Sunday, 18 July 2010

Taming the Tongue: The Bible and Gossip


There has been a saying which has always baffled me, and that is "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me."

I have always wondered who thought up this saying – because it is clearly wrong!! The truth is that words are tremendously powerful. The words we speak can do both a lot of good, but they can also do tremendous harm. Proverbs 18:21 says "The tongue has the power of life and death."

Apparently on average we speak between 16 thousand to 20 thousand words a day. So there are lots of opportunities for us to make an impact by the things we say, either for good or ill.

Carefully chosen, thoughtful words, spoken in love can build people up, encourage, inspire and motivate. But carelessly spoken, thoughtless words can kill enthusiasm, knock self esteem, lower expectations and hold people back. As this video illustrates.

There may be people here today who are living with the consequences of things said to them in the past. Imagine for example if as a child you were constantly tolled that you were no good, or you would never amount to anything in life, or that you were ugly, or fat, or not good enough, that can have a lasting impact on you. My own mother, for many years struggled with low self esteem, because as a child it was made clear to her by her mother that she preferred boys rather than girls. Words are extremely powerful, and as Christians we need to be aware of the impact of the words that we speak.

This is why the apostle James wrote "the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body." (James 3:5-6) That's strong stuff, but it is true! A harsh critical word, the spreading of gossip, a word spoken in anger, can quickly spread out of control, and cause lasting damage.


The trouble is it is very easy to get drawn into gossip.

Four preachers met for a friendly gathering. During the conversation one preacher said, "Our people come to us and pour out their hearts, confess certain sins and needs. Let's do the same. Confession is good for the soul." In due time all agreed. One confessed he liked to go to movies and would sneak off when away from his church. The second confessed to liking to smoke cigars and the third one confessed to liking to play cards. When it came to the fourth one, he wouldn't confess. The others pressed him saying, "Come now, we confessed ours. What is your secret or vice?" Finally he answered, "It is gossiping and I can hardly wait to get out of here."

Gossip is a problem we all have to face. A whole industry is based around it. Think about all the column inches in tabloid newspapers and magazines are devoted to gossip about people in the public eye. The truth of the matter is that most people love gossip, and Christians are as guilty as anyone else.


So what does the Bible have to say about the issue of gossip?

The Bible is clear – gossip is damaging, and harmful and as Christians we should have nothing to do with it. For example, the book of Proverbs says "A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret." (Prov 11:13) and "A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends." (Prov 16:28)

If you have ever played the game Chinese whispers, you know how quickly things become distorted, which is what happens in gossip.

It is quite easy for us to fall into the trap of gossiping, even when we don't intend to, and for Christians this is particularly relevant when it comes to prayer. I have experienced situations where Christians have in effect used prayer as the excuse to gossip about someone. Our excuse is that we are asking people to pray for a specific person or situation, when it actual fact what we are doing is really gossiping.

If someone shares with you some important piece of personal information, it does not give you the right to go and share that with others unless you have the clear permission to do so from the person in question.

Paul gives us some clear guidance in Ephesians 4:29, about how we should control our tongues. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

The guidance is clear, we are not to say or do anything which could hurt others, but instead build people up. There is a saying, 'Think before your speak', and it's good advice for us to follow. Before we speak about any person or subject that could be controversial we need to ask the following questions:

  1. T--Is it true? - if the answer is no, then it shouldn't be repeated
  2. H--Is it helpful? Even if it is the truth, do you really need to share it?

    Will it help anyone? Will it hurt anyone? Would it be better left unsaid? If there are no benefits to anyone, then what possible purpose could repeating it serve?

  3. I--Is it inspiring?
  4. N--Is it necessary?
  5. K--Is it kind? Our world is full of cynicism and scepticism, will

    repeating this story be kind? Can it be better left unsaid?

    Would you really be better off repeating this information?

If what I am about to say does not pass those tests, then it is better to keep my mouth shut.

The words that come out of mouths reveal what's on our hearts

The words that come out of our lips, points to something deeper that's going on in our lives. That is why in Jesus in Matthew's Gospel says, "the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart." (Mt. 15:18). It follows that if we choose to put good things into our hearts, good things come out of the mouth.

As Christians we are called to tame the tongue, to think carefully about the words we speak. In Psalm 141 David prays, "Set a guard over my mouth. Keep watch over the door of my lips. Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil." To pray that prayer, means to recognise the power of our words, and to ask God to help us control what we say.


As Christians the main commandment we are given is to love. "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another." (John 13:34)

The word that Jesus uses to describe love is agape, it is a uniquely NT term, for agape means a love that gives itself for the good of the recipient. And that is why this command to love is so important.

And so as we speak to others, we need to assess our words in the light of this command to love. Do our words promote and encourage love? Do they strengthen and build others up? Do we speak to people in the way we would want people to speak to us? This becomes a particular challenge, when others may be attacking us, when we are being falsely accused. But even in those moments when we may have to confront others, we need always to speak out of love just as Jesus did.

There seems to be so much cynicism and negativity around our society at the moment. But as Christians we can do something about that by speaking words of life and encouragement. Think how you feel if someone says some affirming encouraging words to you, it makes a difference.

Story of Johnny – Johnny who has Downs Syndrome, and works in his local supermarket packing bags, decided one day to try and do something positive to serve the people who come into the shop.

He decided to give every customer whose bag he packed a thought for the day on a piece of paper. Within a few weeks the number of people waiting in the line for Johnny to bag their groceries was 3 times as long as the other lines. When the store manager tried to get people to use the other lines, those in line would simply say they were willing to wait for Johnny.

Because of Johnny's simple act, it transformed the whole atmosphere and culture of that store, as a spirit of service spread across the shop. Johnny's idea wasn't as innovative, as it was loving. It came from his heart

It was a simple thing that Johnny did, but it was something that had a huge impact.

Words are tremendously powerful, they can either bring life and death. God gives us the freedom to choose how we use words and how we receive them. My prayer is that we will all strive to be encouragers and use our words to bless and help others.

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