I was filling in for a colleague on the school board, so I asked, “What am I free to share about these meetings with other people?” One person joked that confidentiality means “telling one person at a time.” We laughed, but I know people who have changed assignments or left the mission field permanently because a brother or sister in Christ maligned them to others.
Gossip and slander are not petty sins. Romans 1:29-30 describes those whom God gave over to shameful lusts: They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity…They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters…. No missionary woman would like to consider herself a gossip, but people use creative explanations to justify their gossip or dress it up. Some say, “I’m so burdened by this, I just have to share it with someone.” There is also, “I’m just concerned…” and “I process externally….” Even the southern phrase, “Bless her heart…” gets tacked onto unfavorable comments in hopes of disguising their true nature.
Gossip in a pretty dress is still ugly. James 1:26 says, If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself, and his religion is worthless. Gossip destroys unity among believers and damages our witness to the world. As Christ’s ambassadors, our relationships and our reputations matter.
In The Peace Maker, Ken Sande says, “Gossip is often both the spark and the fuel for conflict. A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends (Proverbs 16:28). Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down (Proverbs 26:20). To gossip means to betray a confidence or to discuss unfavorable personal facts about another person with someone who is not part of the problem or its solution. Even if the information you discuss is true, gossip is always sinful and a sign of spiritual immaturity (II Corinthians 12:20; Proverbs 11:13 and 20:19; I Timothy 5:13)” (Sande, p.121).
There is something about gossip that draws us in. Proverbs 18:8 says, The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts. If we are honest with ourselves, we are not much different than children. We feel higher if someone else is lower, more “in” if someone else is more “out.” Hearing about other peoples’ sin makes us feel better about our own. Ironically, gossip only adds to our own sin, and it neither elevates us nor brings intimacy.
The solution is to find our identity in Christ. If we feel low, we must remember that we have been lifted up with Christ. If we feel ashamed, we must remember that we have His perfect record before God. If we feel hopeless, we must remember that we can change with God’s help. If we feel alone, we must remember that God will never leave us or forsake us. These may sound trite, but if we really grasped those truths, we would not feel insecure. If we did not feel insecure, perhaps we would not seek worth and intimacy through exposing or maligning others.
We do not always gossip maliciously. Sometimes we are just careless. Even prayer requests can become pieces of gossip if handled improperly. One example is asking for or giving too many details in the interest of “praying specifically,” as if God needs the details in order to not get confused. We may genuinely believe we are showing love and concern, but if sharing the details of a prayer request could hurt the person for whom you are praying, it is probably better not to share that request. To be safe, and especially with a large group, share prayer requests about yourself, not others. As a rule, prayer requests (like e-mails) should not be forwarded without permission.
Other times we justify our gossip because we “need advice.” If you are in conflict with someone, there is a place for seeking wise counsel, but the guiding principle should be to keep the circle of people involved as small as possible for as long as possible. In mission communities where there are many overlaps in social circles, be especially careful when selecting your confidante. If possible, choose a member-care person or counselor who can be trusted to carefully handle what you say.
Sometimes we gossip because we do not want to be dishonest. It is, however, possible to be honest without betraying other people. For example, if someone says, “How have you been?” and the truth is that you are embroiled in a stressful conflict with another missionary, you do not have to say, “Fine, thanks.” At the same time, you also do not have to say, “Well, things have been hard with Linda. I can’t go into details, but….” You could just say, “Actually, the last couple of months have been really stressful. Thanks for asking.” Do not give names and do not give details; mature and trustworthy people will not press for them.
When we have been hurt by someone, it is tempting to seek vindication through gossip. My friend jokingly misquotes the Bible: “Vengeance is fine,” says the Lord. Of course, that is not what the Lord says—and it is not what Jesus did when he was mistreated. When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly (I Peter 2:23, NIV). Whether we want vindication or its milder cousin “validation,” we should seek God for it, not our friends.
If you know people who live as if confidentiality means sharing with one person at a time, be careful. Someone who will share confidential things about others with you will also share confidential things about you with others. A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret (Proverbs 11:13). When you hear gossip, remember you are getting only one version of events. The first to speak in court sounds right—until the cross-examination begins (Proverbs 18:17, ESV). You might be surprised if you knew the whole story.