Rotten Fruit from Gossip’s Vine
Q: I know several people who’ve been hurt by gossip. Why do people who wouldn’t dream of telling a hurtful lie about someone else so often tell harmful truth for no good reason?
A: I think that many don’t believe that the truth is gossip; at least they convince themselves that this is the case. However, unless telling the truth is both beneficial to all involved and has the blessing of those about which it’s spoken, we should think twice before opening our mouths.
We use the seemingly harmless term “grapevine” for our traditional gossip networks. News spreads rapidly through large or small communities. While Scripture often speaks glowingly of vines, gossip vines are of poor quality and produce rotten fruit. People’s reputations are damaged — even destroyed — as the fruit of the message is consumed and passed along the vine.
The Eighth Commandment says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” In the Small Catechism, Luther further developed the Commandment in the light of Scripture: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest possible way.”
If our neighbor is having problems with husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, father, or others, we do them no good by telling the truth about these problems. Our neighbor’s reputation is a sacred trust and we violate this trust, betraying our neighbor, when we intentionally display him in a negative light.
Political campaigns, especially those termed “negative,” justly receive condemnation from many. These mudslinging campaigns rarely have a fraction of the impact of words shared among people from the same church or community. In the Old Testament, the Lord demanded public testimony from two or three reliable witnesses to make a case. However, this was directly related to trial situations. No one was empowered or deputized to go sneaking around, digging up dirt on each other, and spreading the filth as fast as tongues can carry it.
We may hide our motives or identities from others as we fan the flames of deceit, envy, or hatred. However, Paul writes, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. (Galatians 6:7)” He sees through excuses, judging the deed according to the heart that conceives it. Remember again, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”
As weak and sinful people, that bit about “explaining everything in the kindest possible way” may be especially difficult to do. I have no particularly kind way to explain such behavior, so I won’t try. Instead, I’ll pray that those responsible for damaging not only their own spiritual well-being, but also that of so many others, will reap the spirit of repentance instead of wrath. Paul clearly displays the alternatives in Galatians 6:8-10: “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
When we plant and harvest the grapes of gossip, their vines will soon choke us. But when we are grafted to the True Vine, Jesus Christ (see John 15), we receive divine nourishment and strength to resist the temptation to gossip, slander, or defame. What a wonderful God we have! While we hold grudges and harbor ill will, our Father loves mercy over wrath, and is pleased to forgive all sins.
May those assaulted by either liars or those who tell unnecessary truths say with their Savior, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)” And may each person who begins, spreads, or believes gossip be moved to say, “Father, forgive me.”
For more from Ask the Pastor, please see the 2005 column Gossip.
Eighth Commandment quotes from Luther’s Small Catechism, © 1986 by Concordia Publishing House.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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