First published on 18 August 2015 on YMI.
One of my earliest memories as a child was waiting for a doctor’s appointment with my mother. We were seated side by side in a nondescript waiting room, and sitting diagonally across from us was a little girl with her mother. When I looked up, I caught her staring at me as she cupped her hands around her mother’s ears and whispered.
I don’t quite remember what I felt—possibly fear, hostility or confusion—but something propelled me to mimic her. I cupped my hands to my mother’s ears to whisper something inconsequential, just to show her that she hadn’t won, and that I, too, could make her feel afraid and reduce her to what my words made her out to be.
That was my very first encounter with gossip at the age of six—before I could even grasp the concept of what gossip was.
As I entered my teenage years, gossiping about others became a daily affair. In school, my friends and I would eyeball our target’s every move, anticipating her next misstep. When it happened, we’d glance at each other with knowing smirks, and gather later to whisper and snicker about what we’d just seen. And we didn’t just gossip about those we disliked; we also backstabbed our own friends, a practice rife in our social circles.
It was only after I came to know Christ some years ago, that I began to realise the impact of my “harmless” gossiping—on others as well as on myself. Over time, I started to understand why gossiping holds such allure for us:
1. We gossip because we’re proud and judgmental.
Though we may like to think otherwise, every single one of us is sinful by nature. James 3:8 tells us that “no human being can tame the tongue,” which he describes as a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
We are inclined to judge others because of our pride, which tells us that we are better than others. When we think that someone is ugly, stupid or uncouth, it is because we think that we are more attractive, smarter or cooler, and are more “pleasing” and acceptable to others.
Though we are quick to pick at the faults of others, we fail to recognise that we too have many faults—faults which Jesus chose to overlook when He sacrificed himself for us on the cross. Knowing that we are forgiven, accepted and loved by God’s grace alone, how can we not show the same grace to others?
Jesus knew that this would be our struggle when He gave us these instructions: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:37-38, emphasis mine).
We are in no position to look down upon others; only God is. Instead, we are called to show grace, just as Jesus has lavished grace upon us. Ephesians 4:29-32 tells us exactly how to do so:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
2. We gossip to protect and empower ourselves.
My six-year-old self may not have known what gossiping was, but I reacted in such a way because I felt vulnerable to the girl sitting opposite. Likewise, many of us badmouth others because we subconsciously feel insecure about our place in society, and fearful of what others may think about us. We try to seek ways to look and feel better about ourselves, and one of the ways is to diss others—like a seesaw, we put others down to raise ourselves. Gossiping bolsters our self-esteem and masks our own insecurities.
When our identity is found in Christ, however, there is no need for us to protect or empower ourselves through gossip. Knowing this, we can find true meaning and acceptance in our Creator, and base our confidence and trust on our Cornerstone. As children of God, we are called to “put off your old self” and to “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22–24).
3. We gossip because others around us are gossiping.
Gossiping is a social activity; for some, it is a means of bonding with friends. Dissing others can also be “entertaining”, like how Proverbs 26:22 describes it: “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.”
How can we stop ourselves from taking part in gossip? Here are four practices I’ve tried to adopt to help myself steer clear of gossiping:
1. Change the topic. Badmouthing others can only happen if there are listening ears; as the saying goes, it takes two hands to clap. The best way to prevent ourselves from gossiping is to steer the conversation in the right direction. We can bring up other subjects or talking points that our friends would also be interested in. There are certainly far better options and more meaningful topics to bond over than badmouthing!
2. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. It can be tempting to blurt out whatever is on our minds, especially when our friends are encouraging us to share the latest juicy rumour. But James 1:19 tells us that “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak”. So, if our friends are ranting about someone as a means of letting off steam, we would do well just to listen, and not add anything. Sometimes, our friends don’t expect us to say anything, but to listen, sympathize and offer a comforting word where necessary. Ephesians 4:29 is a great verse to remember.
3. Avoid those who thrive on gossip. I used to have a friend who was a notorious gossip queen. From the moment we first met to the last conversation we ever had, ridiculing others featured prominently in our friendship. However, a relationship built on criticism and malice is neither an authentic nor deep one. If we have friends who love gossiping, we might want to ask ourselves whether we want to continue surrounding ourselves with such people. We may even want to prayerfully consider spending less time with them, lest we fall into this habitual sin ourselves. As 2 Timothy 2:16 advises us, “Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.”
4. Lastly, do not judge those who gossip. This is one thing I’m most guilty of. Ultimately, if we think we’re holier or better than gossipers or slanderers, we would be no better than they are. We must not fall into the trap of believing that we are more righteous than others, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time who condemned others who committed sins. The reality is that we are no less sinful than others; it is by grace alone that we are saved, and grace we ought to bestow upon others.
Although it may be hard to stop gossiping, especially when everyone else is doing it, we can trust that with God, everything is possible (Matthew 19:26). When we are saved, God gives us the strength and power to overcome the sins in our lives, no matter how entrenched or tempting they are (1 Corinthians 10:13).
May Paul’s words in Colossians 3:7–12 instruct and encourage us:
You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.