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The cure for gossip

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 7:1-6

Some of you are new to our city. In the interest of public safety, I wish to help. A friend recently sent me a set of driving rules for Dallas. You’ll find them essential, I think.

If your Mapsco is more than a few weeks old, throw it away and buy a new one. If you’re in Denton County and your Mapsco is one day old, it is already obsolete.

There is no such thing as a high-speed chase in Dallas. We all drive like that.

Morning rush hour is from 6 to 10; evening rush hour is from 3 to 7. Friday’s rush hour begins Thursday night.

If you actually stop at a yellow light, you will be rear-ended, yelled at and possibly shot.

If someone actually has his or her turn signal on, it’s probably a factory defect.

f. Roads change names without reason. For instance, Lake Highlands Drive, when it crosses Northwest Highway, becomes Plano Road. It is then Avenue K, Greenville Avenue, and Highway 5 before ending in Sherman.

It is possible to be driving west in the northbound lane of East Northwest Highway. Do not let this confuse you.

You can tell who your enemies are when driving in Dallas: they’re everyone else. When you’re out of your car, it’s not so obvious. At least not to you. They don’t talk to you, just about you.

A “Dear Abby” column once carried this essay: “My name is Gossip. I have no respect for justice. I maim without killing. I break hearts and ruin lives. I am cunning and malicious, and gather strength with age. The more I am quoted the more I am believed. My victims are helpless. They cannot protect themselves against me because I have no name and no face. To track me down is impossible. The harder you try, the more elusive I become. I am nobody’s friend. Once I tarnish a reputation, it is never the same. Even my name hisses. I am called Gossip.”

What do we do about gossip? Social psychologist Nicholas Emler has concluded that gossip forms as much as 80% of a normal person’s conversation in a day. What cures this disease of the tongue and the soul? Jesus will tell us today.

Admit that gossip is wrong (vs. 1-2)

He begins: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

The word “judge” means subject someone to harsh, sharp, unjust criticism, in a habitual way.

The words are a present tense imperative: never judge. Stop judging. No exceptions, conditions, or loopholes. Don’t do it.

This prohibition applies to all unjust criticism. But typically we criticize people in their absence more than in their presence; we slander and gossip.

We need to know that we will be criticized by others as we are doing to them now: “In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (v. 2). If someone will gossip about you to me, they will gossip about me to you.

And we need to know that God is paying attention to our slander and gossip:

“Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure” (Psalm 101:5).

“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke12:2-3).

So refuse to speak about those who are not present.

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15).

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2:1).

“Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:12-13).

“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20).

“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26).

Jim Cymbala is pastor of the remarkable Brooklyn Tabernacle and best-selling author of spiritual books. His church has grown from 20 to more than 7,000, in one of the harshest environments in America. He credits the unity of the church as one of its keys to experiencing the power of God. In that light, Jim says that when his church receives new members, his final charge to them is:

“Never slander or gossip about another member. If you ever hear somebody talking about a person not present, if you ever hear a critical word about the pastor of the church or a choir member or an usher, we charge and authorize you to stop that person in his tracks. Say to him, ‘Excuse me, has Pastor Cymbala hurt you? An usher hurt you? They’ll apologize. Come with me right now to the pastor’s office, or I’ll make an appointment for you. The pastor will bring whoever hurt you, and if necessary they’ll kneel before you and apologize. But we won’t permit talking behind their backs, slander, or gossip. We can’t be going to the prayer meeting and calling on God, ‘Lord, come in power!’ and then during the week be grieving the Holy Spirit by gossip and phone calls.”

Admit that gossip is wrong. This is the first step to its cure.

Confess your own sins (vs. 3-5)

Jesus continues: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (v. 3).

The “speck” was a splinter from a piece of dry wood or chaff. It would not damage the eye or limit eyesight, but would be irritating.

The “plank” was the “dokos,” a log upon which planks in a house rested in a pier-and-beam kind of construction, the largest and strongest “plank” they knew.

When we see the speck in someone else’s life and ignore the plank in our own, we are “hypocrites”—Greek actors who wore two masks and played two roles. We act spiritual, when we are carnal. We appear to be helping, when we are hurting and hating. We transfer our sins and problems to others, looking for their faults so we can avoid our own.

