You know the feeling. The urge to tell someone a juicy happening, the need to vent about the lady in the supermarket, and that moment when you just have to point out that the guy in church is driving you nuts.
Which of these is gossip? Any of them? All of them?
I can’t tell you how many times I have wondered as I was venting, whispering, or even just chatting if what I was saying was gossip in God’s eyes. The line seems so vague and fuzzy, it’s hard to know when we’ve crossed it.
There’s no verse in the Bible that starts, “Gossiping includes…” There’s no detailed list of gossiping offenses and no Webster-style definition that we can hold our actions up to. It’s, unfortunately, just not that simple.
To help me sort out my gossiping confusion, I turned to three of the wisest people I know. They led me through the Scripture and told me their interpretations and understandings. Thanks to them, I think I may finally have an idea of what gossip looks and sounds like.
Here’s what I learned:
1. We need to take gossip seriously. Gossip is one of those sins that people tend to just kind of brush off as unimportant. “Whoops! I need to work on that one!” we say when someone mentions it, then we never worry about it again. I mean, it’s not as bad as stealing, right? Wrong. God doesn’t have ‘sin categories’. Gossip is ugly, disgusting, rebellious sin with some pretty serious consequences. (Proverbs 26:28, Psalm 101:5)
2. Gossip is more than just talking about people. That’s the definition that I always heard when I was little: “talking behind someone’s back”. Really, that’s a pretty awful way to describe it since we can talk about people who are out of the room quite easily without gossiping. Look at 2 Timothy 4’s long list of names, or even better, Romans 16. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Some of the writers of the Bible spoke negatively about people. Peter said that Paul was kind of confusing (2 Peter 3:15-16), Paul mentioned someone named Alexander who he said did him “much evil” (2 Timothy 4:14-15), and the writers of the epistles mentioned over and over that they had “heard a report” of the people to whom they were writing, meaning there had obviously been talk about those letter-receivers.
4. We’re supposed to “mark” people. The Bible tells us to take note of the people who could possibly hurt the church (Romans 16:17, 1 Cor. 16:22, 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1) That implies that we have to be keeping each other up-to-date on what we know about these people, which means talking about them.
5. Even mentioning disagreements isn’t necessarily sin. Paul mentioned that Eudias and Synteche weren’t getting along in a letter (Phil 4:2). Please note, though: He didn’t take sides! Paul mentioned it so that those he wrote to would be aware, not so that he could jump in with his own opinion.
So what does all of this mean?
Most of what I have mentioned so far tells us what gossip isn’t. While that narrows things down a bit, how do we know if we’re gossiping or not in specific circumstances?
For that, we have to turn to some principles of the Bible that apply here, even if they don’t have the word “gossip” right beside them.
Someone once said, “If it’s very painful for you to criticize your friends — you’re safe in doing it. But if you take the slightest pleasure in it, that’s the time to hold your tongue.”
Have you ever read 1 Corinthians 13? If not, I really encourage you to do so. Like, right now. That chapter describes what true, God-transformed love looks like, and it’s the standard against which our love for others, as followers of Christ, should be held.
So how do your words hold up in comparison? Are you saying things merely to criticize or to put someone in a bad light? To be honest, that one can sometimes be hard to see in yourself. Really ask God to show you your motivations behind the words you say and stories you tell.
What about sensationalism? If you look at the examples from the earlier list, no one that was mentioned ever mentioned others without a purpose. Ever. Those instances all existed in order to help the ministry to grow stronger, to protect it, or to help someone in their personal walk with the Lord. They were never looking for shock value or that oh-so-satisfying look of “Are you kidding me?”. They didn’t treat their words flippantly.
And neither should we.
Like the rudder of a ship, the Bible says, “the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity” (James 3).
Really, the answer to our question about gossip is the same as lots of other answers. We need to get into God’s Word and compare our hearts to His. We need to be begging the Holy Spirit to teach us to speak how God wants us to, and be asking, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips.” (Psalm 141:3).