“Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”
These recurring words were woven throughout the first sermon that I ever remember hearing. I was nine years old, and my family had just moved to a new town and begun attending church. I don’t remember anything else about that sermon, but this trifold question has managed to stay with me for decades.
And even to my young mind, the point was clear:
God does not like gossip.
Gossip in the Bible
Today we might describe gossip using a number of terms. Spreading rumors (often maliciously), talking behind someone’s back, or spilling secrets are all forms of gossip. And though I do not recall the verses quoted by that thoughtful preacher many years ago, a fresh examination of scripture confirms our contemporary understanding of gossip.
The Meaning of Gossip
Like us, the ancient Biblical writers used multiple words to describe hurtful and damaging speech. Across our varied English translations, gossip is alternatively called slander or chatter, and described as reckless, deceitful, and unwholesome. And gossip’s speakers are exposed by scripture as whisperers and backbiters. And as we unpack some of these words, we understand their meanings even more deeply.
Here (and elsewhere), the word ‘gossip’ is used in modern translations. The King James and other older English editions render this word as ‘whisperer’ or ‘talebearer.’ But the word has a curious history in the original Hebrew, deriving from a root word that means ‘roll to pieces.’ From this, we form a mental picture of a story that breaks down a lump of clay or stone into crumbled bits, never again to be made whole.
The Greek of the New Testament provides us with some equally vivid wordplay. Paul condemns ‘whisperings’ and ‘gossip,’ in Romans 1:29 and 2 Corinthians 12:20, by using a word that also describes the murmurings of snake charmers, bringing to mind a flavor of deceit and manipulation.
Yet, for as deliberate as snake charmers are, we also understand from our experiences that gossip is at times utterly careless. The Bible is not silent on this variety of gossip, either.
Proverbs 11:13 derives its ‘gossip’ or ‘talebearer’ from a root word that commonly conveys walking, proceeding forth, or wandering. In this proverb, we are offered an image of words that wander aimlessly without direction or purpose. This is not unlike the ‘vain babblings’ or ‘idle chatter’ found in 2 Timothy 2:16. Here, Paul employs a compound word that, translated literally, means ’empty sound.’
The Impact of Gossip
Clearly, the Bible does not cast gossip in a favorable light. In the definitions alone, we see gossip’s capacity to destroy, manipulate, and spread unchecked. And our findings are magnified when we examine the consequences of gossip found in scripture.
This injury from reckless words is no mere scratch of the surface, but the deep, piercing wound of a sword. And verse 11:13 also reminds us that our gossip betrays confidence, which injures the trust between two parties.
So it is no wonder that, as we previously read, the natural consequence of gossip is severed relationships. After all, what friend endures this level of hostility?
The Spread of Gossip
One of the most insidious aspects of gossip is its capacity to grow. We can crumble a single stone and leave others intact, and we can pierce with a sword once, withholding further stabs. But once words escape our mouths, we no longer have the ability to control them. We cannot unsay what we have said, so harmful words are left to multiply their damage as they spread.
Continuing his caution to Timothy about idle chatter, Paul adds that gossip spreads like cancer (2 Timothy 2:17). We do not need to be doctors or scientists to understand that cancer spreads invasively, leeching the health and life out of the cells that it destroys. So too, do our careless and malicious words about others.
This proverb provides us a science illustration of another kind, likening gossip to the wood that keeps a fire burning. Whether rooted in malice, deceit, or carelessness, harmful words add fuel to the fires of strife, discord, and argument, keeping them burning as long as the gossip continues.
The Sin of Gossip
Reading the negative description of gossip and its harmful effects, it is not hard for us to conclude that gossip is indeed a sin. But to be sure that we are leaving no doubt, let’s examine more closely the ‘unwholesome’ (or corrupt, using the King James) talk of gossip.
We find this word used a handful of other times throughout the New Testament. But this is the only instance in which this word is used to describe speech. Elsewhere in scripture, this is the corruption of rotting fruit, or even fish, left to decay. And here, Paul chooses this visceral imagery to describe the words that come out of our mouths.
Feel free to take a moment to swish some mouthwash if you need to about now.
Unfortunately, the mouthwash isn’t enough to fully rid ourselves of the unpleasantness of gossip. As we shall see momentarily, gossip isn’t a problem with our mouths. Rather, our mouths reveal a greater, deeper problem that originates in our hearts.
Good trees, he says, produce good fruit. This makes sense, as none of us would look to a dried-up plant or a barren tree and expect to find anything edible. Similarly, Jesus continues, we don’t venture into thorns and briars in search of grapes and figs. Why not? Because fruit doesn’t grow there. Instead, it is found on the trees that are inviting and accessible.
The fruit of a tree reveals the health of the tree because it is a product of the tree. Likewise, the good or evil stored up in our hearts produces the good or evil that we speak from our mouths. As Jesus concludes, “For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”
Jesus’ words leave us no doubt that gossip is both an effect of sin, and an act of sin that adversely affects our lives and the lives of others. But what can we do about it?
As Christians, we understand that overcoming sin is the unique work of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And having the sin of gossip illuminated by the words of scripture, we now have the tools to identify and curtail gossip before it emerges. So, we just stop gossiping and that’s the end of it, right?
As Christians, we are called to set our minds on things above, and to meditate on what is true and right. And so we are charged with managing what our minds take in, to the extent that we are able. And while turning off a ‘celebrity gossip’ TV show may be an easy step, it doesn’t help us when our friends, family, or even other church members start spilling the latest dirt to us. It might be hard, and even awkward at first, but when someone tosses a log of gossip onto the fire of conflict, we might have to be the ones to kick that log away.
Personally, I have benefitted when a listener interrupted me mid-sentence to say “I think we’re heading into gossip, please stop.” Such a gentle and sincere rebuke produces not only the immediate benefit of stopping that piece of gossip, but it can also make others hesitant to share future gossip (with us and with others).
Sometimes we can’t avoid the idle chatter. We can’t always control what we hear, and we don’t always have a relationship with a speaker that affords us the opportunity or authority to halt their speech. But we can control what moves past us by not divulging whatever gossip we happen to hear, acting as the antidote that meets the infection in its path and keeps it from spreading further.
We might not mean any harm when we share that ‘prayer request’ about our coworker’s crumbling marriage or the neighbor kid’s second trip to rehab. But before we share, we should ask ourselves; do we have permission to share these details outside of the confidence and context in which we received them (hint: if we didn’t ask for and receive permission, we don’t have it.)? Are we setting another person up for judgment, missed professional opportunities, or damaged relationships? How do we guard against even ‘well-meaning’ gossip?
For this, we return to the timeless words of my childhood preacher, whose easy test is built upon the timeless truths of scripture. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Shareable information passes all three of these tests. Gossip, while sometimes true, always fails on the third prong of this test, and often doesn’t fare much better on the second.
Our words must be sincere and accurate, not containing even the hint of deceit or manipulation, as we strive at all times to speak the truth in love.
A heart of love will produce the fruit of kindness. Speech that tears down, insults, and incites animosity is the corrupt fruit of enmity and hatred.
And we are called to speak words of encouragement. Even when we must speak correction (always to, and never about someone), we do so with the grace that invites restoration. But the spread of gossip only destroys as fire and cancer destroy.
True. Kind. Necessary. Among these qualities, gossip has no place.