The Most Ignored Sin

The following article was written by Jon Zens in 2008. Three things to keep in mind:

1. Most Christians never realize or understand the despicable, sub-human act that gossip and slander are in the eyes of God until it happens to them.

2. Zens is using the biblical definitions for “gossip” and “slander,” not the modern, American legal definitions. They are quite different.

3. Some people have wrongly used the biblical teaching against gossip and slander to contradict Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18. For instance, if a person is sinning against others and doesn’t stop after being corrected in private by one person, then in private by two or more people, and then corrected by an entire body of believers, it’s not gossip or slander to make that person’s continuing sin public if they refuse to stop (repent). It’s also not gossip to go to a police officer and report a crime. Zens does talk about the Matthew 18 principle in the article, but his point is that many Christians skip steps 1 and 2 and go straight to 3. And this also is sin.

Bob Mumford once said, “The Christian army is the only one that shoots its wounded.”

Regrettably, I have observed his statement to be all too true.

As long as I’ve been a Christian I have watched friends and their families undergo untold pain and hurt because of the incredible power of gossip and slander. Years ago we were traveling and after speaking in a church a brother came up to me and said, “I heard that you had quit teaching in churches and took up potato farming.” How and why such a rumor got started is anybody’s guess! This rumor was fairly innocuous, but imagine the untold harm done by vicious judgments on the life and character of others.

In this article, I would like to address this issue head-on. My hope is to raise the awareness of my brothers and sisters in Christ on this matter, so that we all will better follow the Lord’s teachings regarding our speech about and actions toward others.

What exactly is gossip?

Gossip is second or third hand information that someone dumps on you without your prior consent and without the consent of the person being gossiped about. Gossip can be true, partially true, or completely false. It can be motivated by good intentions, but it’s always negative personal information about another that puts them in a bad light.

What is slander?

The Bible defines slander as accusatory speech that is injurious to a person’s name and reputation. It’s essentially character assassination . . . the act of smearing someone. Gossip and slander color people’s perceptions of an individual unfairly and unjustly without their knowledge or consent. One major component in both of these sins is that the person being torn down is out of the loop. Talebearers usually avoid speaking directly to the one they are demeaning.

I will admit that I have listened to gossip in the past. At the time, the thought never occurred to me how deeply a person and their family could be hurt when someone attacks their character without their knowledge or consent.

It seems that most people who spread gossip never think about this. Nor do they realize that what they’re doing is engaging in gossip and slander. (Some people, of course, who intend to smear another human being know exactly what they’re doing. Many Christians, however, naively spread gossip without realizing what sort of destruction it brings in the lives of others.)

For this reason, I have raised a standard in my life. To the best of my ability, I always evaluate people based on my first-hand experience with them, not on what someone else tells me about them – for the obvious reason that second-hand information can be very misleading and inaccurate (sad to say, I haven’t always lived up to this standard in the past).

Gossip and slander violate the Lord’s own maxim: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” If anyone has suffered the agony of being gossiped about, they understand the force of those words. No one wishes to be the subject of gossip and slander. There are few things so hurtful.

One of the problems is that gossip and slander seem innocent and they often come to us subtly. One doesn’t have to be operating in malice to be guilty of gossip and slander. Again, the motive is irrelevant. Spreading negative or shameful information about another person is contrary to walking in love. Love “thinks no evil” and “believes the best of others” (1 Cor. 13).

What does gossip and slander usually sound like? It usually begins with something like, “Did you hear about such and such . . .” The rest of it goes on to put an individual in a shameful or negative light. A.W. Tozer had these powerful words of advice about the sin of gossip:

Never pass anything on about anybody else that will hurt him. “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). The talebearer has no place in God’s favor. If you know something that would hinder or hurt the reputation of one of God’s children, bury it forever. Find a little garden out back — a little spot somewhere — and when somebody comes around with an evil story, take it out and bury it and say, “Here lies in peace the story about my brother.” God will take care of it. “With what judgment you judge, you shall be judged.”

