A definition of gossip and its forms, with its causes, effects and cure.
'Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people'
'He that uttereth a slander, is a fool' (Proverbs 10.18).
'An hypocrite with his mouth destroyeth his neighbour' (Proverbs 11.9).
Gossip has been defined as idle talk or compulsive chattering and news-mongering, including the spreading of groundless rumour. It is not always hostile or malevolent. But this article focuses on the kind of gossip that complains about others behind their back, exposing their faults (or supposed faults) and pulling them down in the estimation of all who will listen. This is about the ‘backbitings and whisperings’ mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12.20.
We begin with a few comments about hopeless, persistent gossips. Some people – even some Christians – seem driven to negative gossip about others. The tendency within them has become so powerful that they can no longer control it. They are like alcoholics or drug addicts. They prowl like gunboats, their arsenals stacked high with derogatory information about different people, and their radio-antennae sensitive to the latest 'suspicious' situations.
As Christians they are certainly in a very sad and sick state of mind, because spiritual interests and harmful gossip are mutually exclusive. It is obvious that their minds now draw their satisfaction from sordid things secretly spread. Gossips are undoubtedly backsliders, however consistent they may be in attending meetings, and however vocal in claiming spiritual blessing.
How do some who are believers get into such a state? The forces behind gossip will be identified shortly, but it must be said that people who are inveterate gossips have obviously made no attempt to curb or fight their habit. They do not seem to have seen it as a sin, and detested and resisted it. Just as people given to temper tantrums have allowed their muscles of self-control to waste away, so also hopeless gossips are people who have become disastrously weak. They are to be blamed. This is a condition for which they are entirely responsible. It is self-induced.
What Triggers the Urge?
Ten causes of both occasional and regular gossiping
'Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile' (Psalm 34.13).
First – the devil is the instigator of gossip. From the beginning he misrepresented the character of God in his dealings with Adam and Eve. He insinuated that God was unfairly withholding something from them, and was not truthful to them. He implied that God was unreasonable, tyrannical and threatening toward them. Most of Satan's words outwardly bore some resemblance to the truth, but they were not the truth. God had certainly withheld the knowledge of evil from Adam and Eve, but not for the reasons advanced by Satan. (Gossip is not always entirely untrue, but it misrepresents and distorts the truth until it is no longer true.)
The devil is the father of malicious gossip, and first uttered it amidst the beauty of paradise. Ever since, he has reproduced his crime using co-operative people. Gossip is planted in the minds of believers by the father of lies.
Secondly – gossips may be motivated by envy, jealousy and pride. Those tempted to gossip should look within themselves. What is the real truth? Are they genuinely hurt and concerned by someone's wrong conduct, or is there a spirit of jealousy smoldering within? Do the victims of their gossip have advantages in life which cause jealous anger? Do the victims have a degree of acceptance and fruitfulness which arouses the envy of gossips, who proudly think they should have those blessings? Jealousy and pride make virulent gossips.
Thirdly – gossips may be motivated by a general discontent with their lot, or may be suffering the result of personal failure, or under threat of loss. Instead of looking to God for help, and drawing on spiritual comforts, some people develop a complaining, bitter spirit, hitting out at others through malicious gossip. The devil is always on the watch for dissatisfied and vulnerable people through whom he may mount a ‘moral’ crusade against others.
Fourthly – gossip may be stirred by resentment. Perhaps at some time other Christians have brought necessary and kind words of reproof, but they rankle. To resentful people vengeance is sweet, and gossip is a 'knife shaped for the back'.
Fifthly – gossips are often motivated by a longing to be listened to. Sad and pathetic as it sounds, some people feel that they can attract attention only by having something startling or discrediting to say about others. Gossips have discovered that many people (due to the fallen human heart) are powerfully attracted to their stories.
Sixthly – gossips are sometimes motivated by the absence of anything better to say. These gossips (unpleasant as it sounds) have empty heads. They cannot think of anything worthwhile to say. They never read or talk about anything of substance, and so, apart from commenting on the weather, all they can do is criticise others. They are too selfish to think of taking an interest in the circumstances of the people with whom they speak. They are too insubstantial to be anything other than retailers of distorted, hostile stories.
Seventhly – people so often become gossips because they are worldly in their tastes and outlook. After all, gossip is the stuff of worldliness. What are television soaps but dramatised gossip administered in massive doses for addicts? If Christians watch serialised television gossip, their attitudes and tastes are bound to be shaped by it. They will become highly inquisitive about the minute twists and turns of the lives of others, and especially about their failings and faults. They will focus on the old life, rather than the new life; on earthly gain, rather than heavenly gain. The world of soaps is a world where human behaviour is everything, and spiritual behaviour is worth nothing. Here is the ideal mental training of a malicious gossip.
Eighthly – gossips are produced by the old disease of self-righteousness. One might say that the Pharisee who (in the Lord’s parable) went into the Temple to pray, betrayed the marks of a gossip. He prayed with himself, denigrating the tax collector who stood nearby.
