You don’t want to be a gossip. There is no upside to being one. Gossips hurt neighbors, divide friends, and damage reputations and relationships. The Bible labels gossips as untrustworthy and meddlesome (Proverbs 11:13; 20:19; 26:20; 1 Timothy 5:13) — and even as worthy of death (Romans 1:29, 32). At your best in Christ, you don’t want to be one.
All too often, however, you and I do want to gossip. Gossiping can be fun and addictive and provide a short burst of guilty pleasure. The book of Proverbs likens the words of a gossip to “delicious morsels,” a tasty treat that promises delight to those who indulge (Proverbs 18:8; 26:22). We get bored and want to entertain ourselves by snacking on the shameful stories of other people’s lives. Or we get proud that we know something that someone else doesn’t and want to show off our inside scoop. Or we get mad and crave the satisfaction of character assassination from afar, sniping at our enemies when they don’t even know they’re in danger. Gossip can be hard to resist.
But gossip isn’t just hard to resist; it’s hard to define. We don’t always know when we’re being a gossip. It slips into our conversations, and its definition slips by us. So, what exactly makes gossip gossip? We need some handholds.
What Is Gossip?
The Scriptures do not provide a definition of gossip in one location. Instead, they describe gossip in action and intimately tie it to the character of the people participating in this tantalizing sin. The Bible often uses the word gossip to describe a kind of person more than just a pattern of communication.
My way of summarizing the Bible’s teaching on this topic is to say that the sin of gossip is bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart. This functional definition considers the action itself, the content of the corrupt communication, the situation in which it occurs, and perhaps most importantly, the motivations of the people involved.
Bearing Bad News
Gossip is the opposite of the gospel. In the mouth and the ear of a gossip is a morsel of bad news, not the good news. This bad news — a story of someone else’s sin or shame — can be bad in at least two ways.
Bad information. The story may be false, and if you know that beforehand, then spreading it is not just gossip but slander (Leviticus 19:16; Psalm 15:3; Proverbs 19:5). Or you might only think the story is true (perhaps without good reason), but it turns out to be wrong — hearsay, a rumor, a half-truth (Proverbs 18:13, 17).
“The sin of gossip is bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart.”
Bad news about someone. You might have been taught that “if it’s true, it’s not gossip.” But needlessly sharing shameful truth about someone else can be gossip. One biblical phrase for this kind of speech is “a bad report,” such as what Joseph brought against his brothers (Genesis 37:2). Just because someone actually did something wrong does not mean that we need to, or get to, talk about it with others.
Other times, we might spread a wicked story of what might soon happen to someone else. One time when King David was sick, his enemies acted concerned when they visited him but then secretly celebrated his projected downfall and spread the story that he was about to die (Psalm 41:5–8). That was gossip too.
So, in the back of your mind, when any conversation begins to steer toward the topic of other people, you can ask yourself, “Is this story true? How do I know?” “Is this story mine to tell? Is it his to tell me?” “Is this story bad news?”
Behind Someone’s Back
A gossip bears this bad news behind his victim’s back. By definition, gossip occurs only when the subject of the story is not present. It is much easier and more interesting to discuss others when they are not around.
Gossip is clandestine, hidden, furtive, stealthy, sly (Proverbs 25:23; Psalm 101:4–5). The English Standard Version often names a gossip as “a whisperer,” which emphasizes the secretive nature of this sin (Proverbs 16:28; 18:8; 26:20, 22). Sometimes, you can catch yourself gossiping when you suddenly lower your voice, look around to see who might be listening, and step closer to your friend before speaking.
We might ask ourselves in such moments, “Would I be telling this story if he were here? Why or why not?” Am I hiding this conversation from anyone? Am I ashamed of it?” “Would I want someone else to talk this way about me if I were not in this room?”
Certainly there are times when we can, and even must, speak about people who are not present. You are not being a gossip when you call the police about a crime you witness, when you earnestly seek counsel on how to relate to someone in your life, or when you carefully warn someone else about a dangerous person (2 Timothy 4:14–15; Romans 16:17; Philippians 3:2). The presence of gossip depends in large measure on how you talk about people who are not present and why you talk about them. Which brings us to the heart of gossip.
Out of a Bad Heart
Gossip arises when something has gone wrong with us at the worshiping core of our beings.
The Lord Jesus taught us that all of the words we speak, good and bad, flow up and out from the abundance of good or evil stored in our hearts (Matthew 12:33–37). The same is true for why we want to listen to gossip. Like calls to like. We are attracted to evil because of evil already inside of us (Proverbs 17:4, Matthew 15:18–19).
Therefore, the most important queries to have running in the back of your mind when you’re talking about anybody who isn’t present are the key questions of motivation and intent: “Why am I saying this?” “Are these words loving toward the person I’m talking to?” “Are these words loving toward the person we’re talking about?”
Our heart motivations are not always obvious and, on this side of glory, will always be mixed (Proverbs 20:5). You might not be able to discern your own motives in the heat of the moment. Sometimes you will need to prayerfully go back over them, or even ask a wise friend to help you conduct a post-game analysis of a previous conversation.
“We will give an account for every careless word we have spoken, not just for the malicious ones.”
Some bad motivations are more wicked than others. Backstabbing gossip bent on revenge is birthed in malice and threatens to sink whole fellowships (2 Corinthians 12:19–13:2; 3 John 9–10). That kind of gossip is worse than being a busybody who is too interested in other peoples’ business (2 Thessalonians 3:11; 1 Peter 4:15). Yet Jesus said that we will give an account for every careless word we have spoken (Matthew 12:36), not just for the malicious ones.
Thankfully, our motivations also can be good and loving. Not all conversation about others, even about their sins, comes from a bad heart. It is possible for us to talk truthfully about other people’s bad news with a desire for their good and a hope for justice to be done. Jesus did so without ever slipping into gossip, and he will enable us to do it too. Christ also empowers us to speak edifying words that give grace to listeners and to redirect conversations that turn toward gossip (Ephesians 4:29–5:17). We can bear good news, be up-front with others, and speak and listen out of a changed heart that loves God and loves people who are made in his image.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a gossip. Not only can you be forgiven for having indulged in your past, but by faith, you also can be found in Christ, standing in his gossip-free righteousness (Philippians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus himself bore all of our gossip “in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). He died the death our gossip deserved.
And what’s more, the feast of his gospel provides us with greater and more precious promises than anything the poisonous fare of gossip has to offer (2 Peter 1:3–4). The gospel furnishes all of the resources you need to regularly resist gossip in real time (1 Corinthians 10:13).
With every temptation to gossip, God provides a way of escape through the promises of the gospel. The temptations may not go away easily — the delectable morsel on offer may continue to make your mouth water — but as you trust in God’s grace, you do not have to give in.