If you want God to be good to you, you are going to have to be good to His children. You say, “But that’s not grace.” Well, grace gets you into the kingdom of God. That is unmerited favor. But after you are seated at the Father’s table, He expects to teach you table manners. And He won’t let you eat unless you obey the etiquette of the table. And what is that? The etiquette of the table is that you don’t tell stories about the brother who is sitting at the table with you — no matter what his denomination, or nationality, or background (from Five Vows for Spiritual Power).

So what should we do if we hear a rumor about someone else?

If we are in conversation with a person and they begin to express words that put another brother or sister in a bad light, we have a responsibility to interrupt such speech and exhort them to speak directly with the person they are criticizing. If an email containing gossip is sent to us, we should disregard the content and ask the sender to go to the one being spoken against.

In all circumstances, as much as lies with us, we should not be a party to gossip and we should confront those spreading evil speech. We must not forget that matters of concern about others must be confirmed with witnesses (Matt.18:16), and others should only be notified if the person refuses to repent – which means they refuse to stop their sinning. We sin by entertaining accusations against others that have not been confirmed by witnesses, or that have already been repented of. It is sinful to spread information about the past sins of others when they are already under the blood of Christ.

In addition to the above, we should go to the person being targeted and make them aware of it. We should then ask for them to confirm or correct it. This is the loving thing to do. Think about it: If someone was spreading something negative about you, would you not want to be made aware of it? Again, love treats others the way we wish to be treated.

It’s not good enough to ask the gossiper if they’ve spoken to the person gossiped about. In my experience, oftentimes a person spreading the gossip will say “yes,” but when I’ve tracked down the person being gossiped about, they will deny having had such a conversation. Or the conversation really wasn’t a conversation at all. Nothing can replace going directly to the person being spoken about.

Whenever we hear gossip, we should consider these questions: “Would I want someone talking about me like this? How would my family feel about this? My spouse, my mother, my father, my children, my best friends?” (These thoughts are typically never considered when a person listens to or spreads gossip about another individual.)

Have you ever noticed that speech that tears others down travels like a brush fire, but news of repentance and restoration seems to move along at a snail’s pace? Why is it that we often immediately believe and embrace negative assessments of people, but reports of repentance, change, or the dispelling of a false rumor are met with skepticism? As believers, the exact opposite should be our practice: we should be hesitant to entertain and skeptical of adverse words about others, and quick to rejoice in and embrace news of the dispelling of a rumor or another’s repentance!

Satan’s nature is to accuse. He is called the “accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12). In fact, the word “Satan” means adversary, and the word “devil” literally means “slanderer.” That should say volumes to us. One sister noted these warning signs of a spirit of accusation:

**Being suspicious of others
**Having bitterness toward others
**Being easily offended without cause
**Having envy and jealousy toward others
**Believing the worst about others
**Exaggerating the offenses of others
**Refusing fellowship with a person after they have changed
**Holding people to their past failures
**Imposing our perfectionism standards on others
**Basing harsh judgments on misunderstandings without seeking clarification
**Judging others for misbehaviors that we are prone to
**Becoming the Holy Spirit for others
**Using others as a scapegoat
**Tearing down others so we look better
**Bringing skeletons out of the closet
**Being unsatisfied with any amount of confession and sorrow from another
(Marsha Fisher, “Accusation,” Be In Health Conference, April 29, 2008, Thomaston GA)

Further, the union of Christ with his people should certainly give us reason for great caution with our words about fellow believers. Paul said in Romans 14:15, “Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.” I think we are also warranted in saying, “Do not by your words destroy your brother or sister for whom Christ died.” It is a very serious matter to hurt anyone in Christ’s little flock (Luke 17:1-4).

A careful reading of the Bible shows the destructive nature of gossip and slander. It says, “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts” (Prov. 18:8, 26:22). Gossip is likened unto poison that once someone drinks, they cannot get out of their system. And it always separates people. Even close friends and loved ones.

Put another way, gossip not only damages the person being gossiped about, but it also damages the person hearing the gossip, for it causes them to judge the other unfairly.

Consider these texts prayerfully:

“A perverse person stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28).

“Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down” (Prov. 26:22).

“He who conceals his hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool” (Prov. 10:18).

“Brethren, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it” (James 4:11).

“The tongue has the power of life and death . . . ” (Prov. 18:21).

“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).

“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all people” (Tit 3:1-2).

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Eph. 4:31).

“Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman” (Psalm. 15:1-3).

In conclusion, the next time you hear a rumor, go to the person being rumored about. And never spread something about another person without talking to them first and having an open mind to hear their heart. Unconfirmed notions about others should not be spread abroad.

In the pursuit of mutual edification and peace, our mouths play a very important role. Our words should be carefully chosen, and designed to build up, not to destroy (Eph. 4:29.31; 5:4; Col. 3:8,16; James 3:10; 1 Pet. 4:11). We must “slander no one” (Tit. 3:2), and be ready always to speak a good word about our brothers and sisters in Christ. In the human realm, words are most often the spark that leads to wars and atrocities, and there is a parallel in the realm of the church, for “if you keep on biting and devouring each other” with hurtful and damaging words, “you will be destroyed by each other” (Gal. 5:15).

May our speech to others and about others be “only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph.4:29).

— Jon Zens, 2008

See also Hearing One Side of a Story

Update: The Blog Manager reported that there have been problems with the comments after DISQ was installed. Some of them were lost as a result. Some of the comments that do appear were a response to someone asking me question about what to do if someone suspects pedophilia in a group or situation. There was some great input on this that I learned from and here’s how I summed up my thoughts. This was one of the deleted comments.

“Someone’s fear or suspicion of this horrific crime doesn’t necessary make it so. However, pedophiles do exist unfortunately and as someone wisely pointed out to me on this thread, and I agree with them, most of us don’t have the necessary training to detect when a suspicion of this nature is based in reality or not. So I stand with them on bringing in the proper authorities to investigate such situations. Especially if the people who suspect have good reason for doing so and they are credible people who are not known for being dishonest. This is too serious an issue to handle internally. And it happens to be a crime. So the experts should be brought in.”

For Further Reading

Thomas Dubay, “Verbal Contention,” Caring: A Biblical Theology of Community, Dimension Books, 1973, p.184: “Sacred Scripture comes down hard on sins of speech, so hard that it is safe to say that few people indeed manage to come close to living its full message.”

Margaret Foth, “Life is too short . . . to let conflicts go unresolved,” “Life is too short . . . to bear grudges or harbor bitterness,” Life Is Too Short . . . to Miss Today, Zondervan, 1985, pp.75-80, 87-92.

Joyce Huggett, Listening to Others: Hearing Their Hearts, Hodder & Stoughton, 2005. Karen Burton Mains, You Are What You Say: Cure for the Troublesome Tongue, Zondervan, 1988.

John Wesley, The Cure for Evil Speaking (1760).

About Frank Viola

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  • Frank Viola

    Thank you, Rachel. I appreciate the kind words. You show a lot of wisdom in your comment in that I think different people are more sensitive to one side of the tragedy or the other depending on their experience as you and your family well know. Abuse is reprehensible and so is being falsely accused of such things. In the coming days, I’m going to be looking at the legal documents on reporting child abuse so I’m fully educated about it. I thank my readers for all of their input and pointing out things I wasn’t aware of. The Blog Manager told me that he’s closing comments on this thread post as he’s having trouble keeping up with all the comments on the many other posts and this is one is quite old. (For newbies, I don’t moderate comments and sometimes comments aren’t approved for one of these reasons: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/rules

    I hope readers will read all the comments and the updates to get the full context of everything.

    Always learning, never arriving,

    fv

    Psalm 115:1

  • Serving in Japan

    Thank you very much for your reply. I’m very grateful for your willingness to listen.

    I would also encourage you to take a look at the Wartburg Watch blog, and their commentary on Mr. Jens’ article. It’s how I learned about this site.

  • Rachel

    Frank, I want to tell you that I’m impressed with your humility in adjusting your view based on what some of your readers have said. This is the first time I’ve seen a popular author like yourself do that. It’s refreshing and it’s caused me to respect you. My husband and I have never read any of your books, but after we saw how you handled this situation, we’ve purchased three of them from your publications page.

