When it comes to sin, Christians often get the most exercised about avoiding the “biggies.” For many in the conservative wing of Christianity, that means a preoccupation with certain behaviors that should be avoided. Those behaviors are summed up in the familiar rhyme:
I don’t smoke, drink, cuss, or chew
And I don’t go around with people who do.
Yet the reductionism of this formula (whose biblicity will have to be discussed at another time), like many other kinds of behavior modification theories, fails to shed any light on some of the darker corners of our hearts that we don’t like for anyone to see. It is these cherished and concealed peccadillos that truly threaten to destroy us as individuals and as a fellowship of believers.
One such sin that often slips in under the radar unnoticed is gossip. To engage in gossiping means to give “a report (often malicious) about the behavior of other people.” The Bible has many terms for this kind of behavior: slander (Ps 15:2; Mk 7:22), gossip (2 Cor 12:20); backbiting tongue (Prov 25:23), to name a few. All of these describe one’s using their words to speak out against another in a way that defames, belittles, or misrepresents them, and it is roundly condemned by God (Lev 19:16; Prov 10:18; Ps 140:11). Indeed, the wise man knows that, “He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, Therefore do not associate with a gossip” (Prov 20:19).
Yet gossip is one of those besetting sins that ensnare all of us at some time or another. The reason for this indulgence often emerges as willingness to capitulate to the worser angels of our nature. Proverbs 18:8 says, “The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, And they go down into the innermost parts of the body” (cf. Prov 26:22). This text simply means that we like to hear the whisperings of a gossip. We like to “get the goods” on other people, especially when there’s dirty laundry involved. Somehow it makes us feel really good to listen to and to dole out “the dainty morsels” that defame others.
In our relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, this evil proclivity accounts for much of what is wrong with our churches. When we get offended by a brother or are scandalized by the behavior of a sister, we immediately gather others around to tell them about the grievous misdeeds of the wayward so that we can “pray” for them.
Yet this is clearly not the ethic that Jesus commended for us. One of the ways that we love each other is to follow strictly the mandates of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17:
“15 And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”
Jesus sets forth very plainly a three-step process for what we are to do when we are offended or scandalized by the behavior of a brother or sister. The first step in that process consists in going and confronting the offender in private. Notice that Jesus does not say, “Go gather a bunch of other believers together and tell them your beef with your brother so they can pray for you.” No, the directive is to keep the matter private for as long as possible so that you can “win” your brother. The sad thing is that we often ignore Jesus in our relationships. We like to go public first by gossiping, and then to put off as long as possible the confrontation with the offending brother. This is the opposite of what Jesus commands, and it is the opposite of love.
So my exhortation is that we love one another with our words. Often, love calls us to hold back our words, to keep back those would-be “dainty morsels.” Sometimes the best thing to do is to just keep quiet. “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise” (Prov 10:19). At other times, it will be necessary to say the words in love to the brother who has offended, even if the words bring confrontation. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov 27:6). In any case, the question that governs our behavior is not, “What do I want to do?,” but “What would love have me do?”
So brothers, let us love with our words.