The Gossip Test
“Well, it’s true!” my daughter exclaimed emphatically.
“Just because it’s true, doesn’t mean you need to say it,“ I replied.
This was a repeated exchange in my house as we raised two girls who are only two years apart in age. As you can imagine, words and accusations flew around our house like flies around manu--, well, you get the idea. Sins of the tongue were a constant, and I often resorted to old school training measures, such as a dab of soap or hot sauce on the tongue for perpetual disobedience that involved their words. It was a training tool – I wanted them to remember the awful, nasty taste representing the foulness of their words so that their memory and self-control would kick in the next time they were tempted to spew hurtful words. Controlling our tongues is indeed difficult! My daughters, now almost 18 and 20, laugh about those days and they remember well their mom’s tactics to help them understand the gravity and power of their words.
My instruction to our children applies to adults too: Just because it’s true, doesn’t mean you need to say it. Our words need a better litmus test than that. Our words are potent. They carry weight and influence. They can make or break someone’s day. They can encourage or discourage. They can alter how one person views another. And once they are out of our mouth, we cannot take them back or undo what we have said.
SINS OF THE TONGUE
The Bible warns us about our words:
James 3:5-6 (NIV)
The tongue is a small part of the body but it makes great boasts…The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire….
Proverbs 10:19 (NIV)
When words are many, sin is not absent but he who holds his tongue is wise.
Proverbs 18:21 (NIV)
The tongue has the power of life and death…
These are just a few samples of what our Lord tells us about our speech. Indeed, He cares greatly about how we talk because it reveals what is in our hearts. Sins of the tongue are many: gossip, slander, coarse joking, backbiting, corrupt communication, lying, are among those listed in the Scriptures. Gossip, I think, is the trickiest one. What is gossip exactly? What differentiates gossip from simply talking about what is going on in our circles?
WHAT IS GOSSIP?
Our English dictionary defines gossip as “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others.” But how does the Bible define it? The book of Proverbs talks about gossip the most. The NIV word “gossip” is translated as “talebearer” in the KJV and means a person who walks about murmuring, whispering, backbiting, slandering. Diving deeper into the original words used for gossip reveals that the meaning includes persons uttering silly or trifling things, tattlers, etc. The word is translated as “busybody” in the New Testament which means “busy about trifles, and neglectful of important matters, especially busy about other folks’ affairs.” Paul’s warning in 1 Timothy 5:13 (ESV) adds another contour to our understanding:
“Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.”
I think we would all agree that gossip is a sin. Sin is “missing the mark” of God’s standards. When we gossip, we miss the mark of all that God originally designed us to be as His children living in community with Him and with one another. If we are honest, how many of us have read Romans 1 with a sense of righteous indignation? Paul describes a wicked, godless people who deny God and the truth, and yet his description of these people includes gossip: “They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful…” (Romans 1:29-30, ESV) The list of evils goes on and on.
But we justify gossip as “chit chat” or sharing something about someone as a “matter of prayer.” Gossip is sin, and sin is serious to God. Therefore, we need help! Ephesians 4:29 gives us a litmus test for our words. But prior to 4:29, Paul laid a foundation that enables us to put sin to death in our lives. Ephesians 1-3 declares what we were, what Christ has done, and who we are now. Because of Jesus’ indwelling presence in us, we have the power and means of grace to control our tongues. The power of self-control comes from His Spirit within us, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20)! With that foundation in mind, let’s look at this litmus test that Ephesians 4:29 (NIV) provides for us:
“Do not let any unwholesome [rotten] talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up [edifying] according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
This verse provides us with three questions to ask ourselves when determining if we should say something or not:
Is it rotten (unwholesome)?
Is it helpful?
Is it building others up (edifying)?
When I was in college, I had a friend who was a wonderful and kind person. At one point, we had read this verse and became convicted about our speech; in particular, our group of friends loved to joke around using sarcasm and razzing each other regularly – all in good jest, so we claimed. However, over time, it became “rotten.” Whenever we would say something “rotten,” my friend would smile and say “Edify!” as a gentle way of reminding us to watch our words. It became a joke amongst us, and we would frequently exhort one other with one simple word: “Edify!” It was effective.
Before you relay some news or speak about someone, prayerfully check your spirit using Ephesians 4:29. Are you talking maliciously about someone? Is it rotten? Is it building others up? Is it helpful? Will it benefit those who listen? Edify!
And if those questions are too much to remember in the moment, think on this one:
Would you say it if Jesus was in the room? Because He is.