Bob Mumford once said, "The Christian army is the only one that shoots its wounded." Regrettably, I have observed his statement to be all too true. As long as I've been a Christian, I have watched friends and their families undergo untold pain and hurt because of the incredible power of gossip and slander.
After speaking at a church years ago, a brother came up to me and said, "I heard that you had quit teaching in churches and took up potato farming." How and why such a rumor got started is anybody's guess! That rumor was fairly innocuous, but imagine the untold harm done by vicious judgments on the life and character of others.
I would like to address this issue head on. I want to raise awareness so that we will all better follow the Lord's teaching regarding our speech about, and actions toward, others.
What exactly is gossip? Here's a good definition: "Gossip is second- or third-hand information that someone dumps on you without your prior consent, and without the consent of the person being gossiped about." Gossip can be true, partially true, or completely false. It can be motivated by good intentions, but it always contains negative personal information about another that puts them in a bad light.
What is slander, then? The Bible, especially in Proverbs, teaches that slander is accusatory speech that is injurious to a person's name and reputation. It's essentially character assassination—the act of smearing someone.
Gossip and slander color people's perceptions of an individual unfairly and unjustly without their knowledge or consent. One major component in both of these sins is that the person being torn down is out of the loop. Talebearers usually avoid speaking directly to the one they are demeaning.
Finding a Standard
I will admit that I have listened to gossip in the past. I think most people who spread gossip are just like me—the thought never occurs to them about how deeply a person and their family could be hurt when someone attacks their character without their knowledge. Often we do not even realize that what we're doing is engaging in gossip and slander.
For this reason, I have raised a standard in my life. To the best of my ability, I always evaluate people based on my first-hand experience with them, not on what someone else tells me about them. Because that second-hand information can be very misleading and inaccurate.
Gossip and slander violate the Lord's own maxim: "Treat others the way you want to be treated." If anyone has suffered the agony of being gossiped about, they understand the force of those words. No one wishes to be the subject of gossip and slander. There are few things so hurtful.
One of the problems connected with gossip and slander is that they can seem innocent, and they often come to us subtly. One doesn't have to be operating in malice to be guilty. Again, the motive is irrelevant. Spreading negative or shameful information about another person is contrary to walking in love. Love "thinks no evil" and "believes the best of others" (1 Corinthians 13).
What does gossip and slander usually sound like? It usually begins with something like, "Did you hear about such and such …." The rest of it goes on to put an individual in a shameful or negative light. A.W. Tozer had these powerful words of advice about the sin of gossip:
Never pass anything on about anybody else that will hurt him." Love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). The talebearer has no place in God's favor. If you know something that would hinder or hurt the reputation of one of God's children, bury it forever. Find a little garden out back—a little spot somewhere—and when somebody comes around with an evil story, take it out and bury it and say, "Here lies in peace the story about my brother." God will take care of it. "With what judgment you judge, you shall be judged."
If you want God to be good to you, you are going to have to be good to his children. You say, "But that's not grace." Well, grace gets you into the kingdom of God. That is unmerited favor. But after you are seated at the Father's table, he expects to teach you table manners. And he won't let you eat unless you obey the etiquette of the table. And what is that? The etiquette of the table is that you don't tell stories about the brother who is sitting at the table with you—no matter what his denomination, or nationality, or background.
When Confronted by Gossip
So what should we do if we hear a rumor about someone else? If we are in conversation with a person and they begin to express words that put another brother or sister in a bad light, we have a responsibility to interrupt such speech and exhort them to speak directly with the person they are criticizing. If an email containing gossip is sent to us, we should disregard the content and ask the sender to go to the one person being spoken against.
In all circumstances, as much as lies with us, we should not be a party to gossip, and we should confront those spreading evil speech. We must not forget that matters of concern about others must be confirmed with witnesses (Matthew 18:16), and others should only be notified if the person refuses to stop their sinning. We sin by entertaining accusations against others that have not been confirmed by witnesses or that have already been repented of. It is sinful to spread information about the past sins of others when they are already under the blood of Christ.
On occasion, there are times when we should also go to the person being targeted and make them aware of it. We should then ask for them to confirm or correct what is being said. This is the loving thing to do. Think about it: if someone was spreading something negative about you, would you not want to be made aware of it? Again, love treats others the way we wish to be treated.
It's not good enough to ask the gossiper if they've spoken to the person gossiped about. In my experience, oftentimes a person spreading the gossip will say "yes," but when I've tracked down the person being gossiped about, they will deny having had such a conversation. Or the conversation really wasn't a conversation at all. Nothing can replace going directly to the person being spoken about.
Whenever we hear gossip, we should consider these questions: Would I want someone talking about me like this? How would my family feel about this? My spouse, my mother, my father, my children, my best friends?
Have you ever noticed that speech that tears others down travels like a brush fire, but news of repentance and restoration seems to move along at a snail's pace? Why is it that we often immediately believe and embrace negative assessments of people, but reports of repentance, change, or the dispelling of a false rumor are met with skepticism? As believers, the exact opposite should be our practice. We should be skeptical of adverse words about others, and quick to rejoice in and embrace news of the dispelling of a rumor or another's repentance!
Satan's nature is to be the "accuser of the brethren" (Revelation 12). In fact, the word Satan means "adversary," and the word translated devil literally means "slanderer." That should speak volumes.
A careful reading of the Bible shows the destructive nature of gossip and slander. It says, "The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's inmost parts" (Proverbs 18:8). Gossip is likened unto poison that once someone drinks, they cannot get out of their system. And it always separates people. Even close friends and loved ones. Put another way, gossip not only damages the person being gossiped about, but it also damages the person hearing the gossip, because it causes them to judge the other unfairly.
So, the next time you hear a rumor, go to the person being talked about. Never spread something about another person without talking to them first and having an open mind to hear their heart. Our mouths play a very important role in the pursuit of mutual edification and peace. Our words should be carefully chosen and designed to build up, not to destroy.
—Jon Zens, excerpted with permission from House2House. Copyright 2010 by the author and House2House.