Gossip: Why We Do It and How We Can Stop

No_chatIt’s amazing how often and how forcefully the Bible discusses the issue of gossip. But, like greed, we tend to shrug off its importance to focus on more sensational and salacious sins.

But you begin to see how serious it is when you consider passages like:

“He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, therefore do not associate with a gossip.”—Prov. 20:19
“. . . malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.”—Titus 3:2
“But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.”—Matt. 12:36
“Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, him I will destroy; No one who has a haughty look and an arrogant heart will I endure”—Psalm 101:5
“They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips . . .”—Rom. 1:29

This is only a handful of the many verses that discuss, with great severity, the issue of gossip. What’s particularly interesting to me is that the Romans 1:29 passage falls within the same passage Christians regularly used to condemn homosexuality. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 6’s list of people who will not inherit the kingdom of God, you find “revilers” listed next to homosexuals, adulterers, and fornicators. Other translations translate “revilers” as slanderers (NIV) or verbally abusive people (HCSB).

Along with sensuality, immorality, and carousing in Paul’s Galatians 5’s list of fleshly fruits, he includes the direct byproducts of gossip: enmities, strife, jealousies, dissensions, disputes, envy, and factions. (Gal. 5:19–21)

I don’t say this to diminish whatever topic you’re fiery about, but to elevate gossip as the important topic Scripture reveals it to be. To constantly take issue with behaviors that we don’t struggle with, while ignoring detrimental conduct we’re all guilty of, says we’re not that serious about pleasing God.

What is gossip?

Gossip is the intentional and malicious destruction of a person or group’s reputation through indirect conversation. When we share information (true or not) that degrades, devalues, or diminishes someone with people who can do nothing to improve the situation, we’re gossiping.

You know you’re gossiping when you don’t want the receiving party to tell others how they came upon the information. It’s the sort of discussion you have about others that you’d never want someone having about you.

And when we do it online, it’s still gossip.

Now, there may be times when, for the safety of others, you need to publicly criticize someone. As long as it’s public and the person has a chance to respond, I don’t necessarily see this as gossip.

Why we do it and how to stop
1. Gossiping builds community

We all know this to be true. When we want a quick and easy way to build camaraderie with those around us, gossip is the key. Social bonds are easier to create out of things we collectively dislike rather than things we enjoy. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it is.

If you can give people a common enemy (or at least a common object of scorn), it helps them to get along so much easier.

How you can stop: The difficult thing about this issue is that it’s just so easy. Once you do it a couple of times, it’s easy to fall back on. It’s the perfect salve for social awkwardness, and you’ll notice before too long that the same people tend to come up whenever you’re around certain friends.

The best way to stop is just make a commitment to not let it start. First of all, it’s not real. Community built on a common contempt for someone is paper thin. Instead, build community around genuine interest in the lives of people present—that’s community that matters, and lasts.

And remember, if any group that can bond around a common disdain can just as easily bond around contempt for you.

2. We want our opinions reinforced

Some people are irritating. There’s no question about it. Sometimes we just want to hear that others are as fed up with their B.S. as we are. Once we do that, we’re back to building community on the shared bonds of negativity.

The problem is that the more you discuss the weaknesses of others with those around you the more you:

poison people against them
solidify your prejudices
attribute motives and meaning to their actions
make it harder to live at peace with that person

How you can stop: We’re encouraged to be at peace with everyone (as much as it’s up to us). So we shouldn’t go out of our way to have others confirm our reasons for not getting along with someone, as if it gives us an excuse.
Face it; there are just people you won’t get along with. That’s okay. Learning to live harmoniously with people you don’t particularly like displays an important level of spiritual and emotional maturity.

3. It’s a way we reinforce social rules

This is one of the biggest reasons there’s gossip in the church.

When we gossip about the sins of others, we’re using shame to communicate to others what is, and is not, socially acceptable. It’s how we teach tribal rules to newcomers and reinforce them with everyone else. Once you see people speaking in hushed, scorn-filled tones about someone, you’re going to think twice about committing those same infractions.

How you can stop: First of all, we need to recognize that this is completely contrary to the gospel. It’s love and acceptance that creates life-changing community. Whispered shame is a terrible motivator and a destructive habit. You want to reinforce tribal behavior? Talk up people’s strengths and encourage them when they do well.

If someone’s involved with really detrimental and dangerous behavior, bring it up to them or someone who can genuinely help remedy the situation. If they can’t, you’re just gossiping.

4. It helps us succeed socially

Gossip’s a helpful way to make yourself look good at the expense of others. If you don’t have the confidence to promote yourself based on your own skill set, it’s pretty easy to do it by tearing down your adversaries. The problem is (besides the fact that this makes you a huge loser) that you’re training yourself to look for and relish the misfortune of others.

How you can stop: Figure out what your strengths are and capitalize on them. If you can’t climb up the social ladder based on what makes you uniquely awesome, find a different ladder.

Let’s start taking this seriously

I consider myself to be a pretty big gossip, but I am committed to working on it. It’s lazy, unproductive, and I think we’re capable of more. And before you start railing against the sins of others, maybe it’s time to start taking things like greed and gossip seriously.

Do you have a story about the destructive nature of gossip—either at your hands or about you—you’re willing to share? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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