Oh, how the sons and daughters of Adam love gossip.
Think about how your ears perk up when someone begins a conversation with “Hey, did you hear what’s been happening with our old friend Jim?” or “Hey, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but you know what Jenny told me about Suzie?” Those words tend to grab our undivided attention.
Gossip appeals to us because sinners love “dirty laundry.” We love it when people lose, especially those whom we may (sinfully) view as being a few layers above or below us on the social, economic, educational, or celebrity strata. We love to hear—and spread—bad news about them. Don Henley nailed this truth in his 1982 hit song “Dirty Laundry.” The lyrics were intended to critique the perceived yellow journalism of mainstream news media, but what Henley saw as true of reporters can be said of us all:
Dirty little secrets, dirty little lies
We’ve got our dirty little fingers in everybody’s pies
We love to cut you down to size
We love dirty laundry
Gossip is appealing to us because we love stories—about us and others. As Matthew C. Mitchell points out, we read our children stories from the time they were born. Gossip is also telling a story, a story that communicates bad news about another person behind that person’s back. Mitchell offers three categories that shine a light to help us see deeper into the shaft of this sin.
Sharing false information or a rumor about another person. It could be something you know is true, you know is false, or is merely a rumor. Rumors about another person can be devastating because once they’ve left your mouth and gone into the ears of at least one listener, they are irretrievable.
Rumors are like feathers in a pillow—once they’ve been let out into the wind, it’s impossible to get them back in. They spread uncontrollably, and they damage and destroy the reputations of others. With social media, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s true. What matters is that it supports your cause or viewpoint.
Bad News About Someone
This is when you share a true story that shames or otherwise paints a person in the worst possible light.
I had a friend whose wife caught him looking at pornography. They were working through the matter with our elders, but another man told me and others all about it. He didn’t like the other man, so he spread news about his fall far and wide, damaging the other man. We wound up confronting the man who’d gleefully gossiped, and he eventually left the church, while the man who had looked at pornography was restored.
Bad news for Someone
Scripture depicts gossip as whispering that ruins relationships and separates even the closest of friends: “A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer (gossip) separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28).
When you hear gossip about a friend, it plants suspicion in your mind, which builds a barrier of doubt. By the same token, if your friend gossips to you about somebody else, you’ll certainly wonder if he gossips about you to others. It destroys trust and creates cynicism within relationships. Gossiping words are killing words.
Even the Preacher in Ecclesiastes makes a whimsical reference to the certainty that all sinful humans, at one time or another, will talk about others behind their back. He warns against being thin-skinned when you hear that things have been said about you: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others” (Eccles. 7:21–22).
The Root of Gossip
What’s the heart issue behind gossip? The narcissistic duo of self-love and self-promotion. When we traffic in gossip, we tear others down and build ourselves up. Joseph Stowell lists several self-centered impulses that drive us to undermine the good name of another person and make ourselves look good:
- We are naturally curious, so we want to know the news. Curiosity is fine, even constructive, unless it leads us down the path toward tearing others down with our information. First Timothy 5:13 links being a busybody with gossip. In that case, curiosity has been left unchecked. Solomon says the slanderer is utterly untrustworthy: “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered” (Prov. 11:13).
- A desire to be the center of attention. We have the scoop on a person of interest to others, juicy information that no one else seems to have.
- The opportunity to elevate ourselves. As Will Durant said, “To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves.”
- Malicious words are often spawned by bitterness. I once had a colleague in journalism who spread the worst information about his boss, because my colleague had applied for the job for which our boss had been hired. My colleague vented often as a seeming act of revenge against our boss. He was utterly unaware of how bad it made him look.
Beware the catastrophic sin of gossip. It can kill churches, ruin marriages, destroy friendships—and worse: it can unmask the gossiper as one who professes saving faith, but doesn’t possess it. “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak . . . for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37).
This article was adapted from Jeff Robinson’s book Taming the Tongue: How the Gospel Transforms Our Talk (TGC, 2021). On December 28–January 31, Taming the Tongue is 50 percent off in the TGC bookstore.