By tearing down others, self-righteous people build up themselves. If others can be denigrated, they feel so much better. And by slandering people in the church, the self-righteous gossip succeeds in promoting himself above them. He effectively convinces himself of his 'high standing', and at the same time he attempts to convince those who listen to him. For self-righteous people, gossip is a ladder to self-satisfaction.
Ninthly – gossips may be motivated by sheer vindictiveness and malice. Some people do not need a reason for hating others, they just do. There is within them some primitive hostility which they do not attempt to control. They never seem to be challenged by the command of Christ that believers should love one another. They simply do not care if nastiness of character pours out of them. They allow it full rein and feel no shame. They need to see that there is a whole area of their conduct which has not been brought into the work of sanctification. God never gave them theright to declare a 'no go' area in their conduct, and if they will not submit this area to his law, he will have to chasten them.
Tenthly (and closely linked with the previous point) – gossips will be encouraged in their sin by the abandonment of regular self-examination and repentance. If there is no self-review at the close of the day, and no pang of conscience and painful shame, there will be nothing to check the outflow of gossip. To curb the old nature and its sins requires conscientious concern. Complacency in this leads to a low view of the seriousness of gossip, and even to its justification. (The devil will convince gossips that it is right and necessary to bring to light the 'misdemeanours' of others.)
Daily self-examination not only convinces people about the sin of gossip, but it also makes gossips more keenly aware of all their other sins. Then it becomes impossible for them to go about denigrating other people. Gossiping is a proud activity, and daily self-examination and repentance dissolves pride.
Hopefully, the reading of this dismal list of causes will put readers off any desire to gossip. If this is what drives it, we should recoil in alarm and disgust.
Six Deadly Effects
To see these is the greatest antidote to gossip.
'A froward man soweth strife: and a whisperer separateth chief friends' (Proverbs 16.28).
1. Against God’s standards for speech
The Lord's commands for the speech of believers are plain, but malicious gossip disobeys them all. The words of a gossip are like a fountain (says James) sending forth sweet water and bitter at the same time. The Lord's requirements for Christian speech are: 'first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy'(James 3.17).
'Sound speech, that cannot be condemned' is the standard for believers (Titus 2.8). Backbiting and whispering are clear marks of godlessness and lack of repentance (2 Corinthians 12.20-21). Malice, in word as well as deed, is repeatedly condemned (Ephesians 4.31; Colossians 3.8; Titus 3.3; 1 Peter 2.1). Slander is to be rejected (1 Timothy 3.11). Evil speaking is to be put away, along with bitterness, and replaced by kindness, tender-heartedness and forgiveness (Ephesians 4.31-32).
Gossip is, of course, condemned utterly in the supreme expression of God’s holy law given in the ten commandments: 'Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.' The more specific words of God given through Moses should ring in the ears of every potential gossip – 'Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people.'
To gossip is to be in opposition to God and to his Word. It is to willfully trample on the standards of the Lord.
2. Against the Spirit’s work
Gossip is opposed to every aspect of the fruit of the Spirit as described in Galatians 5.22-23.
It is against love, for it is an act of unkindness, even of hostility.
It is against joy, because it destroys the happiness not only of the victim, but of the whole church, producing a complaining, vindictive spirit.
It is against peace (or unity), because it creates suspicion, fostering a critical atmosphere, and the setting of one against another.
It is against longsuffering, pouncing on every perceived misdemeanour, and creating a spirit of judgemental intolerance.
It is against gentleness, being vicious, spiteful and hurtful, and possessing an insatiable appetite for 'offenders' to devour.
Gossip is against every tenant and feature of Christian character, and renders sanctification impossible
It is against goodness, which refers to a magnanimous, generous, helpful spirit. Gossip gives no quarter and shows no leniency. Far from giving the benefit of the doubt, or helping the criticised person to recover, it moves in for the kill, and destroys the victim’s character and reputation.
It is against faith, which in this text means faithfulness or loyalty. Loyalty is the first casualty of gossip. The gossiping, backstabbing person feels and shows absolutely none.
It is against meekness, or humility, because gossips feel no need to be certain of the facts, nor are they inhibited by any sense of their own sinfulness. They are quite perfect in their own eyes. Philippians 2.3 tells us that 'lowliness of mind' leads people to esteem others better than themselves. Gossip is the opposite of this.
Gossip is against every tenet and feature of Christian character, and renders sanctification impossible. It is against the improvement of the people it criticises, and it is against the spiritual growth of the gossips themselves.
It is against temperance, or self-control, because gossips cannot contain themselves. They make no attempt to hold back their words, even though their habit is obviously evil, vicious, cowardly, and cruelly damaging.
What a sin this is, to be capable of blighting every single bloom of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers and in the life of the church! Who would be a gossip?
3. Against the whole church
Gossip is an act of hatred not only toward those criticised, but toward the whole fellowship of God's people. It lays an axe to the root of brotherly love and union. Once its fever spreads, the words of James become true. 'And the 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.'
