Christians are pretty good at sinning.
Sometimes it seems we are as good as everyone else at getting ourselves in trouble. But there’s this one thing which we really excel at. There’s this one sin (or group of sins) that for one reason or another catches even the best intentioned Christian.
Gossip. Rumours. Backbiting. Slander. Criticizing. We’re great at that.
Because of the close-knit nature of the Church we are privy to a lot of personal information about one another. This can and should be a good thing. We can assist, comfort, pray, rejoice with, mourn with, etc. We are called to be one, to be engaged, involved, close to one another, belonging to one another even. But this closeness is supposed to edify, build up, strengthen. As iron sharpens iron.
But what happens when the closeness of community is misused or abused? Sin is often just the misuse of something which good. Having information is not in and of itself bad. In fact it’s good. Being close with people is good. Confiding in one another is good. The ability to speak is something good. Human communication is a gift. God speaks. We are made in his image. That ability is a blessing, but a blessing with inherent risk attached. We have the potential to cause unimaginable damage to one another if we aren’t careful with our words. We all to easily spread gossip- rumours. We use our words to hurt another person, or we cause destruction by saying things which aren’t true.
We share with others information about another which would be better kept to ourselves. This is an abuse of community. So is the slander and back biting so many “church people” have become notorious for. We speak ill of our brothers and sisters. We critique our leaders, but not to their faces. We whisper in the corners to one another trying to rally the troops to sympathize with me and my cause. I’m not getting my way and other people are doing things I don’t like, but I won’t confront them. I’ll just call that person a jerk to my friend over here and smile and shake hands with that very same jerk on Sunday after telling other that he’s a jerk on Saturday.
We have this reputation. Jesus said we are to be known by our love. But out there, are we described as a loving people? Sadly no. Just read through the Barna Group’s research (UnChristian, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) and see how we’re described by those not in the church; hypocritical, sheltered, anti-homosexual, too political, judgmental. Not the words we should have attached to us. A lot of this stems from a failure to present ourselves through words of grace and love.
Words should build up, encourage, instruct, maybe provide godly and gracious correction if necessary. The community should be better by everything we say.
Our communities should be open. We should have enough trust in one another to share our hurts with people confident that we will show support to each other without fear that what we share will be used against us or spread around in whispered voices… “oh did you hear about so and so.” “Oh how awful”.
Our words have such potential. And if we misuse them, we are in big, big trouble.
Consider Proverbs 6:16-19,
“There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.”
Did you catch that. Notice how lying is in there twice. God hates false witness and spreading lies (so much so that he included it in his “big 10”). But he also hates stirring up conflict. Even if something is true (or perhaps especially if), it can still stir conflict and create disunity in the community. Just because it’s true doesn’t make it ok to spread around. We are called to protect the dignity of our neighbours. Public shaming and spreading information about someone’s shortcomings never helped anyone. We should take a cue from Jesus. He gently told sinners leave that path. He didn’t publicly shame people for making mistakes or being in sin. He never said “Hey Peter, did you hear what Matthew did last week?”
Prov. 16:28, “a gossip separates close friends.” Gossip has this way of driving wedges between people. Gossip is basically meant to make one person think less of another, to pit one brother or sister against another. This should never happen among Christians. And somehow it keeps happening.
This isn’t news I hope. We all “know” that gossip is wrong… but somehow it persists. For whatever reason Christians somehow get sucked into it and we destroy each other. We drive people away from the Church, and we cause divides, and we leave people feeling discouraged, hurt, angry, and humiliated.
We talk about others like they’re somehow vile offenders. Like they’re somehow worse than us. I can’t believe so and so would do that. That’s terrible.
With social media it’s gotten even easier to do this. We don’t even have to know someone to talk about them. We can challenge their doctrine, expertise, character and even question their salvation from the comfort of our computer desks. We can commit character assassination while sipping our morning coffee. We can stay at home in our pyjamas and still manage to stir up dissent and disunity in the body of Christ. Technology is great isn’t it?
The ability to destroy a life by spreading word around became quite evident over the past week and a half. We recently saw another teen suicide stemming from cyber bullying. A young girl abused, and mocked online because of it lead to her feeling so void of hope that she took her own life. And if we think oh that’s what the world is doing, that’s what those evil ungodly kids are doing, let’s keep in mind American mega-church pastor and author Rick Warren who faced the most immense grief imaginable when his 27yr old son took his own life after battling depression his entire life. The immediate reaction we should have is immense sympathy and mourning with those who mourn and that’s mostly what happened. But some took to social media to condemn Matt Warren, and one commenter even blamed Rick Warren and his wife Kay. If they’d raised their son right this wouldn’t have happened.
It’s heinous, really. Christians are just as often guilty of this sort of thing as everyone else or even moreso.
