The lists of sins in passages like Romans 1:28-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, and Galations 5:19-23 include gossip, slander, reviling, etc among all the “big” sins. James 3:1-10 warns us to control our tongues, and says that doing so is very difficult. Proverbs has 18 references to “tongue” and another six references to “speech”. Why do our words matter so much to God?
Harsh Words Hurt
I’m sure you’ve heard the childish response to bullying speech: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” If you have ever been on the receiving end of hurtful words (and who hasn’t!), you know how false that statement is.
My husband and I worked for a few years with a domestic-violence education program. We learned much from the professional counselors and the brave survivors with whom we worked. They all agreed that it is much easier for abuse victims to recover from bruises and broken bones that it is to heal from the emotional abuse of a dysfunctional relationship. Words hurt!
Harsh Words Come From Unwarranted Pride
When I talk about someone else — picking apart their actions, questioning their character and parentage, describing what they should have done — I am assuming that I am above them. I am acting as if I am their judge, the arbiter of right and wrong for them. If they displease me, then they should be punished…or at least corrected and shown the error of their ways. Who am I to take such a position?! I am a sinner just as much as anyone I’m judging. As Paul says in Romans 14:
Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls…Romans 14:4
True, we are to be discerning and to recognize sin when we see it — both in others and in ourselves. That recognition does not give me license, however, to dissect someone else in any way that does not lead toward redemption and reconciliation.
Also true, there is a way to show love by drawing someone’s attention to a blind spot in their lives, something they need to discuss with God. But notice: That is by talking to the person themselves, not talking about them to anyone else. Gossip, by definition, is talking about a third party who is not present to defend themselves. What good can come from that?
In fact, when I’m stewing over another’s wrong actions or sharing the “news” of them with someone else, I’m often actually enjoying it, in a dark way. C.S. Lewis has a quote about this sin of wanting to see the worst instead of the best in others:
Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Every time I remember that quote, then think about my reaction to the latest political scandal, I cringe in guilt. 🙁
Harsh Words Aren’t Focussed on God
If I’m looking at another person, thinking about how they are behaving (or should behave), then I’m not looking at God. When looking at Him, I see His character: His holiness, power, justice, mercy, and love. That results in praise for Him, and gratitude for His grace toward me. That, in turn, will cause me to see others as He does, with the same mercy, love, and grace. When seen through God’s eyes, even the most obviously sinful of people won’t be reviled. Rather, they will be viewed with sorrow, and with prayers that God will heal them.
Harsh Words Break Relationships
Can you think of a relationship you know of that was strained, or even broken, due to harsh words? A disagreement becomes an argument; angry things are said in the heat of the moment; the participants stomp off. Then children are alienated from their parents, friendships are ended, spouses get divorced, churches split. During all this, no punches are thrown and no laws are broken. But…
No matter what the original issue and no matter who was right or wrong, lasting damage is done to the relationship. Sometimes, neither party can even remember the issue. They only remember what the other person said and how it made them feel. Was it really necessary for either party to express their point in the way they did? Couldn’t they have found another way to phrase it — one that showed respect and love — and managed to resolve the issue without imploding the relationship?
Words Beget Actions
It is easy to picture a progression from “He’s wrong” to “He’s an awful person” to “I hate him” to “I’m glad someone hurt him” to “I wouldn’t mind hurting him myself”. As we look around our culture, we see that dynamic acting out everywhere around us.
But what if the progression still starts as “He’s wrong” but then goes on to “He’s misled” or “He doesn’t know all the facts” or “He’s a sinner like me” or “He needs Jesus the same way I do”? Will it result in the same hateful endpoint?
Harsh Words Diminish Others
When I say — or even think — nasty words about someone else, I am demeaning someone created in God’s image. That person is specially created and infinitely valuable to God, so much so that Jesus died for them.
If someone I love creates a beautiful piece of art, is it right for me to treat it as trash? Even if the art has been marred, or isn’t to my taste, it is still the artist’s creation. If I love and respect the artist, I will not hurt him by talking about how awful his work is.
Every person that I am tempted to gossip or trash-talk about is created by an Artist who deserves my respect. Therefore, His creation is to be treated with respect also.
Words Show the Soul
How I talk about others gives a good indication of how closely I am — or am not — walking with God. In speaking on this subject, James gave one of the most profound words I can share in closing:
With it [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.James 3:9-10