Am I being an empathetic listener, or am I enabling gossip?
Am I only seeking counsel? Or am I trying to eavesdrop or putting others in the position to gossip?
Am I listening to someone with the gift of discernment? Or is it self-righteous slander? Character assassination? Or creating division?
Is it just venting? Just providing a “safe place”? Or cultivating a critical spirit? Is venting even healthy?
Are we sharing helpful information to foster understanding and wisdom in a particular situation? Is it really just a “heads-up”? Or are we spreading prejudice?
I’ve consistently pondered these questions throughout my twenties. I’m sure the wiser and older generation will tell me that it doesn’t stop. Because of the Fall, relationships in general are difficult, and Biblical community calls us to handle conflict in ways often completely contrary to our nature or popular advice.
Sometimes gossip and slander are obvious. I used to assume it was far more obvious than I do now. The past few years have caused me to question what more subtle forms of gossip might be and realize that even if it isn’t gossip, that doesn’t mean it needs to be said. There are plenty of other ways our words can harm our neighbor. Sometimes we can pride ourselves on avoiding one particular sin and find ourselves giving way to another. (For example, it may not be gossip proper, but it certainly is a critical spirit.)
I’ve been writing and researching this issue to sort my own mind and heart, but I’m not yet ready to comment fully—still needing to read, study, listen, and pray. For this post, I will share some helpful resources and initial findings as I sort through the rest. It’s quite a popular issue, not only in Scripture, but with the Church Fathers and other theologians like Edwards and Spurgeon. For now, I’m mostly including quick helpful articles from Desiring God and The Gospel Coalition. You’ll find them at the end of this post.
But first, some nerdy word studies…in English because I haven’t even scratched the surface of the Greek and Hebrew. (I’m no scholar. In fact, if you have a resource to recommend other than BibleGateway and BlueLetterBible, which are free and online, let me know! While you’re at it, feel free to throw in a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary…)
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word gossip comes from the Old English noun for godparent, and it later came to refer to one’s friends:
Old English godsibb “sponsor, godparent,” from God + sibb “relative” (see sibling). Extended in Middle English to “a familiar acquaintance, a friend, neighbor” (c. 1300), especially to woman friends invited to attend a birth, later to “anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk” (1560s). Sense extended 1811 to “trifling talk, groundless rumor.” Similar formations in Old Norse guðsifja, Old Saxon guþziff. (Online Etymology Dictionary.)
I find it ironic that a word that originally communicated goodwill, protection, and intimacy has come to express something careless at best and malicious at its worst. When reading Shakespeare or The Scarlet Letter I have to clarify for my students that when characters refer to “gossips” they mean a group of friends (often old women, but not always). What’s ironic in The Scarlet Letter is that the woman who calls her friends “gossips” is the ringleader of women standing near the scaffold and tearing Hester Prynne to shreds with her words. While men gossip too, and have admitted it in many of the sources I’ve read lately, it’s a pity that we as women have earned ourselves the reputations of being more prone to gossip as reflected not only in Scripture or pop culture, but in a simple word study.
Okay, so I will give a little of what I found poking around with different Bible translations because this next bit is in the same territory as the previous paragraph.
Apparently where the ESV uses the word gossip, the KJV, NASB, and NIV will sometimes use the word backbiting either in place of gossip or alongside it. (The entry for backbiting is pretty straightforward etymology, but the one below it offers an interesting insight, regarding the word slit as in, “slit someone’s throat.” It says, “Old English had slit (n.) with a sense of “a rending, bite; backbiting.” Reminds me of the day my best friend and roommate walked in the living room and said, “You know sarcasm means ‘ripping the skin’?” We started re-evaluating our humor after that.) Even more so than the use of the word backbiting, the KJV will often use the word whisperings in place of gossip.
How many times have we said that some loudmouth had no filter, neglecting that we sometimes say the exact same things, just in a lower tone, around fewer people, and with a few qualifiers tacked to the beginning or the end? (Anytime someone says “I’m not trying to judge…” I think, “Yes, you are. Just own it or shut up.” Of course I don’t tell them that; instead, I now whisper it to you…)
I once had a boss (okay, still do), who used to say that usually nothing good came out of whispering. (Wait for the context here.) He encouraged us to (lovingly, of course) discourage it especially with middle school girls. It is by nature exclusive. Sally’s always left out and assumes they are talking about her, even if they aren’t. It just isn’t unifying. He wasn’t being mean or saying that no one could ever have private conversations or that Sally doesn’t need to learn that not everything is about her, but honestly, as you’d learn in any manners course, whether formal or informal, it’s just plain rude. If I have to whisper “it” around us, either it needs to wait or not be said at all. It’s isolating behavior that creates suspicion, that creates a culture of gossip. While it might not necessarily be a sin to whisper, we may do well to remember something my parents are constantly saying in a house full of opinionated people:
Just because something pops into your head doesn’t mean it has to come out of your mouth.
Even, and maybe especially, in a whisper.
I believe that’s enough for now. At least it is for me.
from Desiring God
Questions to Ask Before We Gossip
Six Questions to Diagnose Subtle Gossip
Lay Aside the Weight of Slander
from The Gospel Coalition
What to Do With “Some People Are Saying…”
The Sin of Listening to Gossip *This one is actually a quote from Charles Spurgeon!
Where’s the Line Between Helpful Info Sharing and Office Gossip?
*I’m also in the middle of looking through the Rule of St. Benedict. I figured any group of people choosing to live so intimately with one another must have had to address the issue, and I was right. There’s a whole chapter, right next to the chapter on humility. https://christdesert.org/prayer/rule-of-st-benedict/chapter-6-restraint-of-speech/
Pieter Brueghel the Younger Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons
“Backbiting.” Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=backbiting Accessed 4 June 2020.
“Gossip.” Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=gossip Accessed 4 June 2020.