That gossip is wrong is established in God's law in Leviticus 19:16: "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor: I am the Lord." The wrongfulness of gossip is reiterated numerous times in the New Testament, as in 1 Timothy 3:11, where Paul denotes that potential elders in the church must have wives that are "grave, not slanderers." So too in the prophets, God denotes his displeasure with those who spread gossip, as in Jeremiah 6:27-30: "I have set thee for a tower and a fortress among my people, that thou mayet know and try their way. They are all grievous revolters, walking with slanders: they are brass and iron; they are all corrupters. The bellows are burned, the lead is consumed of the fire; the founder melteth in vain: for the wicked are not plucked away. Reprobate silver shall men call them, because the Lord hath rejected them." And in Psalms, we see similar complaints against those who spread gossip: "I will sing of mercy and judgment," David writes; "unto thee, O Lord, will I sing. I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way. O when wilt thou come unto me? I will walk within my house with a perfect heart. I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me. A froward heart shall depart from me: I will not know a wicked person. Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off: him that hath an high look and a proud heart will not I suffer" (Ps. 101:1-5).
Yet, although gossip, and its counterpart slander, is wrong per scripture, ask a Christian what gossip is and one might receive a variety of responses. As scripture shows, and as many people know from experience, gossip leads to splitting people apart and to hard feelings between parties. But then again, wrong action--and not just words--can lead to these kinds of things too. When, one might ask, is information essential to pass along so that people can make informed and wise decisions and when is it simply gossip? If, for example, one knew that a particular man had a proclivity to court women until he got them into bed and then promptly dumped them, would it be gossip to warn women about the man? Or would it be something else?
Such a question arose in my own life recently when a church congregation with which I attended for nearly a decade was torn apart by information shared over the course of the last several years. The pastor of the church, at one point, denoted that there was a difference between gossip and information and that he intended to give a sermon on the subject. Unfortunately, the congregation split before he managed to give that sermon, and so I had to go searching for the answer in the scripture myself. If one has done any amount of reading in the scriptures, one knows that it is full of sordid deeds that people have done. And in such case, these things are called history, and they're written, as 1 Corinthians 10:11 states, "for our admonition." So the sharing of information, even information that shows others in a bad light, is not in itself gossip and is not in itself wrong. Rather, gossip, as scriptures show, is not about the content of the information but about the spirit in which such information is shared.
Gossip has several characteristics that scriptures denote for readers. One of its chief characteristics--and in fact the basis for all of the other characteristics it has--is that it is based in lust. This is made clear in one of the longest passages in the Bible regarding speech and why speech so often proves to be destructive to those who speak and listen, James 3 and 4. The passage is worth quoting at length:
[T]he tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. . . . [T]he tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similtude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive branches? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh. Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace. From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be friend of the world is the enemy of God. Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? (James 3:6, 8-18, 4:1-5)James's points are, in part, a reiteration of what Jesus himself had to say about our use of the tongue. In Matthew 12, Christ tells the Pharisees that how we speak is an expression of what is inside us. Thus, when our thoughts and desires are full of lust, our words convey it. "[F]or out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh," Christ says. "A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and and evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned" (Matt. 12:34-37). Because our language reflects the attitude inside us, Christ says, we will even be judged by what we say. And lest the Pharisees forget, Christ reiterates the tie between our inside and our words a few chapters later when he says, "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth the man" (Matt. 15:11).
In Galation 5:15-17, Paul ties lust to what he calls the flesh, which he contrasts to the Spirit. Lust of the flesh, Paul says, brings discord: "But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one ot the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would." Such lust, Paul says elsewhere, is what leads to gossip, among other things:
Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: . . . And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity, whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful. (Rom. 1:24, 28-31)It is because what we say is an expression of exactly the kind of persons we are that James could write, "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body" (James 3:2).
If then gossip stems from lust, it finds expression in yet another characteristic: hate. Several scriptures talk of how gossip and hate go together. "All that hate me," writes David in one of the Psalms, "whisper together against me: against me do they devise my hurt. An evil disease, say they, cleaveth fast unto him: and now that he lieth he shall rise up no more. Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me" (Ps. 41:7-9). And Proverbs tells us that "a man of understanding holdeth his peace", whereas "[h]e that is void of wisdom despiseth his neighbour" (Prov. 11:12), thus connecting silence with those who show respect to others rather than dislike.
