My friend ‘Natalie’ felt trapped. A few months earlier she had begun working as a nurse in a rehab centre and was generally enjoying her new job, especially her work with the patients. Her coworkers, however, seemed to be addicted to gossip. ‘They take any chance to talk about other people and talk them down. It’s hard to escape. What am I supposed to do?’ Her coworkers’ most recent target was a new employee called ‘Chloe’. And there was Natalie, feeling caught in the middle of the circle. She came to me for counsel.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we, in a conversation that suddenly takes a turn into gossip, and we’re not sure what to do? Listening to gossip is almost as bad as speaking it. The Bible says, ‘A wicked man listens to evil lips; a liar pays attention to a malicious tongue’ (Prov. 17:4). So there is a category of gossip in Scripture called evil listening, that receives gossip wickedly. How we are listening is determined by why we are listening. The key is to listen in love. Our listening should be governed by Christ-like love. There will be times when we have to stand apart from those who are engaging in sinful gossip because it is not loving. So, what do we do instead? What should Natalie do as a follower of Jesus at her job in the rehab centre? Let’s consider four biblical strategies for living as children of the light.
1. Pray and weigh
I wish I could offer a simple formula for escaping gossip but life is messier than that and God’s wisdom is better than that too. Some people give the impression that whenever gossip starts to flow, the only proper response is a hand-raised, palm-outward, sanctimonious announcement: ‘Stop! This conversation is now gossip and I will not be party to it,’ as if we, as Christians, are called to be the gossip police.
There surely is a time for confrontation, especially among fellow believers, but there are actually several biblical strategies that a believer can utilize to assist in these scenarios – not just one. In fact, it is important to consider the many factors at play in your particular situation. What, really, is going on here? What is my relationship to the person talking or to the person being talked about? How serious is this gossip; is it a lie, is it true or just a rumour? Is this just a funny-ish thing someone did, or is it really shameful? Does this conversation fit the description of bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart?
When faced with gossip we need wisdom and discernment to know how to respond. The Spirit loves to give us the wisdom we need; we just need to ask him for it. The Bible promises, ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him’ (James 1:5). So my first piece of advice for Natalie was to pray and weigh.
When that conversation at work started to go down a darker path, she should shoot up a signal-flare prayer. A simple, ‘Father, help! Please give me your wisdom’ will do. The Lord loves to answer prayers like that. Often we don’t have the wisdom we need because we don’t even ask (see James 4:2).
After we pray, we need to weigh carefully what we hear. Proverbs says, ‘The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil’ (15:28). The wicked person says whatever comes to his or her mind. The righteous person ponders, considers and weighs what he or she is about to say before saying it. Don’t jump to conclusions. Get both sides. Consider the source. Suspend judgment. Weigh things up.
Discerning the reality of a situation doesn’t always take long. In fact, most of the time we do it on the fly. Sometimes I get anonymous notes about people in our church listing things that those people have supposedly done or not done. I just tear them up.
Proverbs says, ‘A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much’ (20:19). That’s pretty straightforward. Don’t go near a gossiper. Get away from that person. This proverb also applies to that gossip column … and gossip Facebook page. If you are addicted to them, get help and start flushing them out of your system today.
Sometimes we cannot avoid a person who gossips, simply because of our relationship to them. Natalie, for instance, cannot just avoid the nurses’ break room and always eat on her own. Sometimes she needs to be there with the other staff. Yet as Christians, we are called to be salt and light, to strategically infiltrate those social circles. We don’t become like the darkness but we do love those who are not yet light.
In cases like these I think we need to avoid not the person but the topic. We need to redirect conversations, if we can, to avoid the gossip in them. Change the theme of the conversation. The Bible says, ‘Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down’ (Prov. 26:20).
Proverbs says, ‘He who covers over an offence promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends’ (17:9). The opposite of gossiping is ‘covering’: ‘Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs’ (10:12). What does it mean to ‘cover over wrongs’? It does not mean to pretend something isn’t happening or to sweep something under the rug. Sin surely needs to be confronted. Proverbs is talking about people who are uninvolved in the matter overlooking the offence. ‘Covering’ means covering over a wrong, drawing a veil over it so that those who do not need to see it, never do. I think this kind of covering includes defending someone’s reputation, as well, especially if we know a story is false. Sometimes the right thing to do is to say, ‘I’m not sure about that but I don’t think that it is any of our business.’ That’s a loving rebuke and it is covering over wrongs.
If you hear a story about someone, do not just receive it. If you think you need to know whether or not the story is true, go directly to that person. If someone starts complaining to you about someone else, it is good to ask the complainer if he or she has talked about the problem directly with the subject of his or her complaint. You can say, ‘I am willing to go with you to help and to witness but I don’t think I should listen to any more until we’ve gone together to her.’
This can get messy and it’s not always fun. But it is definitely worth it. Sometimes the other person will not go with you. So in some cases, you’ll need to go alone. Do this as carefully as you can.
Try not to gossip about the person who has been gossiping!
This article is an extract from ‘Resisting Gossip: Winning the War of the Wagging Tongue’ by Matthew C. Mitchell, ©2013 by CLC Publications. Used by permission of CLC Publications. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.