It is not possible to keep from talking about others behind their backs. But when it happens, how are you to respond? Do you have the courage to lead conversations when the information is negative, or are you more apt to follow along while not being a redemptive solution in your community?
You may want to read:
- Gossip: When Someone Says Something Bad About You
- How to Respond to Gossip and Broken Relationships
- A Gospel-Centered Response to Criticism
The Gossip Collage
Bert and Biff were standing at the water cooler at work. (Okay, they were not at the water cooler, but whenever you want to tell a story about gossip, the water cooler is the traditional metaphorical location.) Ben passed by them, and once he was far enough away, Biff said that he had heard from Barry that Ben and Marge were not doing well.
According to Barry, Ben has been flirting with Mable in the office. They have been staying late at work as well as doing lunch together, two times per week.
Biff was appalled at what Ben was doing, though it could have been more conjecture than truth. Since Biff was not sure what to do with this new information, he mentioned to Mildred, his wife, what he had heard.
Mildred was not surprised. She had already surmised that there was something wrong with Ben and Marge’s marriage. Mildred heard from Madge that Marge had “spilled her guts” at the ladies’ Bible study. Marge’s cathartic moment happened four months ago.
All of the people in this “gossip-collage” are friends. They all attend the same church and have known each other for 3 to 17 years. None of them know for sure if Ben and Mable are having an affair. Everything they have discussed falls in the realm of uncharitable judging, which is observing others without love, grace, or objective evidence.
Here are a few things to think about when someone tells you something negative about another person.
- Ask the person who told you the bad news if they have talked to the person in question.
- If they have not talked to that person, appeal to them to do so. Ask them to share with that person what they have shared with you.
- Guard your heart against believing what you don’t know to be true. If you do not mortify your mind, there will be a temptation to judge that person uncharitably.
- Follow up with the person who told you the bad news to make sure they have talked to the person in question.
It does not have to be wrong for a person to share information about someone else, and what they disclose does not have to be gossip. When it comes to relationships, it’s not possible or practical to keep from talking about folks who are not part of that conversation. For example,
- If the person with the news does not know what to do with the information or is afraid to approach the potential wrongdoer, they may share what they know with an appropriate person because they want help. The person they share the information with should be a person who can help them. That individual must be more than a sympathetic ear. They need to be able to disciple you on how to handle the situation.
- The person who shares the information should make sure their motives are free from sin. They desire to find a resolution to the issue at hand. People share details with me about others regularly. I do not struggle with this unless the person is merely doing it to gossip or slander. If they desire to help the other person, it does not have to be gossip or slander.
- It is intellectually dishonest to say that it is always wrong to talk about someone else who is not present in that conversation. Nobody can entirely refrain from talking about others. You probably talked about someone outside of your presence today. E.g., we pray for folks all the time. The primary issue is not about talking about someone “behind their back” but the motive for talking about someone. The vital question is, “Why are you talking about them?”
A Response from the Community
Barry, Bert, and Biff were gossiping about Ben, Marge, and Mable. Mildred was not slandering them, but she did not love Ben or Marge well because she was harboring potential damaging information and was not doing anything about it. If this were a true story, the displeasure of God would be great toward these “friends” because of their poor stewardship of the relationships.
Barry should have gone to Ben and asked him about his lunches and late work hours with Mable. It would not matter, at that point, if Ben were in sin. The most significant thing during this early stage would be Barry loving his brother enough to inquire about what he thought he knew, even if his information was incorrect.
If Barry was wrong about an affair, he could appeal to Ben about his lack of wisdom in going to lunch alone with a woman who is not his wife. He could talk to Ben about his lack of discernment in hanging out with another man’s wife after hours.
Biff should have let Barry know that he had a responsibility to do something about the information that he had shared. He should have asked him what he was going to do about it. Biff could envision Barry about going to Ben to get to the bottom of it all. Then Biff would need to follow-up with Barry in a week or two to see how it went. If Barry refused to talk to Ben, Biff could let Barry know that he will go to Ben to get to the bottom of what he shared.
Mildred should have talked to Madge about Marge’s “cathartic moment” in a similar way in which Biff needed to talk to Barry. And Mildred should speak to Biff, her husband, about what she heard from Madge. She should appeal to her husband to help her think rightly about what was shared and to help her figure out the best way to help their friends. Biff and Mildred are one-flesh under God. They need to function in a unified way by loving another one-flesh family that is potentially dissolving.
When to Speak about Bad Things
Here is one more practical aspect of our “gossip-collage.” Apart from having a “theology of gossip,” you need God’s wisdom about when to speak when something (potentially) bad is going on with another person. This matter is especially critical for church life.
We all know “stuff” about people, and sometimes the things we know about others is not good. And we choose, for good or bad reasons, to share the stuff we know about people to the wrong individuals. And when we do this, we make excuses for why we did it. Christ did not relate to folks this way, and neither should we.
Jesus loves us too much to let us drown in our sin. We know this because He went through death to deliver us from the bondage of sin.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Lingering problems rarely “auto-correct.” E.g., God sent Nathan to serve his friend, David, who had succumbed to sin. In nearly all counseling situations, the problems have been going on for years, if not decades. It is on us—the church—to intervene in these situations. It does not please God when we hang out at the “water cooler,” sharing information that we are unwilling to act upon biblically.
Call to Action
- Do you know (potentially) bad stuff about a brother or sister, but you are afraid to talk to them about it?
- Are you tempted to talk to someone else rather than the one who needs your care? If you are, what does it say about your love for that person and your relationship with God?
- The next time someone shares bad stuff about another person, will you help them to reconcile the problem with that person? This scenario is similar to hearing an off-color joke; do you have the courage to stand for the Lord graciously?
- Will you ask God to give you the grace gifts of wisdom, compassion, and courage to stop being an observer of your friend’s bad behavior, choosing instead to be Christ to them?