Do you ever wonder how people talk about you behind your back?
Maybe you get the itch when you see people talking quietly close by: Was it something I did? The mind has its mysterious ways of wandering and wondering. Wandering and wondering. Sometimes, the anxiety of imaging yourself the target of gossip can chew a hole through an entire day.
James says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). Horizontal gossip is first rooted in vertical gossip. Before wielding his seldom-dull axe against gossip towards church members, James swings it at God-gossip.
The burden of this rebuke falls not on something wrongly performed, but on something wrongly said about God. The command is: “don’t talk about God like that.”
What Excuse Do You Make?
The early church, upon having their sin exposed, was gossiping against God rather than owning their sin. And no, maybe the very words “I am being tempted by God” have not tumbled from your lips in these exact sounds units, but you might, like me, recognize yourself in these common excuses:
I would not have sinned if God hadn’t put this trial in my life.
I would not sin with laziness if God would give me more responsibility.
I would not sin with anxiety if God would give me less responsibility.
We transform our churches, small groups, and accountability groups into circles of gossip that slander The Most High. This is the foundation from which James leaps into his more familiar condemnations of gossip, like: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue . . . this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26), and, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness . . . With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:6–9).
The Opposite of Gossip
For the apostle Paul, gossip is a type of demonic imputation. In his stunning letter written to the church in Philippi, he encourages the church towards unity with this remarkable command for humility: “In humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
The word “count” in this text has a rich biblical history and an entire universe of meaning tightly-coiled within it: circle, highlight, and underline it. For instance, Paul uses the same root word when he says, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).
In other words, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a type of anti-gossip: it is the counting of righteousness to a person who is unrighteous. When God speaks behind our backs, God the Son talks to God the Father about us in such a way that he sees us as perfectly righteous, not less righteous. That Christ talks on our behalf, behind our backs, is actually the basis of the good news!
The Worst Accusations Against You
Gossip, then, is a sort of anti-imputation: it is the counting of unrighteousness against people who have been counted righteous in Christ. You might even say that gossip is a type of amputation: a hacking off not of limbs or body parts, but of esteem and honor. Gossip is the satanic tongue.
To the throne of God, Satan drags with him a cosmic bag brimming full of accusations about your sins, failures, and struggles. Worse yet, his bag is filled with true accusations about you packed with stories about your transgressions. If you are like me and your heart rate increases at the possibility of peer-gossip, how do you handle the thought of Satan — knowing far more than your peers do — gossiping behind your back?
If we want to end destructive gossip in our lives, we need to have our eyes opened to see the true work of grace at work in others, and then to count them more significant than ourselves.
The satanic influence and eternal impact of gossip has become, in painful increments, more clear to me over the last year. Fifteen months ago, I planted a church in Iowa with a small team of people. When you minister in a small new church, unlike in a more established one, it can feel like the balance of your church’s future teeters on the things people say.
James asks the early churches, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13) — over and against the volatility of gossip. That’s our cry as a fragile young church. And by God’s mercy, our church is slowly growing, in part because we are learning to gossip about one another like Christ does.
This is not a passionate plea for Christians to “gossip” less, it’s a passionate plea for Christians to gossip better. If you’re going to gossip in your church, as Paul and James would agree, gossip like Jesus. When you talk about other members behind their backs, speak with a flavor that leaves the listener with a higher-view of that member. When you talk behind the backs of church members, talk about the fruit of their spiritual lives — the progress, the work of Christ, in their lives.
In other words: has Christ imputed righteousness to you? Now, impute esteem to others.