Words don't just stay in the realm of emotion, however. Hate easily moves from a feeling and from things said, the Bible shows, into things done to one another. Gossip can start out as deliberately hurtful language, as shown in Proverbs 18:8: "The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost part of the belly." But wounds from words often transform into literal wounds: "For I have heard the slander of many: fear was on every side: while they took counsel together against me, they devised to take away my life" (Ps. 31:13). There are different ways to take away a person's life. One doesn't have to outright murder someone. Gossip can steal a person's reputation and thus rob a person of his or her livelihood and of the societal connections in which that person has a part. If the intention is simply to rid that person from one's social network, gossip can have the same effect as bloodshed. To God, these two things equate, as he notes in this admonishment of Israel: "In thee are men that carry tales to shed blood: and in thee they eat upon the mountains: in the midst of thee they commit lewdness. . . . Behold, therefore, I have smitten mine hand at thy dishonest gain which thou hast made, and thy blood which hath been in the midst of thee" (Ezek. 22:9, 13). It is not enough, as Jesus says on his Sermon on the Mount, that we don't literally kill one another; we aren't even supposed to show anger agsint someone without a cause:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whoseover shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. . . . Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." (Matt. 5:21-22, 43-44)Hate, however, does not have to be something so obvious as a desire to do harm to someone. It can, as the Bible demonstrates, be defined merely as placing one's self before others. For example, Christ uses the term hate in the following passage about his disciples: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). Here, hate is shown to be a matter of priority--that is, Christ's disciples must place Jesus at the top of the priority list, before both family and self. If then gossip is grounded in lust that leads to hate, we could also say that that hate is a prioritizing of one's own desires above the good of those around us.
Having established in scripture that gossip stems from lust and engenders hate--or at the very least, an unhealthy degree of self interest--it is only natural that such a use of language stirs up strife and separates people, for that is, after all, the end result of murder, which springs out of hate. The idea that gossip leads to strife is a common theme throughout the Proverbs. "Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out," Proverbs 26:20 tells us, "so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth." "A froward man soweth strife," says Proverbs 16:28, "and a whisperer separateth chief friends."
How does gossip accomplish this? Proverbs 17:9 offers an answer: "He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends." Proverbs 10:12 notes something similar: "Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all sins." If we love another person, we won't be anxious to share the dirty deeds that the person has done, just as we would not be anxious to tell of the bad things we may have done. We would want this person to look good to others. By contrast, if we're looking to place ourselves above another person, then whatever we say that might cause us to be esteemed better than another person would be for our benefit, and so we would aim to trumpet this other person's shortcomings. We would, Proverbs 18:6 notes, even go so far as to want to get the other person into trouble--to stir the pot, so to speak, so that others will want to put the person down also: "A fool's lips enter into contention, and his mouth calleth for strokes." In this sense, speech becomes a weapon, even as Proverbs 12:18 notes: "There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword." However, this same Proverb notes, "the tongue of the wise is health." Proper use of the tongue doesn't aim to put someone down for our own benefit; rather, it aims to raise all people up, for everyone's benefit.
Gossip, then, is a form of communication based in lust, which engenders hate--or at least, enables love of self above love of others--and, in so doing, stirs up discord. This being a definition of gossip, as established in scripture, it is useful to examine how, scripture says, gossip works. Knowing this can help us to be on guard against participating in such a practice. One of the chief components of gossip, scriptures say and real life confirms, is that it reveals secrets. "He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets," Proverbs 20:19 tells us, "therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips." One who tells secrets is, thus, one who is using speech to ingratiate him- or herself with others. Proverbs 11:13 tells us something else about the nature of one who shares secrets: "A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter." Because the gossiper is mostly out for his or her own benefit, that person is not one we can trust. This description, unfortunately, matches that of most people, for Ecclesiastes 10:20 warns us: "Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber; for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter." What we say has a way of being passed around to others. Further, how we feel has a way of coming out in our actions. When we talk badly of another, that person will eventually hear of it, and often we will end up the victim of our own speech.
Sharing secrets in and of itself, however, wouldn't necessarily be bad. (After all, God has secret things he reveals to certain people, for specific purposes, as noted, for example, in Matthew 13:11.) But with gossip, there is usually something more behind the sharing of a secret than just sharing information. The reason such a thing is a secret, and the reason that a person feels a need to share it, is usually bound up with another aspect of how gossip works: it aims to put on display someone else's shame. Hence, the problem with gossip is not just the revealing of secrets but the nature of the secrets that are chosen to be revealed. "An ungodly man diggeth up evil," Proverbs 16:27 says, "and in his lips there is a burning fire." An apt description of how we think of gossip in this context is provided in Paul's advice to Timothy regarding the conduct of women in the church:
But the younger widows refuse [to take into the number]: for when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they will marry; Having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith. And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not. I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occassion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. For some are already turned aside after Satan. (1 Tim. 5:11-15)Having turned to gossip to fill their time--to the speaking of things "which they ought not"--Paul warns, some of the younger women had actually fallen into the path of Satan. Solomon too warns of the difference between wise people, who refrain from sharing certain things, and fools who utter all they know. "A fool uttereth all his mind," Proverbs 29:11 says, "but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards." Likewise, Proverbs 12:16 notes: "A fool's wrath is presently known: but a prudent man covereth shame." Here, Solomon draws a connection between uttering shameful things and exhibiting one's anger--it is as if gossip can be an extension, or lashing out, of our own negative emotions against someone else.
