Gossip: Strategies for victory

In an earlier article, we saw that gossip is evidence of a debased mind (Romans 1:29). Something deep inside us loves the sin of gossip, but the Bible condemns it in no uncertain terms. Gossip is bad. It is, as Matthew Mitchell defined it, bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart.

Gossip is the way of the world, but Christians are commanded to be transformed so that they are not like the world. In the gospel, God has provided a way of escape when we are tempted to gossip (1 Corinthians 10:13). But a transformed mind requires intentionality. We cannot do nothing and simply expect to outgrow gossip. Like any sin, it must be actively resisted. We must embrace deliberate strategies to overcome this temptation. Mitchell helpfully points out some of these strategies, as we will see below.

Gossip flows from a judgement already made. When we gossip about someone, we have already judged their words, actions, or motives. James makes this connection:

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbour?

(James 4:11–12)

Not all judging is wrong. Jesus warned against one type of judging (Matthew 7:1–5) and commended another (Matthew 7:6). The kind of judging that is out of place for Christians is a condemning judging, which arises from a judgemental attitude. Judgementalism—the wrong kind of judging, which leads to gossip—might manifest itself in a number of ways.

First, judgementalism is rushed judgement. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). We rush to judgement when we listen to secondary sources of information without considering the source. It is foolish to believe something without thoroughly investigating its claims (Proverbs 14:15). But rushed judgement can also be the result of listening to only one side of a primary source. Perhaps the information has come straight from the horse’s mouth, but there is another perspective to consider. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). It is imperative to hear all sides of the story before rushing to judgement.

Second, judgementalism is prideful judgement. When we speak evil of others, we sit as judges over the law. Rather than submitting to the law, which forbids gossip, we become the law. We assume the place of God. We must always ask whether it is our place to judge in a particular situation. Are we a part of the situation? Is it our responsibility, or are we sticking our nose where it does not belong? And if it is our place to judge, are we judging righteously? Are we submitting to the law of God as we make judgement calls or are we allowing our judgement to be the law?

Third, judgementalism manifests itself as unloving judgement. Loving judgement looks like 1 Corinthians 13:4–8. It assumes the best, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, and seeks to protect rather than harm. Judgementalism is the opposite.

Gossip flows from a judgemental heart and manifests in judgemental speech. Since gossip can be defined both in terms of speaking (Proverbs 20:19) and listening (Proverbs 17:4), we need to think both about the way we speak and the way we listen as we strive for victory over this sin.

First, we need to be careful in our speech. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). What can we do to stop corrupting talk coming out of our mouths?

We can, for one thing, choose silence. As children learn, if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing. A more authoritative source says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19). Again, “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Proverbs 17:27–28).

Even better than silence, we may choose to commend what is commendable. Deliberately choose to speak words that are “good for building up” (Ephesians 4:29). Encourage, commend, affirm, and approve others with your words. When tempted to talk negatively about someone, find something positive to say instead.

Then we can talk to people rather than about them. If you have a problem with a brother or sister, commit to be reconciled (Matthew 5:24). Did someone offend you or hurt your feelings? Talk to them about it. Replace gossip with loving, helpful confrontation. Sometimes, confrontation is exactly what “fits the occasion” (Ephesians 4:29).

We can commit to speaking words that “give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). Righteous lips nourish (Proverbs 10:21). By speaking words that minister grace, we emulate our merciful God and show that we are, indeed, “created after the likeness of God” (Ephesians 4:24).

Last, but not least, if we can find no other words to replace gossip, we can talk about the Lord. Instead of speaking words that tear down, we can speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, giving thanks to God the Father in the name of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:19–20).

Second, however, we must be careful in our listening. Eugene Peterson paraphrases Proverbs 17:4 memorably: “Evil people relish malicious conversation; the ears of liars itch for dirty gossip.” While we should be quick to listen (James 1:19), our listening must be righteous and holy, governed by Christlike love. What does that look like?

It looks like praying for wisdom as to when and when not to listen. Think wisely and prayerfully before you speak (Proverbs 15:28) and do the same as you listen. If you are persuaded that you are hearing gossip, lovingly confront, silence the gossip, and speak words of life rather than death.

When it becomes evident that a person is prone to gossip, avoid that person. “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a simple babbler” (Proverbs 20:19). Do what you must to avoid situations in which you know you will be exposed to gossip.

Be willing to cover others’ offences (Proverbs 10:12; 17:9). When Ham found his father drunk and uncovered in his tent, he ran to tell his brothers. Wisely, Shem and Japheth chose—literally—to cover the offence. God commended them and rebuked Ham. Covering offences does not excuse sin but keeps the shame of sin hidden from those who do not need to see it. As you are exposed to sinful gossip, do what you can to cover the offence so as not to shame the offender.

Finally, it may be necessary to go directly to the victim of gossip. The story is told of a pastor’s wife who, in the company of gossips, would immediately grab her hat and coat. When her companions asked where she was going, she would reply, “I’m going to visit the person you mentioned and ask if what you said was true.” I would be surprised if gossip persisted in her presence!

Gossip is evidence of a depraved mind. Christians must do what they can, however possible, to put off corrupt speech and embrace speech that glorifies God and edifies those created in his image. This requires intentionality. What will you do to honour God with your speech?

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