three questions—it had not been verified as true, did not paint his friend in a positive light, and would not prove to be particularly useful to Socrates—and the philosopher asked, “If what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor even useful, why tell it to me at all?” The acquaintance was silent.

There is no historical evidence that Socrates was a believer. In fact, the evidence suggests that he was an intellectual pagan. And yet this story would probably put many believers to shame, for we are often all too often guilty of the sin of gossip. We speak words about others that are not rooted in fact, are not good, and are not useful. When we speak of others, we all too often speak to tear them down rather than build them up.

For as long as there has been a fallen tongue there has been the sin of gossip. In fact, it was such a prevalent problem in the early church that almost every New Testament epistle addresses this sin in one way or another. As James argued, the tongue is a small, but potentially potent and destructive, member. We must guard against gossip.

It might be helpful at this point to define gossip. Theologian and counsellor Jay Adams defines gossip as “unnecessary talk.” That definition sums up the essence of gossip very succinctly. Think with me through the issue.

According to this definition, we are guilty of gossip when we speak in ways that are unedifying and that cast others in a bad light. We gossip when we speak to issues concerning others that are really not our business. That may not be an exhaustive definition, but it at least gives us a good starting point. We are guilty of gossip when we speak about others in ways that are unedifying, unnecessary, or unhelpful.

Gossip is not primarily concerned with the truthfulness of the words being spoken. Your words may be factual and yet sinful at the same time. When it comes to understanding the concept of gossip we must note that the issue is not merely truthfulness but also appropriateness. In other words, we need to ask ourselves the question, are these words really necessary? If they aren’t, then either suppress the desire to speak them or rebuke the one speaking. Pour holy water on the potential forest fire of incendiary words (see James 3:5-6).

Solomon wrote, “The north wind brings forth rain, and a backbiting tongue, angry looks” (Proverbs 25:23). That is, just as surely as the rains attend the north winds so one who backbites should expect an angry response. Solomon means that, when the godly hear slanderous gossip, they will respond with an angry look. That is, they will rebuke the backbiter.

Indeed, gossip is potentially destructive and thus we must take serious steps to be done with it. Unnecessary words all too often result in slander and malice and the fallout can be devastating.

The story is told of a certain pastor who made an enemy in his community because of his stand for the truth. The enraged parishioner went on the verbal warpath and began a fabricated rumour that this pastor had committed an immoral act. The story spread like wildfire and soon he was, ignominiously, the talk of the town. His ministry was finished.

Several months later, the evil gossiper repented and came to ask the pastor’s forgiveness, which he immediately granted. After their lengthy discussion, he asked the individual to accompany him on the veranda of his fourth story flat. The pastor took a down pillow, sliced it open with a knife and scattered the pillow’s feathers into the wind. He then said to the repentant gossip, “Please go and gather all the feathers.”

The individual looked at him incredulously and objected that there was no way that he could find every feather. The pastor concurred, but made his point as he said, “Just as you could not possibly recover every one of those feathers, neither will I be able to completely recover my reputation. Your gossip has spread so far, that like those feathers, even with all of your best efforts, you will be unable to gather up and contain all the stories floating about regarding my supposed sin.”

The gossiper was repentant and forgiven, but much irreversible damage had already been done.

Will we think before we speak? Socrates’ Triple Filter Test is helpful, but even better wisdom comes from Paul, who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6). May our words to one another be increasingly edifying, motivated by love and guarded by wisdom.