Perhaps you’ve had the unsettling experience of finishing a conversation, walking away, and wondering whether what you just said was gossip. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Gossip is a shadowy sin, blurry around the edges. When are our conversations hushed on account of discretion, and when are they simply the delightful whispers of the gossip (Proverbs 18:8)?
When we learn new information about another person, we have several options. We can speak to that person about what we’ve learned, speak to other people about it, or keep it to ourselves and speak to God. Gossip is saying behind someone’s back what we should say to their face, or not at all. But life is complex. Sometimes we must seek prayer and wisdom from godly friends when struggling with difficult relationships with a child, spouse, neighbor, co-worker, or fellow church-member. It’s in these situations that we should be particularly careful that our counsel-seeking doesn’t simply become an excuse for gossip.
Here are eight diagnostic questions to help you discern with me whether, in talking to others about another person with whom we’re struggling, we’re actually gossiping.
If you’re involved in conflict with another person, are you talking to others only about that person’s sin and never about your own? If so, it’s probably gossip.
Is your conversation with friends about this other person intended to prepare you for a productive conversation with the person? If not, it’s probably gossip.
If you’re seeking counsel from others about how to deal wisely with this person, do you keep the person’s identity secret except when necessary? If not, it’s probably gossip.
Do you enjoy sharing this information with your friends? If so, it’s probably gossip. Gossip is tasty (Proverbs 18:8). Seeking counsel in a broken, difficult situation is good, but it is painful, not enjoyable.
What’s the tone of your voice and the tenor of your heart? Are you meek, humble, and broken-hearted when you share this other person’s sin, or do you feel angry and righteous by comparison? If so, it’s probably gossip.
Are you talking to God about this person as much as you’re talking to your friends? If not, it’s probably gossip.
Are you limiting the number of friends you speak to? If not, it’s probably gossip. Gossip seeks to spread communication widely, but Jesus seeks to restrict certain delicate communications narrowly (Matthew 18:15–17).
Do you think of those with whom you’re sharing sensitive information as passive recipients or involved participants? Jesus’s goal for us in speaking to others is never merely to vent. Those who receive information must be prepared to go with us to the person we need to speak to, in order to serve as witnesses (Matthew 18:16). If you don’t understand your hearers as having this active, participatory role, it’s probably gossip.
Unfortunately, I’ve crossed the line into gossip far too many times in my life. But there have been some victories. Several years ago, I heard a juicy tidbit about another person. I can’t remember now what it was, but I do remember arriving home and wanting to share it with my wife. Then I stopped and asked myself, Why do I want to share this?
Is it really my business or my wife’s? No.
Will she be able to do something about it? No.
Am I sharing this so that she can help me help the person? No.
I realized it was gossip. So, I didn’t say it. God was honored, and my community, and my marriage, and my own soul were saved the corrosive effects of gossip.
Gossip breeds dissension and distrust, destroying communities (2 Corinthians 12:20) and friendships. “A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends” (Proverbs 16:28, NIV).
Let’s avoid it, and instead pray that our mouths will be fountains of life for those around us (Proverbs 10:11).