I was reading a book recently written by John Dominic Crossan, writing about his early life. He writes about how Mary, the mother of Jesus, might have been subject to rumors when she was single and pregnant. There were some who would surely have said that Joseph might have been unable to restrain himself, or that she had surely “gone out” on him before they were married. At the very least, her claim that she had been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit was surely met with a fair amount of disbelief. “Yeah, right”, would seem to be the prevalent attitude, if the people of first century were anything like us in the 21st.
John Bell, the leader of the retreat I attended in September, mentioned offhand that there are over 50 Psalms that lament malicious gossip. There are passages that speak against it throughout the New Testament, and it should be noted that in our scorekeeping world, there are more passages against gossip than against homosexuality, or divorce, or abortion, or any other culturally current hot button issue.
By far the biggest problem with gossip is its flexible definition. First and foremost: Spreading false or dubious information about a person isn't gossip. It's slander. Gossip is ethically ambiguous, where slander is not.
True, we might think we're gossiping when the object of our discussion would say we're slandering. And that's why gossip is intimate, why it's best done with only those closest to you. Gossip is one of those activities in which if you have to state the rules, you don't want to be doing it with that person in the first place.
-Laurie Winer “Is Gossip Good”? on Beliefnet.com
I will admit that sometimes passing along a story is irresistible, or unavoidable. And sometimes, things need to be spoken about in criminal matters such as embezzlement or abuse. It is also vital that those who believe that a friend may be in danger because of depression, addiction, or abuse speak about it.
But let’s not kid ourselves—most of what we pass on isn’t of that magnitude. What is true is that supposing or guessing about someone’s private life, especially when they have suffered a life-changing event, is damaging and hurtful. When it isn’t true, but is pure conjecture, it is even worse.
A nineteenth-century folktale tells about a man who went about town slandering the town's wise man. One day, he went to the wise man's home and asked for forgiveness. The wise man, realizing that this man had not internalized the gravity of his transgressions, told him that he would forgive him on one condition: that he go home, take a feather pillow from his house, cut it up, and scatter the feathers to the wind. After he had done so, he should then return to the wise man's house Go now and gather up all the feathers."
"But that's impossible. The wind has already scattered them."
"Precisely," he answered. "And though you may truly wish to correct the evil you have done, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover the feathers. Your words are out there in the marketplace, spreading hate, even as we speak."
-By Lori Palatnik with Bob Burg, from “Speak No Evil: Why Gossip is Bad for your Soul”, on Beliefnet.com
There is a reason why gossip is more important to the writers of Scripture than any of our culturally current hot-button issues. That’s because unlike them, we all participate in it, and it is a temptation for us all. That’s why I think it is the biggest sin in the church.
I admit that it can be difficult to discern when the need to speak of someone else is appropriate, or when it isn’t. But I think it is OK to say that if you don’t have the facts, or haven’t talked to the person themselves about something they have said, then it isn’t OK to pass it on. Another guideline would be to discern how much enjoyment you are getting out of telling someone. Be true to yourself, and really search your heart. Do you enjoy someone else’s pain or trouble, and tell the story because you want others to enjoy it, too? That’s gossip, and it probably is slander as well.
As we go into Advent, the time when we anticipate the birth of Christ, and Epiphany, the time of the Wise men, let us receive the grace of God’s wisdom. An ancient Chinese proverb says:
It is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought of as a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.