“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” – James 3:5-12
I am a firm believer in the notion that actions speak louder than words.
That being said, I think we sometimes use that as an excuse to say whatever we want as long as we are acting the right way.
Brothers and sisters, the topic that I am addressing is not literally one of starting fires, but more metaphorically, our speech. Within this topic, I will not be addressing cursing very deeply as that is not the main conviction that I am receiving from this passage (though an important matter), but instead, my focus will be gossip.
Last semester, a friend asked me for my own definition of gossip. Having not spent much time in though about this matter, I said that it was all about the heart of which the speech was rooted in. Looking back on that I feel as though that was a very naive statement as it is written, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9), which is of course followed by, only God can understand it.
In further thought this year, including a large amount of time spent in Matthew 18:15-20, I have come across a much more biblically-founded definition of gossip, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Something that we have made out to be a way of handling conflict, at least in Christian circles, is called “processing.” The concept behind having someone else give you his/her insights on a conflict that you are facing, itself, is not bad. The issue, however, lies in that a majority of times we include details that are not necessary, such as names or specific elements that do not actually need to be known in order to advise. It is easy to think of it as gossip only if we are just telling someone because we want to, but something as harmless as looking for advice can easily, and mistakenly, become gossip or even slander.
To broadly define these two terms before continuing:
Gossip – true
Slander – false
When we are processing through in our own minds how to handle a situation, we tend to speculate. Speculation, however, is just about as rooted in truth as worry. Worry is anticipating a negative event in the future, which could not happen as we do not know the future. I the same way, we can be incredibly logical in our thought processes, piece all the evidence together in our minds about a situation, and we still might be wrong. This is where slander can come in. When you process with another person and use names, you are putting this possibly false information in his/her head.
Gossip however would be once you already know that the information is definitely true, but as I mentioned earlier, you share information that is not necessary, especially with a party that happens to know the person of which you are in conflict with.
[note: I am primarily talking about conflict at this point, but will tie in a more broad definition of gossip at the end]
Matthew 18:15-20 clearly outlines how we are to handle conflict with a brother or sister:
- Go to him or her first.
- IF he or she does not receive it, bring in ONE other party.
- IF the issue persists, it is then time to bring in the elders of your church.
- Finally, if things rebuke will not be received in any sense, then it is time to sever the ties.
I find it fascinating that the context of this scriptural direction is meant for sin issues. A majority of the time that we have our little conflicts that turn into gossip or slander, they are based on relational misunderstanding and not on actual offense that could ruin a community under Christ. How is it then, that we convince ourselves that we can make exceptions to less serious things to spread them around like wildfire?
Gossip is sharing another’s information in any circumstance that is private in nature, unnecessary for the recipient to know, or not your place to share without permission.
Now, is that the most fully inclusive definition that I could possibly come up with? Probably not. But if I have not gotten my point across through what has been written already, I’m not going to get it across through a lofty definition.
Instead, why not spend more time on the do’s than don’t’s?
Go straight to your brother when he has done something to bother you or has sinned against you. It’s alright to talk to a close friend or mentor and explain the situation without names or all the details to see if you are right in the way you feel or not, but honestly, chances are, you would get that from talking to your brother directly as well.
An even better way of deciding what to tell others about people is looking at how the things you want to say will impact the recipient’s view of the subject. In other words, will it lessen his view of the subject or are you bragging on your friend for something awesome that he has done? I think you’re getting my drift.
We live in a culture, even within the church, where a majority of our jokes or comments that relate to humor are at someone’s expense. This is incredibly sad. Think of how many more Christians and those that we come into contact with would feel loved, accepted, valued, happy, and so on, if we just loved those around us and built them up instead of tearing them down.
We are called as a church, to love.
Let’s love people with both our actions and our words.
Instead of starting fires with our mouths, let’s put out the fires that others have started and take part in the process of healing and nurturing the forests to full health again.
Let’s plant some seeds among ashes.
For further scripture in relation to gossip, conflict and attitudes, see:
Proverbs 27:6, Proverbs 27:17, Proverbs 10:12, Proverbs 11:12-13, Proverbs 12:16, 23, 1 Timothy 5:13, Ephesians 4:29-32