Gossip, it must be remembered, is two diseases, not one. It is a disease of the mouth and a disease of the ears. The gossiper is not the sole offender. Every gossip inflicts guilt on a number of listeners. They receive the sin, perhaps relishing and enjoying it, making it their own. Their hearts are hardened toward the victim, and they so often become 'tellers' in their turn. To gossip is as treacherous as recruiting another person to lie or steal or cheat. It is against the victims, the hearers, and ultimately the whole church.
4. Against truth
Gossip is against truth, in every sense of the word. First, it is against biblical Truth, because it takes the hearts and interests of people away from spiritual food, diverting them to earthly 'scandal'. Wherever gossip is popular, believers lose their absorbing passion for the Word of God. 'For whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal?' (1 Corinthians 3.3.) Could there be any greater tragedy than the sight of once keen Christians who now go to God’s house only to hear morsels of rumor and innuendo?
Should the victim bump into the gossip, forced, hypocritical smiles of friendliness hide the deed
Gossip is also against truth in the sense that it is usually largely dishonest. It clutches hold of accusations and reports against others, and retells them without any attempt to check or verify the truth. Not only does gossip omit to check the facts, it invariably states them in the worst possible light, and embellishes and exaggerates them.
The untruthfulness of gossip does not stop there. It operates behind its victim’s back, concealing all sign of its activity. Should the victim bump into the gossip, forced, hypocritical smiles of friendliness hide the deed.
Furthermore, gossips often feign a reluctance to speak about their victim, and make the untrue claim that they do so only out of concern for the 'offender'. The gossip thus becomes an actor or actress, but the whole performance is an appalling lie, and God sees. In every way, gossip is the enemy of truth.
5. Against order
Gossip is also disorderly, riding roughshod over the proper procedures given by the Lord for dealing with offences and misbehaviour in the church. For personal offences the Lord commands a personal approach, carried out in a right spirit (with meekness). For other offences pastors and other officers have been given to the churches, with clear and sensitive directions for overseeing the discipline and shepherding of the flock. For serious offences there is a revealed sequence of steps, including pleadings and warnings, and, for certain cases, even exclusion.
Gossips, however, think they can dispense with pastors, officers, and the Lord’s appointed steps of inquiry and discipline. What authority do gossips have to despise all the Lord’s provisions, to vaunt instead themselves and their judgement, and take the 'law' into their own hands?
Viewed from God’s perspective, gossiping combines arrogance with disobedience, and violates the proper procedures of the church which alone bring about justice and restoration.
6. Against the Gospel
Finally, gossip is against the Gospel, because it steals from people their compassion and zeal for the souls of others, and also grieves away the Holy Spirit, so that powerful, soul-saving work is hindered. 'Where envying and strife is,' says Scripture, 'there is confusion and every evil work.' Envying and strife is ‘not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish’ (James 3.14-16).
Do we indulge in gossiping? To see the ugliness of it and its effect upon the church ought surely to make us think, and put us off. We must neither speak gossip, nor listen to it.
Should we Expose a Gossip?
C H Spurgeon gave valuable counsel on how to subdue gossip. When someone comes to you with a string of complaints about another, he advises that we ask that person to put it all in writing. The perpetrator of gossip will not usually do this because it signals openness and truthfulness.
Supposing we know that serious gossip is circulating, injuring its victims and damaging the church fellowship. And supposing we cannot ourselves confront the gossips, for some reason. Should we tell a church officer, perhaps the pastor? Should we 'report' the matter? Would this be a case of gossiping about the gossip?
The answer is, that it would be our duty to God and the church. When there were troubles in the church at Corinth, members of Chloe's family told Paul, and he challenged the church. This was done in clear obedience to the rule of Christ, who said that when offences arise which cannot be solved between individuals, we must 'tell it unto the church' (Matthew 18.17).
A gossip is both a terrorist and a wounded person. If we saw a seriously injured individual bleeding in the street, would we not call an ambulance? If we saw a terrorist planting a bomb on our church premises, would we not raise the alarm? It would be very wrong not to do so, and to protect a gossip is just as bad.
Satan has at some time whispered into the ear of every believer a commandment of his own invention. We hear, and in our foolishness we may accept it. We may even give it pride of place above all the true commandments of the Lord. One of Satan's pseudo-commandments emerged in the language of nineteenth-century British public schools. It was – 'Don't peach!' sometimes rendered, 'Never rat on the cad!' In other words, it is dishonourable to tell on anyone, no matter what he has done.
What a strange morality! Even though he does despicable things, we must never give him away, for it is our duty to give him our total support and protection. We must never betray him to the authorities.
If Christian people keep no other commandment, they will often cling to this pseudo-commandment of Satan. 'I am sorry, Pastor,' they will say, 'but I cannot breathe the name of the person who is doing this terrible thing. It would not be right!' Satan must have taken evil delight many a time to see his counterfeit morality guiding Christians to protect sinful conduct, including gossiping. If the high crime of gossip breaks out and proceeds to injure a fellowship, it is time for members to talk to the elders of their church, so that reproof, if necessary, along with reformation, may be accomplished in the way the Lord has prescribed.
'Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings'
(1 Peter 2.1).
'Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice' (Ephesians 4.31).
'Nor revilers…shall inherit the kingdom of God' (1 Corinthians 6.10).