To stop slandering and gossiping about others, begin by examining yourself. A wise Bible teacher once taught a truth I’ve not forgotten: there is no sin I cannot commit. Your sins may not be mine, but mine may not be yours. And I cannot see or judge your heart. There is always something I don’t know, or have wrong. Always.

And we tend to see in others those wrongs we commit ourselves. Otherwise we wouldn’t see them. Gossips reveal their own sins in the slanders they repeat.

So let me urge you to consider a valuable spiritual discipline again today: the moral inventory. Dan Hayes, my friend and staff colleague in Atlanta, has written a spiritual masterpiece called Fireseeds of Spiritual Awakening. In it he suggests this experience: “Here is an exercise that has worked for thousands…Take a sheet of paper, a pencil, and your Bible. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you any areas that are displeasing him. Take 30 minutes to an hour and make a list of those sins. Then tell the Lord you acknowledge them as sin and accept by faith his forgiveness (1 John 1:9). Determine by his power to turn from them and expect the Holy Spirit to fill you with his power. Make restitution or public confession where necessary. (It may be tough, but it will be worth it.) If you were sincere when you did this, you will be a cleansed vessel ready to become a glowing spark of revival and awakening” (rev. ed., p. 68).

Practice spiritual discernment (v. 6)

Jesus tells us to refuse gossip and slander by examining our own sins before we give attention to those of others. But he does want us to see sin for what it is, and to refuse its contaminating influence in our lives: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces” (v. 6).

In Jesus’ culture, “dogs” referred to ethnic impurity (Gentiles), “pigs” to ethical impurity (eating meat forbidden by Torah).

Giving dogs what is “sacred” refers to meat consecrated for worship and sacrifice, symbolically giving Gentiles that which is sacred to Jews.

Pearls looked like peas or acorns and would deceive the hogs until they discovered the deception.

Wild dogs and pigs were nothing like the domesticated animals with which we are familiar. If you were close enough to them to toss them meat and pearls, and angered or threatened them, they would likely attack you. Think of bears in Yellowstone or coyotes on the open plain.

We are called not to slander or gossip, but to practice spiritual discernment:

“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

“Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).

“Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24).

We are to refuse the ungodly:

“I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people” (1 Corinthians 5:9).

“Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).

“I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving the Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people” (Romans 16:17-18).

“They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:4-5).

But do so in love, praying for reconciliation in grace.

During World War II, Hitler commanded all religious groups to unite so he could control them. Among the Brethren churches, half complied and half refused. Those who complied were treated well by the government; the others were persecuted, and many died in concentration camps.

After the war, feelings of bitterness ran deep between the two sides. Finally they determined that the situation had to be healed. Leaders from each group met in a quiet retreat. For several days, each person spent time in prayer, examining his own heart in the light of Christ’s commands. Then they came together.

As they confessed their hostility and bitterness to God and yielded to his control, the Holy Spirit created a spirit of unity among them. Love filled their hearts and dissolved their hatred.

Conclusion

So what do we do with gossip? We admit that it is wrong. We confess the sin in our own hearts. We discern and refuse sin in others, while looking for spiritual healing and reconciliation in grace.

All the while, we trust and love the One who endured the slander and gossip, judgment and hatred of the entire human race for us. Just for us.

On our family vacation we spent a day in Yellowstone, one of the most amazing natural environments in the world. We could see the burned, charred trees which still stand there from the 1988 fires which consumed more than 300,000 acres.

After the fires were finally put out, forest rangers began exploring the damage. National Geographic reported on one discovery: a ranger found a bird literally petrified in ashes, perched on the ground at the base of a tree. He pushed the dead bird over with a stick. When he did, three tiny chicks ran out from under their dead mother’s wings.

Their mother, aware of impending disaster, had carried her offspring to the base of that tree and gathered them under her wings, instinctively knowing that the toxic smoke would rise. She could have flown to safety but refused to abandon her babies. When the blaze arrived and the heat singed her small body, the mother remained. Because she was willing to die, those under the cover of her wings would live.

You and I live under the wings of the Almighty, forgiven by his grace. Now, let our words to each other reflect that grace, to the glory of God, this week.