Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Gossip - What It Does


(To read the earlier posts in this series click here and here.)
We’ve spent some time in previous posts looking at what gossip is.  Gossip is secret slander.  Or as one lexicon defines it, gossip is “providing harmful information about a person, often spoken in whispers or in low voice, with the implication that such information is not widely known and therefore should presumably be kept secret.”  We’ve probably got a good handle on it by now.
Now, it’s time to consider what gossip does.  That is, what effects does gossip have?  One passage that is particularly important for helping us understand the danger of all sinful speech is Eph 4:29, where Paul writes, Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths… 
What is corrupting talk?  Several other translations call it “unwholesome talk”.  The Greek word sarpos is defined by one lexicon as “decayed, rotting, rotten; literally, of decaying fish or fruit no longer useful for food; more generally useless, of no value, unfit; figuratively, of unedifying speech harmful, bad, unprofitable.”[1]  Given that the opposite godly quality that we are told to “put on” in Eph 4:29 is speech that is “good for building up”, this figurative definition seems to fit.  The term most likely refers to any kind of speech that is unedifying or harmful.
Paul is talking about words that tear down, and gossip would certainly qualify.  Gossip tears down.  Gossip is intended to damage the reputation of a person in another’s eyes.  In a sense, when we engage in gossip, we are tearing someone down behind their back.  It is unedifying to say the least, not only to the person who is the subject of the gossip, but also to ourselves and to the person who is listening. 
Think about the effects that one act of gossip can have.  (For this and future posts, I’ll refer to the person about whom the gossip is spoken as the “subject,” the person doing the gossip as the “gossiper,” and the person listening as the “hearer.”)  First, one act of gossip has the potential to affect the relationship between the subject and the hearer.  It is quite possible that had the gossiper not said anything, the hearer would never have had a negative thought about the subject.  If you think about it for even a few seconds, you can undoubtedly think of examples in your own life where you have been prompted to have a negative view of someone solely because of gossip you heard about them.  It happens all the time.  And it is often the case that what is shared is a skewed version of the truth if not a complete fabrication.  Without great discipline on the part of the hearer, it may take a long time for that wrong perception to be corrected.  Worse, it may prevent a wonderful, edifying relationship between the subject and the hearer from ever developing.
Second, an act of gossip has the potential to affect the relationship of the gossiper and the hearer in a number of ways.  If you engage in gossip with someone, it can set the entire tone of your relationship.  There are some people who don’t know what to do around each other if they are not gossiping.  It’s like they have no idea what else to talk about.  It leads to a very shallow relationship where neither person ever shares anything of real value or meaning.  If the hearer is already someone who engages in gossip, and you approach them with gossip, you’ve just given them the green light to sin in your presence.  This can lead to a long relationship of mutual corruption. 
Just as bad, if the hearer is not someone given to gossip, your sin could influence them to begin engaging in the same behavior.  Sinful flesh would gladly take advantage of such a justification.  You could end up planting the idea in their mind, “if _________ does it, it must be okay,” so that they end up using your sin to find comfort in their own.  Where does that train end?  It’s possible, even likely, that the person you encouraged to sin will encourage still others.  What a grievous thing to be the catalyst of a whole tribe of people engaging in corrupting talk!
Further, if the hearer is not a gossiper, you may have wrecked your own reputation with them.  Their former high opinion of you may be damaged when they hear you speaking disparagingly about someone else.  They may be prompted to think, “I wonder what you say about me when I’m not around.”  That person then may keep you at a distance, costing you the possibility of another edifying relationship.  As your reputation for gossip grows, you guarantee that others will never trust you with any important information about themselves.  You will cut yourself off from meaningful relationships.
And we’ve not even considered the wider damage that can and does take place.  When ungodly talk is repeated it rarely retains its original form.  The information may be accurate at its first utterance, but it won’t stay that way for long.  We’ve all played the party game where you sit in a circle and one person tells his neighbor a secret.  That person then turns to whisper the same secret to the next person.  The secret is passed around the circle until it gets back around to the originator, who then shares it out loud with the whole group.  The secret never even resembles the original message.  It is always completed distorted.
That may be a cute game at parties, but it’s a relational cancer in real life.  Someone can originate one morsel of gossip, and if it is not stopped quickly by someone who is godly, before long there can be many different versions of the story floating around.  Not only is the subject’s reputation sullied, but so is the reputation of every person who participated in the sordid infection.  Wrong perceptions and false assumptions rather than the truth will reign.  Anger and hurt feelings will spread like a fever.  If someone tries to right all the wrong versions of the story, the whole thing can become even more convoluted.  In short order, you have a group of people believing wrong things about one another, distrusting one another, perpetuating false conclusions about one another, shunning one another, retaliating against one another, splintering into factions, going their separate ways, and demolishing many relationships.  How many local churches have been destroyed this way?
No wonder, James wrote of the tongue: And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell... It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so (James3:6-10).
Gossip, like other sins of the tongue, tears down.  It destroys.  It sets on fire the entire course of life.  It is a restless evil.
But is the worst thing about gossip that it destroys relationships and local churches?  Certainly those things are horrible and lamentable, but I believe there is something even worse that gossip does.  It causes the name of God to be dishonored in the world.  How is that? 
Ephesians is all about how God has created the church in Christ for His own glory (Eph 3:20-21).  God took sinners who hated Him and each other and transformed them into saints who love Him and each other.  Only God can accomplish such a transformation.  Only God can take those who know only of self-interest and knit them together in one body, so that they are members of one another (4:25).  He gave them gifts with which to build one another up until they all attain to the unity of the faith, to maturity, to the likeness of Christ (4:7-13).  Like members of a literal body, they are to serve one another so that the body builds itself up in love (4:16).  What is accomplished by this?  Ultimately, the manifold wisdom of God is displayed to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places, for again, only God can accomplish such a transformation (3:10).  So when the members of that body tear each other down rather than build each other up, the very reputation of God is defamed. 
And this is why the enemy adores gossip.  It does damage the church, but that’s not his ultimate aim.  He wants to discredit the Almighty.  And when he can get the Church to willingly participate, it is all the more delightful to him.  Remember, the devil’s name means slander.
Much is at stake when we open our mouths to gossip.  Beyond the thrill of sharing some forbidden secret there lies the potential to destroy lives, devastate churches, and dishonor the God who saved us.  It’s no small thing.  It’s a world of unrighteousness. 


[1] (Louw-Nida) The Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

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