    I want to say that my husband and I have experience on both side of this issue and that’s where some of the confusion comes from. People are sensitive to one side or the other. My husband has been falsely accused in the past. Like Sarah, we understand the tremendous pain that this brings to a family. Therefore I understand the caution about slandering people and Mr. Zens article is very good on this. I’m glad he did say that when a person hasn’t repented after they’ve been gone to privately, it’s not slander as Matthew 18 says.

    I have also been the victim of abuse so those situations need to be reported to the authorities to determine if something has actually taken place or not and I am glad that you now agree with this.

    With appreciation,
    Rachel

  • Frank Viola

    Thank you for your comment. The event I spoke of happened many years ago and they didn’t come to me. They went to the elders (I wasn’t an elder). I was simply called in with a few others by the elders to discuss the situation as it was a first for everyone. But on hindsight, thinking back on that specific case, I think you are correct. That would have been wiser. Thanks for your input on this.

    Ever learning, never arriving,

    fv

    Psalm 115:1

  • Serving in Japan

    Mr. Viola,

    Sorry to tell you this, but your judgement here is entirely wrong. This is not a matter of my opinion as a Christian, but a matter of law. Neither you nor I have any capacity or training to determine whether anyone is sexually abusing children — only highly trained experts in law enforcement can do that. NO ONE else has any business even trying. The mothers you mentioned above shouldn’t have gone to you, but straight to the police, with their concerns. When you heard about it, your only job in that case was to call the authorities, and let them do their God-appointed work.
    You may ask whether I would enjoy facing such an investigation, based on suspicion or malicious accusation. The answer: Of course I wouldn’t. That doesn’t matter. The law is the law, and there are very good reasons for this one. The protection of children must come before my (or anyone else’s) comfort or convenience. The best I could do in such a situation would be to trust that the authorities know their jobs, that they would discern the truth, and that I would be vindicated eventually. Complaining that “I don’t like it” would do me no good at all.
    You seem to think that there are no exceptions to Matthew 18. You’re wrong. The truth is, Matthew 18 offers us no exemption from the laws of the land. Please keep this in mind if you’re serious about guarding children under your care, brother.

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  • Jessica

    Frank, thank you for this comment. This is a good clarification and makes your position clearer. I had a few questions about where you stood on this issue and you answered them here. I’ve been the victim of slander myself so I really appreciated this article.

    Making public the sins of others that have actually happened after there has been no repentance and that keep going on is not slander as Jon Zens pointed out. Too often people accuse others prematurely or without evidence or without carrying out the steps of Matthew 18 so this article is really needed. I really loved that other blog what you wrote about the warning, the world is watching how we Christians treat each other as we eat one another up in public. I hope this stops someday. Keep writing please.

    Jessica

  • Frank Viola

    Thanks Sarah. Unfortunately, sometimes false allegations do happen. I’ve seen cases like the one you’re describing and I’m very sorry for what you and your family went through. Child abuse is one of the most horrific things that a child and family can undergo. So yes, I believe law enforcement should be involved when there’s evidence that it has taken place. By that I mean, it has taken place. I’m no expert on the subject, except that I know that it messes a child up for life and I personally get incensed when I see child molesters walk after a few years after they’ve been convicted of a crime. As a father myself, the mere thought of the act is despicable and heinous. And adults must do all they can to protect the little ones.

    In answer to your question, I only heard about SGM situation recently. I don’t know much about it, except that I read somewhere that they *allegedly* tried to hinder the police from investigating. If that’s true — and I don’t know if it is, as I don’t know much about SGM and half the stuff you read on the Internet these days isn’t based in fact — then my sense is that it’s a profound mistake to hinder the authorities in any way. Regarding the situation I described, I should have been more accurate and said that some felt he was a pedophile. Some of the mothers picked up on the fact that he wanted to spend time watching the children and seemed to get a little too friendly with them. They smelled something was off. But there was no inappropriate touching or statements that anyone could point to. We tried to check on his history to see if there were any crimes, etc. and found nothing. But when he was confronted with questions and some correction on certain things that raised eyebrows, he bolted. So there wasn’t much we could do.