We’re (when I say we I mean the body of Christians, I’m not specifically talking about us, because we’d never engage in this sort of criticizing, right?) failing so miserably at this holding the reins of our words (spoken and written words).
James suggests that anyone who claims to be religious but has no control of their words is deceived (1:26). If we don’t watch what we say to or about our neighbours, and then claim to be God’s people there is a clear hypocrisy and disconnect between our claims and our behaviour. How can we use our mouths to praise God on Sunday then cut down our neighbour on Monday?
Here’s James 3:9-12,
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”
How can we be people who praise God while using that same mouth to attack someone made in God’s image. Notice it’s human beings made in his image, not just Christians. We should be treating all people with the same level of respect and dignity.
Our mouths have enormous power. We can do some incredible good with our words. A simple word of encouragement and kindness can make all the difference. Our mouths are gifts, and should be used for God’s glory and our neighbours’ benefit.
But if we don’t keep control of our words, they can cause irreparable damage.
James writes (3:3-5):
“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”
Or to put it another way: “The tongue is like a lion. If you let it loose it will wound someone” -Ali Ibn Abi Talib
Now I want to make a distinction here. Godly correction and what I’m talking about are two different things. We are to help our brothers and sisters when they’ve strayed by graciously and privately but in some case firmly directing them back. But that process looks very different than what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the heaping of insults and criticism and character attacks done to bring a person down not up. Correction says, hey let’s fix this situation together. Back biting says so and so is wrong, shame on him/her.
Paul tells the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:9-12) to strive to live quiet lives, working with their hands. Plural “you” by the way. Mind your own business. Stay out of quarrels. Stay on task. The church should be so focused on living out God’s redemptive mission that gossip has no room to wedge itself in there. Notice what spurs that instruction: you are doing a good job of loving one another. Just go further. Commit yourselves to living well, and being faithful. Even the Thessalonians who loved one another needed to be warned to steer clear of these dangerous conversations.
By living in a such a way in which we are quick to listen and slow to speak, people will see something in us that we claim to have. If we claim to be the beloved children of God and the body of Christ but spend our time and energy ripping each other apart instead say… helping someone, well, that sends a very clear message doesn’t it?
If our claims of being a place of love coexist with hostility and backbiting, well, basically we’re just a bunch of lying hypocrites. We have to do better.
This should cause us to stop and think for a second. I’m not trying to just be critical and harsh. I’m calling for us to become more like Christ. I’m calling for a renewed commitment to speak with grace. To use our words to build up. To stop and THINK when we speak. I usually find these sermon acronyms a little cheesy, but this one is pretty helpful.
is it True?
If you don’t know if something is true. Don’t say it. Don’t share things about a neighbour until you know the facts are straight. If you are unsure, don’t say anything. And avoid opinion based statements. So and so is not a very caring person. How do you know that? What are you basing that type of statement on. You may be surprised to discover that the person you accuse of being uncaring is a very caring person but you’ve caught them on a bad day, or just haven’t really spent time there. Just avoid making those statements. Even if they are in fact true.
Even honest mistakes can cause unimaginable damage.
is it Helpful?
Will the hearer be better off for this. Will you be better off? Will the person or people who come up in the conversation be better off? Even if it’s a true statement, it may not need to be shared. If the information you’re sharing won’t benefit anyone involved, don’t say it.
If it doesn’t build anyone up, hold your tongue. So often we just share all the information we have assuming that it should be shared. People have a right to know. Why? Is there a constructive point behind the things you say in general and the things you share about others specifically?
is it Inspiring?
Will this information result in positive action? What will the recipient of my words do in response to what I’m sharing? If you share something that causes someone to think less of another, you created disunity, conflict, embarrassment. Our words should spur one another towards Jesus.
is it Necessary?
Does anyone need to know this? All information is really on a need to know basis. Just because you know something doesn’t mean everyone else needs to know.
is it Kind?
Not just in content, but also in delivery. How we say things can be as important as what we say. Is there grace in what I’m saying?
If the person you’re talking about was standing right there would you still say it? If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, why is it ok to say it behind their back?
Stop and think before you speak.
Consider what will happen if people actually listen to you. I don’t have that problem, I know most of what I say isn’t listened to.
Make a commitment to watch your choice of words. Commit to be quick listen and slow to speak. Refuse to speak from your anger. Anger is not wrong, but it’s something that needs to be harnessed.
Decide to use your mouths for God’s glory and the church’s edification. Can we commit to that sort of thing? Can we as community make it our goal to strive to demonstrate grace with out words? To be known as a people who speak well.
Can we refuse to participate in gossip, criticism, slander, and defamation? Can we encourage other Christian communities to join us in rejecting these tactics?
Can we chose to be imitators of God, who love like Jesus did, and use our words to glorify God like Jesus did?