Gossip and the Glory of God
Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent. (Proverbs 11:12)
Gossip is an amazingly contagious force. Whole industries are sustained by its spread – tabloid papers, social media, and entertainment news – and local communities from school boards to church groups to neighborhood streets are filled with it too. Gossip has great seductive appeal, as pastor Ray Ortlund observes:
Let’s all admit it. We love gossip. We love negative information about other people. We love controversy. We find it delicious. It is a delicacy – to our corrupt hearts. But the contagion goes down into us and makes a deep impression and leaves us even sicker than we were before.
Talking negatively about people’s private affairs – even if you’re telling the truth – often leads to (a) diminished reputation and standing for the other person, (b) strife within the community, and (c) dehumanization of ourselves, as we develop an appetite for tearing down rather than building up.
One of the most compelling manipulators of gossip in literature is Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. After the General Othello passes over Iago for a promotion in favor of his fellow soldier Cassio, Iago launches a sinister series of lies, misinformation, and secrecy to exact revenge. By the end of the play, Iago has poisoned Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, leading to both of their deaths, and nearly killed Cassio as well. In the end, he is finally exposed and arrested for his crimes. Famously, he refuses to give an explanation of his motives: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.”
Iago’s story reminds us that we are not immune to the destructive power of our own words – even the most cunning gossipers are still courting destruction. As Proverbs says, “he who belittles his neighbor lacks sense”; he is a spreading a fire that consumes his own soul as well as the community around him.
At the end of John’s Gospel, we see the grace of God moving in the opposite direction. After Peter has denied Jesus three times – forsaking his Lord on the eve of the crucifixion – Jesus does the unimaginable: he forgives and reinstates Peter. Jesus asks Peter three times “Do you love me?”, paralleling Peter’s three denials. And upon receiving Peter’s love, Jesus restores him to leadership in the church by commanding him, “Feed my sheep.” Whereas Peter’s tongue was an instrument of betrayal, cowardice, and destruction on his own, Jesus transforms it as an instrument of truth, courage, and redemption to proclaim the gospel to the world.
I don’t know about you, but I want that same transforming power in my speech as well. Jesus’ conversation with Peter is an important model for our lives. If we have a problem with someone, we must speak to them, not about them with others. Fighting gossip does not mean that we turn a blind eye to others’ bad behavior (Jesus confronts Peter after all), nor that we never recruit friends to help with a difficult conversation. But it does mean that we use our speech to build up and not to tear down, that we develop a holy appetite for encouraging those that God has placed in our lives, and that we speak words of forgiveness to those around us whenever we can.
Father, thank you for calling us to holy and life-giving words. Help me today, Lord, not to gossip about friends, enemies, co-workers, or anyone else, and to speak in ways that bring your life to the world. In Christ’s Name I pray, Amen.