    If, however, there was evidence of inappropriate conduct, we would have handled it differently and most likely would have gotten law enforcement involved and definitely the child protection agency if there was a basis for doing so. Unfortunately, I’ve been involved in situations where people’s lives were clearly threatened and law enforcement did nothing about it, stating that they didn’t have “enough” to act. But that’s another story. Frustrating.

    Again, I’m sorry for what you and your family went through. Harming children is despicable, but accusing someone falsely of something so horrific is also despicable.

    UPDATE: This morning “Serving in Japan” made a good point about the training needed to investigate such cases. On hindsight, I think he is right. In that particular case I referred to, the elders should have called in the authorities to at least investigate. You can see my reply to him below.

  • Sarah

    Frank, I really appreciate your advice on this. My husband was once falsely accused of being a “pedophile” by one of our church friends. She was jealous of us and he was friendly with children, so she began to spread rumors about him. I cannot describe the disslusionment and pain that this brought to our family. Eventually he was vindicated and she was discredited, but the pain is something we are still getting over. I like what you said about contacting the authorities. Have you read about the SGM and what’s happening there? This post is from December, so you may not have known about it. Can you explain more about the pedophile who you all tried to correct. Was there evidence that he really was a pedophile? Thanks for a great post.

  • Frank Viola

    I didn’t write the article, but I think I can give an answer nonetheless. Jesus teaching in Matt. 18 doesn’t prioritize one sin above another or make exceptions. I was once part of a church where a pedophile was discovered to be among us. We went to him in private first. Eventually he was put out of the church, following Matt. 18, because he refused to accept correction. What he was doing was inappropriate, but it hadn’t gotten to the crime stage.

    The NT doesn’t make an exception or an excuse for the sin of gossip, as Zens points out. Zens is appealing to the NT. If one doesn’t believe the NT, then that’s another story. The article is written to those who do. btw/ the instruction about the 2 or 3 isn’t that they have to be witnesses to the sin, but they are witnesses to the discipline process and correction. In addition, pedophilia is a crime. So going to the authorities for a crime … like murder, physical abuse, etc. . . . isn’t gossip if it’s happening.

  • Nell

    Frank
    “If someone is clearly sinning, they are to be approached in private.” Is this the case with pedophilia? Should we let the churches handle this “privately?

  • Frank Viola

    Someone’s “fear” or “suspicion” doesn’t make it so. If there’s a legitimate concern with clear evidence, an investigation should be done. The person should be approached directly. If it’s clear that it’s happening and will continue to happen, the authorities should be contacted for this is a serious crime. Again, just as yourself, how would I want to be treated if it were me being accused. That question answers most of these questions.

    UPDATE: See my reply to “Serving in Japan” below. He makes a good point about the necessary training to detect when a suspicion is based in reality or not. So I stand with him on bringing in the proper authorities to investigate such situations. Especially if the people who suspect have good reason for doing so and they are credible people who are not known for being dishonest. Thx.

  • lmalone

    So what would you do if someone tells you they fear a child is being molested and has given their reasons for thinking so but they have no proof? How would you handle that? Would that be considered “gossip”?

  • http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com Bill

    What’s wrong with potato farming?
    But seriously, I think this is a good and important message. “Speak evil of no man.”
    And I think it’s worth mentioning that the standard is not different when applied to public figures, about whom gossip and talebearing is common.

  • http://www.thesharing.org J Rock

    Heh, heh. And here I thought you were going after my beloved gluttony. ;-)

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The indulgence of people in slander is not just directed against people in their own congregation or denomination, but also against people of different faiths. Indeed, there appear to be many pastors who claim to be teachers of the Gospel of Christ who liberally engage in telling falsehoods about the character of people who belong to other faiths. A couple of years ago, when one of the Atlanta newspapers reported that the Southern Baptist Convention was beginning to shrink in net membership, a senior pastor in the SBC noted that many Baptists have a reputation for being judgmental of others, which deters people from visiting Baptist churches. Is there a theological root of this behavior? Does emphasis on salvation without works lead to people claiming they are saved by Christ even though they are not disciples of Christ?