Another means by which gossip works, beyond revealing secrets and shame, is by deceipt. If nothing secret or shameful exists to share, a person bent on promoting the self over others and of stirring up division might well make up such secret shames, and those who pass such information along end up participating in that liar's plot. Proverbs 10:18 tells us that "[h]e that hideth hatred with lying lips, and he that uttereth a slander, is a fool." Of note here is how Proverbs says that the lie covers the hatred--deceipt thus masquerades as truth uttered in love or concern for another. Paul warns Christians in Romans 12:9, however, that their "love" is to "be without dissimulation." The fact that gossip often has a hidden agenda means that Christians should be especially leary of passing personal information about others along.
While gossip works, according to scripture, by revealing secrets and shame and concurrently, often, by stretching the truth, the ultimate--and most dangerous--characteristic of how gossip works is that it discourages others. When we learn of secret agendas and hidden sins, we tend to trust the people involved--and by extension, people in general--less, and as a result we are less inclined to continue to associate and work with the object of the gossip, let alone others in general. A good example of how gossip can cause such occured in ancient Israel, when twelve spies were sent into the Promised Land to report back what they found. In the words of Numbers 32:9, these spies "discouraged the heart of the children of Israel, that they should not go into the land which the Lord had given them." Their words did not comply with the advice that Paul provided the Ephesians when he wrote, "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers" (Eph. 4:29). Rather, the words of the spies led to an entire generation's downfall, and the lesson posed by this instant in history provides us with an excellent biblical example of how gossip works in practice--and how much it can cost.
At the time that Israel sent scouts into the Promised Land, the nation had already been wandering in the wilderness for a little over a year. The scouts were told to bring back a report as to the state of the country: "what it is; and the people that dwell therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many; And what the land is that they dwell in, whether it be good or bad; and what cities they be that they dwell in, whether in tents, or in strong holds; And what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be wood therein, or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land" (Num. 13:18-20). And indeed, the scouts brought back a largely accurate report: "We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great" (Num. 13:27-28). Yet, the scriptures says these scouts brought back an evil report (Num. 13:32), so the nature of the evil here wasn't so much in the accuracy of the information, but rather it was--as is the case with gossip?-in the nature by which the information was shared.
Notice two reactions that this report elicited among the spies themselves. "Let us go up at once, and possess it," noted Caleb, "for we are well able to overcome it." Caleb and Joshua, the only scouts who would interpret the information in a manner that would strengthen the faith of the people around them, would also be the only scouts allowed eventually to enter that Promised Land.
The rest of the scouts God would condemn to die in the wilderness, during forty years of wandering. The rest of the spies interpreted the facts they brought back quite differently: "We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the chilren of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there we saw giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight" (Num. 13:31-33). The grasshoppers claim was, likely, a bit of hyperbole, but the Bible does show that there were giants, perhaps twice as tall as the Israelites, in the land--no doubt, formidable enemies. But God had promised the land to the Israelites; moreover, he had already shown the Israelites what he was capable of doing for them through his delivery of them from Egypt. Still, the spies chose to use the information they had gleaned in their travels not to speak highly of the opportunity afforded to Israel but of the troubles the people were about to fall into. They, as they Bible terms it, "brought up a slander upon the land" (Num. 14:36)--and by extension God himself, by calling into question what God had promised.
The result of this slander is noted in several places in scripture, but essentially it comes down to this--the negative information was passed among the people and the people in turn grew discouraged. They ceased to appreciate the land that was being offered to them, and they came to doubt the God who had delivered them, as well as their physical leader Moses. "And the men, which Moses sent to search the land, who returned, and made all the congregation to murmur against him, by bringing up a slander upon the land," Numbers 14:36 says. "[T]hey despised the pleasant land, they believed not his word; But murmured in their tents, and hearkened not unto the voice of the Lord," Psalms 106:24-25 says in describing Israel's reaction to the report. Deuteronomy 1:27-28 provides readers with a description of what the Israelites said in their murmuring. Note its negative, distrustful, and unedifying tone: "And ye murmured in your tents, and said, Because the Lord hated us, he hath brought us forth out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. Whither shall we go up? our brethren have discouraged our heart, saying, The people is greater and taller than we; the cities are great and walled up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakims there."
