September 20, 2009



James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.


Walter Winchell wrote, “Gossip is the art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid.” Perhaps that is why Oscar Wilde once famously said at a dinner party, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come over and sit next to me.” Of course, he also said, “There’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” And Joseph Conrad said, “Gossip is what no one claims to like -- but everyone enjoys.”

Unfortunately, Conrad was right. It is hard to resist a juicy morsel of gossip, even though everyone says we should not listen to it. The Bible has plenty to say on this subject: “Besides that, they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say” (1 Timothy 5:13); and “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends” (Proverbs 17:9, KJV).

Perhaps the thing to remember where gossip is concerned is

He or she who gossips to you

Will also gossip about you.

Most of you know that my wife, Beth, is a third grade teacher. She has often threatened to send a note home to the parents on the first day of school: “If you promise not to believe everything your child says happens at school, I’ll promise not to believe everything he or she says happens at home.”

Children love to gossip, but so does everyone else. In our culture, gossip is a multimillion-dollar industry. From supermarket tabloids to TV shows, to the millions of celebrity blog sites in cyberspace, it seems as though everyone wants to be in the know about the latest scandal, hookup, or pregnancy. Paparazzi risk being punched in the face by stressed-out movie stars just to get a shot of them doing something or nothing. The chattering and nattering is in-your-face and incessant — all gossip, all the time. I did not know until this week that there is a celebrity gossip website called TMZ which is apparently all the rage.

Why the fascination? Bonnie Fuller, chief editorial director of Star magazine. “Our readers love good news about celebrities,” she says. “They love to hear about romance, weddings, pregnancies, babies and births.”

Speaking further about Star readers, Fuller says, “They’re younger and more educated. They’re working women who have jobs and families and kids. They view celebrities as part of their larger circle of friends. They want to read about drama in celebrity relationships because they relate to that in their own lives.”

That is a nice way of putting it. The truth is when we hear about the misfortune of some arrogant jerk, it makes us feel good. And when it’s some good news about someone we like, we enjoy it vicariously.

Men sometimes pretend that gossip is a female failing, but a study at the University of Virginia found otherwise. (Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1311999/Men-gossip-more-than-women-to-boost-their-egos.html)

Holly Hom, the director of the study, said, “"Men definitely seem to be getting more out of gossiping than women. We found that men felt better about themselves when they criticized another person's behavior. It gave them a sense of moral superiority and showed others that they knew the difference between right and wrong.”

Nigel Nicholson, a psychologist and the author of a book on human behaviour, Managing the Human Animal, said: "Men enjoy a gossip as much as women, but they call it networking instead."

So there you have it, ladies. Men don’t gossip, we network. Any guy who has ever been around a military unit, a sports team or any other close-knit group will tell you that the rumor mill is always running. Whether it’s men or women, celebrities or common folk, gossip is a way of life.

Psychologists tell us that people share savory scraps of information because gossip helps build relationships and bond people together. That is kind of sad when you think about it. We try to ingratiate ourselves with a group by saying awful things about someone else.

So we have gossip--even in the church. I heard this story. A lady is coming out of church. She says to her husband, "Do you think that Johnson girl is tinting her hair?" Husband replies, "I didn’t even see her," "And that dress Mrs. Davis was wearing," continued the wife, "Really, don’t tell me you think that’s the appropriate dress for a mother of two." Husband replies, "I’m afraid I didn’t notice that either.” "Oh, for heaven’s sake," snapped the wife. "A lot of good it does you to go to church."

We joke about gossip, but as the book of James points out, gossip is not a joking matter. Gossip can divide churches, wound other people, destroy lives. The tongue is a dangerous weapon. That is why James insists that we need to get control of it. Chapter 3 is his famous treatise on the tongue, and he has some wisdom for us to think about before we open our mouths to share some “interesting information” about others.

To understand James’ viewpoint, we need to realize how the ancient world regarded talking and speaking. Today we are constantly bombarded by words—turn on your TV, turn on your radio, turn on your computer—words, words, words.

In the first century, people heard far fewer words than we do, and even that they thought was sometimes too much. From the wisdom literature of Egypt, to the writings of Plutarch and Seneca, to the wisdom traditions in the Bible, all taught that silence was better than speech, that listening was the pathway to wisdom. A verse from the Apocrypha sums up this view nicely: “Honor and dishonor come from speaking, and the tongues of mortals may be their downfall” (Sirach 5:15).

However, having said that, we should also remember that in ancient times, culture and tradition were transmitted orally. Most people learned by listening. There was very little written material, and most people could not read anyway, so what you said was very important and you had to be very guarded and careful about what you said.

