Several years ago I came across a story about Socrates who, in ancient Greece, was a man who was reputed to hold knowledge in high esteem. The story will serve well to introduce this article.
One day an acquaintance met the great philosopher and said, “Socrates. Do you know what I just heard about your friend?”
“Hold on a minute,” Socrates replied. “Before telling me anything, I’d like you to pass a little test. It’s called the Triple Filter Test.”
“That’s right,” Socrates continued. “Before you talk to me about my friend, it might be a good idea to take a moment and filter what you’re going to say. The first filter is truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”
“No,” the man said. “Actually, I just heard about it and—”
“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now, let’s try the second filter, the filter of goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my friend something good?”
“No, on the contr—”
“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him, but you’re not certain it’s true. You may still pass the test though, because there’s one filter left: the filter of usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my friend going to be useful to me?”
“No, not really.”
“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither true, good nor even useful, why tell it to me at all?”
The acquaintance was silent.
There is no historical record that Socrates was a believer. In fact, all the evidence points to the fact that he was an intellectual pagan. And yet this story probably puts many believers to shame, for we are often all too easily guilty of the sin of gossip. We speak words about others that are neither rooted in fact, nor good, nor useful. That is, they do not build up but tear down.
For as long as there has been a fallen tongue there has been the sin of gossip. In fact, it was such a prevalent problem in the early church that almost every New Testament epistle addresses this problem in some form. As we will see in our ongoing exposition of the epistle of James, the tongue is a small but potentially potent and destructive member. We must guard against gossip.
But just what is meant by “gossip”? I like theologian and counsellor Jay Adam’s definition: Gossip is “unnecessary talk.” That, in my opinion, sums up the essence of gossip very succinctly. Think with me through the issue. According to this definition, we are guilty of gossip when we speak in ways that are unedifying, when we speak words about others that cast them in a bad light, and when we speak to issues concerning another that are really none of our business. This may not be an exhaustive definition but it at least gives us a good starting point.
Suffice it to say that we are guilty of gossip when we speak about others in ways that are unedifying, unnecessary, or unhelpful.
We should also note that gossip is not merely concerned with the truthfulness of the words being bandied about. Your words may be factual and yet sinful at the same time. When it comes to understanding the concept of gossip, we must note that the issue is not merely truthfulness but also appropriateness. In other words, we need to ask ourselves the question, are these words really necessary? If they aren’t, either suppress the desire to speak or rebuke the one speaking. Yes, rebuke them! Pour holy water on the potential forest fire of incendiary words (see James 3:5–6).
Solomon wrote, “The north wind brings forth rain, and a backbiting tongue an angry countenance” (Proverbs 25:23). That is, just as surely as rain attends the north wind, so the backbiter should expect an angry response. Solomon means that, when the godly hear slanderous gossip, they will respond with an angry look. That is, they will rebuke the backbiter. Perhaps I could put it this way: When the believer hears gossip, he will issue forth a sanctified, “Shut your mouth!”
Gossip is potentially destructive and thus we must take serious steps to be done with it. Unnecessary words all too often result in slander and malice, and the fallout can be devastating. Let me illustrate this with a story that I have told publicly on other occasions.
A certain pastor made an enemy in his community because of his stand for the truth. The enraged parishioner went on the verbal warpath and fabricated a rumour that the pastor had committed an immoral act. The story spread like wildfire and soon he was ignominiously the talk of the town. His ministry was finished.
Several months later, the evil gossiper repented and came to ask the pastor’s forgiveness. The pastor granted his forgiveness, but after their lengthy discussion he asked the individual to accompany him to the veranda of his fourth-story flat. The pastor then took a down pillow, sliced it open with a knife and scattered the pillow’s feathers to the wind. He then said to the repentant gossip, “Please go and gather all those feathers.” The individual looked at him incredulously and said that there was no way that he could find every feather. The pastor nodded sadly and said, “Just as you could not possibly recover every feather, neither will I be able to completely recover my reputation. Your gossip has spread so far that, like those feathers, even with all of your best efforts, you will be unable to gather up and contain all the stories floating about regarding my supposed sin.”
The man guilty of gossip was repentant and forgiven, but much irreversible damage had been done.
Beloved, let us think before we speak. Socrates’ Triple Filter Test is helpful advice, but even better wisdom comes from Paul who, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Colossians 4:6). May our words to one another this year be increasingly those that edify, motivated by charity and guarded by wisdom.