Communication’s Two Catastrophic Cousins
What’s the heart issue behind slander and gossip? The narcissistic duo of self-love and self-promotion. When we traffic in slander and gossip, we tear others down and build ourselves up.
The following article is an adapted excerpt from Jeff Robinson’s new book, Taming the Tongue: How the Gospel Transforms our Talk (TGC).
Joseph Stowell calls them “catastrophic cousins,” and it wouldn’t be difficult to make the case from mere observation that they destroy more relationships and cause more church splits than any spiritual disease: slander and gossip.
Oh, how the sons and daughters of Adam love gossip.
An old cliché says this sin is primarily the domain of women, but I disagree. We men are highly skilled at gossip as well. Think about how your ears perk up when someone begins a conversation with “Hey, did you hear what’s been happening with our old friend Jim?” Such words tend to grab our undivided attention.
Gossip appeals to us because sinners love dirty laundry. We love it when people lose, especially those whom we may (secretly but sinfully) view as being a few layers above or below us on the social, economic, educational, or celebrity strata. We love to hear—and spread—bad news about them. Don Henley nailed this truth in his 1982 hit song “Dirty Laundry.” The lyrics were intended to critique the perceived yellow journalism of mainstream news media, but what Henley saw as true of reporters can be said of us all:
Dirty little secrets, dirty little lies;
We’ve got our dirty little fingers in everybody’s pies;
We love to cut you down to size;
We love dirty laundry.
Solomon’s inspired wisdom put it this way:
The words of a whisperer (gossiper) are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body. (Prov. 18:8)
Gossip is appealing to us because we love stories—about us and others. As Matthew C. Mitchell points out, we read our children stories from the time they were born. Gossip is telling a story—one that communicates bad news about another person behind that person’s back. Scripture depicts gossip as whispering that ruins relationships and separates even the closest of friends:
A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer (gossip) separates close friends.” (Prov. 16:28)
When you hear gossip about a friend, it plants suspicion in your mind, which builds a barrier of doubt. By the same token, if your friend gossips to you about somebody else, you’ll certainly wonder if he gossips about you. It destroys trust and creates cynicism within relationships. Gossiping words are killing words.
Even the Preacher in Ecclesiastes makes a whimsical reference to the certainty that all sinful humans, at one time or another, will talk about another person behind their back. He warns against being thin-skinned when you hear that things have been said about you:
Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others. (Eccles. 7:21–22)
Gossip is slightly different from slander because it’s often done in the context of idle, careless chatter. Slander flies its dark standard more proudly.
Slander is the open, intentional sharing of damaging information about another person. It’s the triple play of sinful talk because it harms the speaker, the hearer, and the one about whom it is spoken.
Slander is mentioned dozens of times in the Bible. Slander is a species of gossip. It’s communicating damaging information about another person with the intention of smearing their character. In journalism it’s called “malice aforethought.” That is, telling a story—it can be either true or false—with the intent of causing harming another’s reputation. In Eden, Satan slandered God when he told our first parents: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4–5).
Satan slandered God by communicating something about him that wasn’t true. The Devil subtly sought to make God out to be a liar (God said they would die, but they won’t) and a miserly deity who wants to keep to himself all the power and good things (you could be as great as God, but he won’t tell you how to do that).
Slander often flows out of another sin: envy. The Greek word for devil literally means “slanderer.” James 4:11–12 gives slander a stinging indictment:
Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.
Slander is devilish speech that breaks fellowship among followers of Christ and breaks the royal law (the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments). When we speak falsely against a fellow believer, we speak not only against the person, but also against the law of God. In so doing, James argues, the slanderer sets himself illicitly as a judge above the law. Instead of being judged by God’s Word, the slanderer judges it.
What’s the heart issue behind slander and gossip? The narcissistic duo of self-love and self-promotion. When we traffic in slander and gossip, we tear others down and build ourselves up. Stowell lists several self-centered impulses that drive us to undermine the good name of another person and make ourselves look good:
Curiosity. We’re naturally curious, so we want to know the news. Curiosity is fine, even constructive, unless it leads us down the path toward tearing others down with our information. First Timothy 5:13 links being a busybody with gossip. In that case, curiosity has been left unchecked. Solomon says the slanderer is utterly untrustworthy:
“Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered” (Prov. 11:13).
A desire to be the center of attention. We have the scoop on a person of interest to others, juicy information that no one else has accessed.
The opportunity to elevate ourselves. As Will Durant said, “To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves.”
Malicious words are often spawned by bitterness. I once had a colleague in journalism who spread the worst information about our boss, because the slanderer had applied for the job for which our boss had been hired. My colleague vented often as a seeming act of revenge against our boss. He was utterly blind to how bad it made him look.
How harmful is slander?
When I was young, someone started a rumor that one of the prominent women in my home church was having an adulterous affair with a wealthy business owner in town. It was false, pure slander, but her husband believed it and eventually took his own life over it. This is why Paul commanded the church at Ephesus, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Eph. 4:31). Slander and gossip kill churches, ruin marriages, destroy friendships—and worse.
In Matthew 12, Jesus warned that we will give an account for every sinful word. That can be frightening, given that all of us are guilty of gossip and slander. Is there any good news for troubled talkers? Yes, it’s in the fact that Jesus died to pay for those sins. Our Lord famously calls us to cut off the hand or pluck out the eye that would make us sin. We could easily imagine him telling us to pluck out the tongue that gossips and slanders.
But we have his indwelling Spirit, and we have great means to put to death gossip and slander. Let us ask God to graciously cut these catastrophic cousins out of our lives.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.