We have an old saying, “Your word is your bond,” meaning that your word can be trusted. People can depend upon what you say. All ancient cultures emphasized that. Your word is your integrity.

This is something we need to learn again. Since we, living in a modern technological society, have such a flood of words and most of them either empty or untrue, truth in speaking is even more important to us.

James employs a series of metaphors to indicate just how dangerous even a little bit of indiscreet speech can be. The tongue is a small part of the body, says James, but like the rudder on a ship or a bridle on a horse, the tongue can steer us either to the path of wisdom or toward destruction (3:1-5). It takes only a spark — a misplaced, unkind or untrue word — to burn down a community that has been nurtured and established like an old-growth forest (vv. 5-6). The tongue’s “deadly poison” is always just a word or two away from infecting a whole group (v. 8). The power of words to both bless and curse is a power not to be taken lightly, particularly when our words are directed at God and, more precisely, at people who are created in God’s image (v. 9).

Having said that, you might conclude that James us telling all of us to shut up, but it is not that simple. James also recognized a positive use for the tongue. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” he asked. “Show by your good life that your good works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (v. 13). Our speech is merely the product of what is inside us. If we are filled with the wisdom of God, then our speech will reflect that. That wisdom is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (v. 17). If, however, our speech is peppered with “envy and selfish ambition,” then that is evidence that our deeper motivation is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (v. 15).

James is not saying do not talk. He is saying, be careful what you talk about. To put it another way, before we share, we need to think. We need to listen to that inner voice, which we sometimes call the voice of conscience. We should ask ourselves, “Is what I’m about to share here coming from a desire to build up the body of Christ and share God’s wisdom, or am I simply speaking to feed my own selfish ambition or to gain favor with the curious and caustic folks around me?”

One time-honored way of dealing with gossip is called the “three-filter test.” Some say it dates all the way back to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.

The story goes like this: a friend came to Socrates with a juicy bit of gossip. Socrates said, before you tell me, tell me this: Is it true? The man replied that he was not sure; he had heard it from so and so, but could not verify its truthfulness. Socrates then said, “Before you tell me, tell me, is it good?” Well, apparently this was a particularly scandalous tidbit, so the friend admitted that it was certainly not good. Then Socrates said, “Before you tell me, tell me this, is it useful to me?” Again, the friend confessed that this gossip was not in way useful to Socrates. So, the philosopher said, “If you are not sure it is true, you know it is not good, and you say it will not be useful to me anyway, why tell me?”

As Christians, we would do well to adopt Socrates’ three-filter test.

The first filter is Truth. Do you know that the piece of information that you are about to pass on is true? And “so and so said it”, does not make it true.

The second filter is Goodness: we should be bearers of good news. Speak the good and pass over the bad in silence. Usually people do the opposite. Someone remarked to me that a person can do ten good deeds and if they do one bad thing, what people remember is the one bad thing. Christians are called to do the opposite. If you know anything about Jesus, that does not surprise you. Jesus was always telling us to do the opposite of what the world does. We should look for good stuff and talk about that.

The third filter is Usefulness. Is what I am about to say going to help anyone? Now two and three work together. Talking about good things helps people, and makes us feel better. And makes us more aware of what is really important.

I read in the newspaper several weeks ago a story about a husband and wife who had both lost their jobs due to downsizing in the recession. In the article they talked about how being laid off had forced them to think about what really matters, and they said that what was keeping them going was the love they had for each other. So they had a bad situation, no jobs, but they talked about the good they had found in their situation, and I obviously liked the article because I read it and remember it, so I benefited from the good word they were willing to share.

Let me conclude with a sort of a poem. The title is “Nobody’s Friend.” The author is unknown, and I have modified it somewhat.


My name is Gossip.

I despise justice.

I maim without killing.

I break hearts, ruin lives.

I am cunning and malicious.

I gather strength with age.

The more they say me,

The more they believe me.

My victims are helpless.

They cannot fight me,

I have no name and no face.

I am untraceable.

Fight me, you fight a phantom.

I am nobody’s friend.

Once I tarnish a reputation,

It is never the same.

I topple governments.

I wreck marriages.

I ruin careers

I cause sleepless nights, heartaches, and indigestion.

I make innocent people cry in their pillows.

I make headlines and headaches.

Even my name hisses.

I am Gossip.

So Before you repeat a story,

Ask yourself three things:

Is it true?

Is it good?

Is it useful?

Otherwise, be silent. Amen.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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