“When Words Become Gossip”Categories: Sermons
When I returned to my store of sermon requests last week in preparation for this lesson, I saw that the next topic on the list was for a sermon on gossip. As they asked, I will keep the requester anonymous!
All of us must acknowledge, though, that whether or not we requested a sermon on gossip, we can benefit from a sermon on gossip. In fact, I think that gossip is one of the particular temptations to which disciples are exposed. After all, we are more interested in others than sinners are because Jesus calls us to be.
However, just like any other good thing, Satan can turn our interest in others into evil. The book of Proverbs is full of warnings about the dangers of whispering and gossip. At the same time, though, we know that not all discussions of others constitute gossip. For instance, when the elders meet to discuss the welfare of the flock, that’s the furthest thing in the world from gossip!
How, then, can we tell the difference? How can we know when neutral or even praiseworthy speech about others turns into ungodly speech? Let’s spend this morning, then, considering when words become gossip.
The first thing that causes words to become gossip is WHEN THEY ARE UNTRUE. For instance, consider the warning of Ephesians 4:31. Among the things that we are to put away is slander, which is telling or repeating a lie about someone, and malice, which is an insidious desire to hurt someone that often leads to slander.
Hopefully, it isn’t news to anybody here that it’s wrong to lie about somebody else in order to cause them harm in some way. However, I think it’s easier for all of us to end up on the wrong side of that line than we think.
What if somebody has done us wrong—really wrong!—and we’ve got all this rage and indignation built up inside of us? We’re talking to one of our good friends about how no-good and low-down this person is. We’re telling the story of all the horrible things they’ve done to us, and this. . . idea springs into our heads. We could tell our friend that this person has done this other horrible thing too! Well, no, it’s not true, exactly, but they’d have done it if they’d have thought of it! And so we slip it in to complete the narrative.
Brethren, I’m well aware that some of us are storytellers and some of us aren’t, but a good story is no excuse to slander somebody else. No matter how enjoyable that might feel in the moment, the price is more than we want to pay.
Second, words become gossip WHEN THEY ARE CARELESS. One of the most sobering warnings in Scripture appears in Matthew 12:36-37. Here, Jesus tells us that we endanger our souls not only when we lie, but when we speak idly and carelessly.
There are several ways in which speech can be careless. First of all, we can be careless with the truth. We heard this juicy tidbit about a brother, and it’s so good that we pass it on without much concern for whether it’s true or not. Maybe we make up the juicy tidbit ourselves and start spreading it around because we think it’s plausible.
Note, by the way, that carelessness with the truth is a serious problem when it comes to stories and memes on the Internet. When we hit “Share” on some piece of political clickbait without checking it out carefully, we are sinning according to the terms of Matthew 12:36. Wouldn’t it be the dumbest thing in the world if we ended up in hell because of the garbage we shared on Facebook?
Similarly, we can be careless about the consequences of our words. Just because something is true doesn’t mean it needs to be said. The truth carelessly spread can cause strife in friendships, in marriages, and in churches. We need to think about the strife-causing potential of our words, and if we see possible problems, we need to keep those lips zipped.
Third, words become gossip WHEN THEY PROCEED FROM EVIL SUSPICIONS. Once again, let’s look at a laundry-list verse to extract this idea, 1 Timothy 6:4. Contextually, Paul is talking about evil suspicions stirred up by doctrinal controversy, but whatever their origin, evil suspicions are problematic, and they lead to speech that is problematic.
We know that our hearts are in the grip of evil suspicions when we find ourselves imputing bad motives to others when it is not justified by the evidence. We especially have to be careful about this when we are talking about others whom we dislike.
There are times when it is necessary to talk about the bad behavior of others. I’ve watched elders all across the country do this. However, when we do, we have to be careful to make sure that there is a factual basis for every word that crosses our lips.
For instance, let’s say that Freddy is a Christian who has been struggling with his attendance. One Sunday, Freddy is absent. We notice, and we say to our friend, “I bet Freddy saw that it was a nice day outside and went fishing instead.” Let me point out that we don’t know that. If we had called Freddy, asked him where he was, and he said, “Fishing,” that would be one thing, but we didn’t. In the absence of evidence, we’re letting our evil suspicions do the talking, and that’s wrong. By contrast, the godly thing to do is to assume the best about others and their motives until we find out the truth.
Finally, words become gossip WHEN THEY DO NOT GIVE GRACE. Here, consider Ephesians 4:29. In this text, Paul is drawing a contrast between two kinds of talk: corrupting talk, which eats away at the hearts of those who hear it, and edifying talk, which builds up those who hear it. Edifying talk gives grace.
Some people say that whenever we are talking about a third party who isn’t present, that’s gossip. I don’t think that’s true, and this verse is one of the reasons why. It is totally possible for such a conversation to edify and give grace. If Bradley comes into my office, and we start talking about a brother with whom I ate lunch the other day, if I am motivated by love and by the desire to help Bradley do his job better, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that. I’m bringing the church closer together. I’m giving grace.
On the other hand, let’s say that my motives are different. Let’s say that I think somebody is a bad guy, and I want to make sure that Bradley thinks he’s a bad guy too. I don’t want to help him. I want to make sure that Bradley and I are up here and he’s down there. Even if I am scrupulously careful to make sure that everything I say is true, that’s still gossip. I’m trying to corrupt my audience, not help him.
In this, brethren, we have to pay close attention to our hearts. I can imagine two Christians having a conversation about some brother who has fallen in sin, saying all the pious things about praying for him and helping him, yet each coming away with secret glee that they’re righteous and he isn’t. Even if we aren’t lying about somebody else, we have to make sure that we aren’t lying to ourselves about our motives too.