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  • Frank Viola

    Gossip and slander is always a sin just like murder, theft, and lying and any other sin one names. There is never an excuse or justification for it. The examples you gave could have been resolved by following what Jesus taught in Matthew 18. If someone is clearly sinning, they are to be approached in private. If they don’t stop sinning, then others are to be taken with them to correct them. If they still don’t repent after these means are exhausted and attempts have been made in private, then it’s time to “tell it to the church.” Jesus was quite clear about this. When you’re dealing with sexual abuse, that’s criminal matter and the law should be involved. Jon mentioned all of this in his article by the way.

  • Glenn

    I think the big challenge of this is when someone suspects they are in an abusive church. For example, where I live in Maryland the Discipleship/Shepherding movement had a big impact on some local churches. They also had very strong teachings against gossip/slander. It was only when a group of people began to share with others in the church about how they felt a decade or more later that the abuse was broken. The people in the group all shared they remained silent for years for fear of gossip/slander type sins and guilt about making charges against fellow Christians. This was also an issue with Earl Paulk’s church in Atlanta and why sexual abuse was able to remain unchallenged for so long. I once had a former member of Paulk’s church tell me that he stayed so long because the women’s allegations were not seen as credible and were considered by many as slander. We have to strike a balance between gossip/slander and the exposure of truth when abuse happens.

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  • zilch

    Frank- right at the beginning of this article you quote Bob Mumford saying “The Christian army is the only one that shoots its wounded.” As an atheist, I must disagree. In my experience, people of all religions, or no religion, are about equally guilty of gossiping. And it doesn’t do any of us good.

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  • http://aroundeverycornerat.blogspot.com Jenny Elaine

    Amen Mary!! Gossip and slander are….well, yes, the tongue can cause untold damage! Even death. What is sad is that we, Christians, who actually have the power within us to set good and healthy examples, have been doing so much of the damage. We have such a horrible problem with bullying in this country and really need Christians to stand against it and become more like Christ…instead of being counted among them.

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  • rvs

    Great post! I’ll send it to a couple of friends who work as leaders in college dormitories.

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  • http://southsidewinterhaven.com Tom Estes

    What’s really amazing to me is how much joy Christians seem to get out of both hearing and telling dirt on each other. As a pastor I know all to well the damage that this can cause, not only to those being talked about, but often the churches they belong to.

    The only minor quibble I have with this article is the statement that gossip is “the most ignored sin.” The reason being is that I’ve heard many sermons and preached many sermons on this in my lifetime. It seems to me that lying is the most ignored sin, mainly because it is a sin in which so few Christians believe themselves to be guilty.

    Minor quibbles aside, thanks for the article, Frank, I enjoyed it.

  • http://yahoo Ron Cross

    I never thought about it, but this is very true. Gossip and slander, no matter how harmless and innocent the intent can cause great damage to people and families. Didn’t Jesus say “Guard/tame your tongue”?

  • http://createdtocreate.org EA Bussey

    Wonderful article and certainly one of the more difficult tasks we have as believers. Getting away from gossip seems to be a process, at least it was for me. To recognize how we slip into it individually and then put the brakes on our own participation does not seem as difficult as confronting it with our beloved brothers and sisters.

    Too often we worry about offending the offender – and isn’t that ridiculous when we stop and think about it? Still it takes courage to do the right thing. A few years ago I was in a situation where I had to make a very quick choice before gossip turned into a wild fire. Be courageous or be a coward – I knew I really had no choice, it was time to be brave. I confronted the individual immediately and privately. The initial reaction was anger towards me (I didn’t know this person well) but amazingly a few months later the person approached me, thanked me and repented. All in God’s time.

    Our job is to be faithful to His leading, to make the right choice and trust Him with the outcome. Thanks for reminding us how destructive gossip is – especially within the body of Christ.

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