In the end, because of their disbelief, in part festered by these rumors and accusations, God decided that the people weren't worthy to receive the land that he had promised him. "[Y]e did not believe the Lord your God," Deuteronomy 1 says, ". . . And the Lord heard the voice of your words, and was wroth, and sware, saying, Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil generation see that good land, which I sware to give unto your fathers" (Deut. 1:32, 34-35). The example has application to Christian followers even today, for the author of Hebrews notes of what happened to the Israelites, that "we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. Let us therefore fear, lest, a promised being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it" (Heb. 3:19, 4:1). Just how serious is gossip? It could keep us from eternal life in God's kingdom, for "whisperers," "Backbiters," and "boasters" are all listed among those Paul notes in Romans 1:32, "[w]ho knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death."
Because, as we have seen, gossip is bound to the spirit in which information is shared, it is natural to ask how exactly scriptures would have us share information. That is, how does God want us to talk with one another? And how can we avoid the sin of "whispering"? Luckily, the Bible has much to say about proper discourse. Among these various recommendations is the advice to refrain from talking in the first place. "He that hath knowledge," Proverbs 17:27-28 says, "spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit. Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding." Even a person apt to show anger or to share a juicy secret in an effort to gain revenge for some perceived slight, scriptures says, looks like a person of great restraint and understanding. There is a strength that we perceive in others who bully and boss people around, but there is also a strength we perceive in others who don't let bad people or bad situations affect their constitution. While we might consider both to be strong individuals, we're less likely to see the bully as shrewd, as we would someone with a quiet strength.
The strategy of being careful and sparing with one's words also has other benefits. "In the multitude of words," Proverbs 10:19-20 tells us, "there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise. The tongue of the just is as choice silver: the heart of the wicked is little worth. The lips of the righteous feed many: but fools die for want of wisdom." The more we say, the more likely we are to get ourselves into trouble and to offend another person. Conversely, when we weigh our words, we are better able to reserve them for use only when they can be an aid to others--and as a result, we will become a person to whom people listen. Furthermore, when we follow James's advise?-"let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath" (James 1:19)?-we are more likely to be able to respond thoughtfully, with the full information at hand, rather than rashly, based on our spur of the moment emotions.
Listening to others, being reserved with our tongue, keeping our emotions in check, and choosing our words carefully all help us with one other recommendation that scriptures make with regard to how we can speak in a way that "feeds many"--namely, that if we think good thoughts, we will say good things. It is just as Jesus said in Matthew: "[O]ut of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh" (Matt. 12:34). For this reason, Paul tells believers, "[W]hatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things" (Philip. 4:8). When such are our thoughts, it is hard to have a desire to speak evil?-and when such speaking is avoided, in turn, that many fewer evil thoughts are put into the hearts of others. The cycle is self-perpetuating.
Hence, over and over again scriptures admonish people to avoid having guile and, in turn, expressing that guile in their speech. "Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile," Psalm 32:2 states. Without a dishonest and self-serving spirit, that person will be better able to fulfill Psalm 34:13: "Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile." Peter admonishes likewise: "For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile" (1 Pet. 3:10). Indeed, God says of those who forge the firstfruits of his kingdom that "in their mouth was found no guile" (Rev. 14:5). Rather than evil talk, self-serving talk, deceitful talk, when our thoughts are focused on good things, we are better able to adjust our conversation so that it focuses on helping others and that in a sincere and forthright manner. Indeed, Peter tells us, that we are to "love one another with a pure heart fervently," and he sets up the means toward that as being that we "have purified [our] souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren" (1 Pet. 1:22).
But our good talk is more than just a benefit to ourselves and to those immediately around us. Peter hints at something else even larger that we experience and give others the opportunity to experience when we refrain from gossip, when we are genuine in our speech and in our love for others. "Wherefore," he says, "laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious" (1 Pet. 2:1-3). In other words, when we lay aside gossip and talk in a manner befitting God's instructions, we actually taste God's grace in our lives--and give others the opportunity to taste his grace as well. If God's talk is pure and lovely and just and true, then when we talk that way, we are actually bringing a little bit of God into our lives and into others' lives. It is for this reason that James could write, "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain" (James 1:26). If how we talk exhibits God in our lives, then our failure to talk properly shows that God is not really in our lives. Without control of our tongue, God cannot work in or through us. As such, the danger in gossiping is fully manifest.
There are, then, essentially two types of speech. One is a fleshly type that pumps up the self, engenders hate, and stirs up strife. Of this sort is what we call gossip, which aims to do these things by revealing secrets, showing shame, and deceiving and discouraging others. Such talk, we see, can prevent us from entering into God's kindgom just as it did Israel entering the Promised Land by spreading unbelief. But there is also a second type of talk. That type of speech is godly--a "choice" language that avoids malice and guile, that rather, stemming from righteous thought, is done in love for others, exhibiting in the process God's grace. Before we say something then, we should think not on whether the information is correct but on whether the spirit in which we are sharing this information is that of love, and in that manner we can avoid being one of the Bible's "whisperers."