Have you ever seen a Facebook post smearing someone else’s reputation only to end with, “I’m just saying”? Those four words apparently have the ability to legitimize whatever comes before them as an unassailable expression of authenticity. Don’t judge me. Don’t accuse me of gossip or slander. I’m just being authentic.
We live in an age where the greatest good is being “real” and the greatest evil is not being true to yourself. In the name of authenticity, I have a right to express myself and let the chips fall where they may. Is that what you believe? Do you see that attitude in your friends?
The story of the Bible teaches us over and over that authenticity is not god. Jesus is. That means our habits of speech must ultimately be governed not by what we feel like saying to others, but by what God has said to us. To follow Jesus means submitting our ever desire to the authority of his Word, speech included.
Scripture repeatedly warns us of the danger of a particular sin of the tongue called gossip. In Proverbs, King Solomon aptly describes and condemns a gossip as a “whisperer”. Listen to these sobering words.
A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends. (Prov. 16:28)
For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. (Prov. 26:20)
Few sins are more damaging to Christian community, or any community for that matter, than gossip. Gossip has the power to destroy our gospel unity. Gossip has the power to undermine our gospel witness. In his book, The Peacemaker, author Ken Sande provides a very helpful definition of gossip.
To gossip means to betray a confidence or to discuss unfavorable personal facts about another person with someone who is not part of the problem or its solution. Even if the information is true, gossip is always sinful and a sign of spiritual immaturity.
Looking back over our church history, I think we’ve historically taken the biblical warning against the sin of gossip seriously, and rightly so. But I also think that at least for some of us, in an effort to flee gossip, we’ve ended up fleeing from the no less biblical mandate to get help from our Christian brothers and sisters in resolving a conflict.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. (Prov. 12:15)
Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future. (Prov. 19:20)
In the middle of a conflict, there’s a healthy tension between avoiding gossip and getting the counsel I need to respond wisely. Let’s say I’m in the middle of an argument with someone. How should I respond? I need to immediately remember two things.
One, I shouldn’t be surprised. Let’s be real (pun intended). Conflict is inevitable whenever you put two people who aren’t done being “transformed” into the image of God in the same room. Two, I’m going to need help. Even as a Christian, I still battle sinful desires within my heart. I’m going to feel like getting even, fighting back or running away. If I’m going to glorify God in my response to conflict, I will need help from spiritually mature friends – wise men and women who can provide counsel, correction and encouragement along the way.
Without the blessing of their wisdom, what Proverbs refers to as advice and instruction, I’ll inevitably trend toward think of me as “right”, the other person as “wrong” and God as “absent”. Whenever I’m in the midst of a conflict, whenever I’m facing a relational challenge – with my wife, my kids, my friends, or a fellow pastor – I need community. There’s no part of my life, conflict included, that I can navigate in a God-glorifying manner by flying solo.
But here’s where I think we go wrong. We take Sande’s definition of gossip and define what it means to be “part of the solution” too narrowly. In the name of avoiding gossip, we forfeit the grace that could be ours by failing to humbly, carefully, and honestly inform our brothers or sisters about the situation so they can help us. And let’s be clear, that last part – the honest part – typically requires sharing details about another person that could put them in a “negative light”.
If I know you’re in a conflict and I ask, “How are you doing?” and you say, “Well you know, it’s hard, but I’m trusting God,” I can’t really help you. Apart from being appropriately transparent, no one will be able to help you. You’ve successfully avoided gossip, but in the process you’ve also avoided community. The latter is just as dangerous as the former.
If you’re appropriately transparent, do you run the risk of someone unduly taking up an offense on your behalf? Yes. Do you run the risk of them joining you in making uncharitable judgments? Yes. Do you run the risk of sowing seeds of division in the church if the person you’re going to for help forgets their primary responsibility is to care for your soul, not to “choose sides” or “fix” the situation? Yes.
But we dare not make “minimizing risk” the trump card in how we practice Christian community. Quite frankly, you could argue God took a big risk in throwing a bunch of sinful, broken people together in a family called the church. But he did it. Why? Because he wanted to display the greatness of his power in the midst of our weakness. Let’s trust God enough to be appropriately real with one another. There’s a wonderful freedom we’ll enjoy together when we’re honest about our struggles, honest about our weaknesses, honest about our sin. Do it humbly. Do it suspicious of your motives. But do it. Share what you need to share with mature Christians in your community so they can really help you. Don’t fear sin more than you trust God.
Here’s a helpful guideline for navigating the healthy tension between avoiding gossip and pursuing community. If you find yourself in a conflict and feel like you can’t talk to anyone about it in the level of detail they need to help you because to do so would be “gossiping”, your definition of gossip isn’t biblical. Take great care to avoid the very real, corrupting danger of gossip. But take equal care to avoid the very real danger of isolation.
Pursue the grace of God in community by being honest – dare I say “authentic” – in your relationships. Just don’t do it in the name of venting. Do it to get the help you need from people God has equipped to help you. You’ll undoubtedly make some mistakes along the way. There will be times you have to go back and confess, “You know what, I shouldn’t have said that. You didn’t need to know that in order to help me. I think that was gossip. Would you forgive me?”
Grace is messy. But grace is transforming. And grace comes through community. I’m just saying.