“If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Have you heard this saying before? If so, then you must have known my mother growing up. I’m sure she invented it. In fact I think it was the sentence I most remember hearing her say throughout my childhood. Well, that and “I can’t have anything nice with you kids.”
My mom did not tolerate us talking poorly about each other. “Don’t be a tattle-tale,” she would scold, even when I thought it was important to tell her my little brother was into her lipstick — again. But she wouldn’t stand for it.
“Mind your own bees wax. The truth always comes out in the wash,” she’d assure me. I often found myself looking into our washing machine for some obvious truth to show itself, but I usually only found clean clothes … or a couple of dimes and maybe a nickel at the bottom of the basin if I was real lucky.
“Gossip is news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.”
Growing up, I noticed my friends found it easy to point out the faults in others. In fact, this inclination seemed to be something that came quite naturally for the majority of people — including me. I was pretty sure everyone found it easier to say a tongue twister like, “She sells seashells?” than keep their twisted tongues silent about what a lame sales person she was.
While I’d like to believe most parents teach their children that gossip is wrong, I think we’ve created a culture where gossip is often accepted. In the secular world, we even glorify it and put it in lights with a neat and tidy masthead called “Gossip Column” just in case anyone was unclear about the matter. Syndicated columnist Liz Smith wrote, “Gossip is news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.”
If gossip wears a red satin dress in the secular world, then it must wear a drop-waist denim jumper in Christian circles. You’ve seen it: gossip disguised as a “prayer request.” It often sounds something like, “Oh, did you hear about Lisa? She’s pregnant and is pretty sure Chad doesn’t want to marry her. Can you believe it? Pray for her.”
My sister lives in the south, and I like the way many southerners start off a gossipy sentence (say this in a southern accent): “I don’t mean to be ugly, but …” Or what about when we say, “Yeah, Randy flunked Biology again. Bless his heart.” I’m convinced some people think that if they add the phrase, “Bless his heart” to a tidbit of gossip, it doesn’t count as pure gossip, but more like sympathetic information sharing. When we all really know that most of the time, “Bless his heart” means “What a dummy.”
When did we get so cavalier about blessing others — and cursing them? I guess it’s been going on a while, since even the Psalmist wrote about it, saying, “With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse” (Psalm 62:4b). There have been times when I was careless about “cursing” another. Like the time I expressed my irritation about one co-worker to another co-worker in an email. Granted, while what I wrote was couched in humor and jest, it was still mean-spirited gossip. I saw my friend later that day and asked her, “So, did you laugh at my e-mail about you-know-who?” When she replied, “What email?” I turned white as a ghost. To my horror, I had accidentally sent the email to “you-know-who.”
Let me tell you, there was no thrill in being “ugly” that time. And it’s not just because I got caught — though that did force me to learn a valuable lesson. Fear-based obedience can’t be all that bad, right? Is it so wrong to keep your big yapper shut for fear that someone may hear you talking poorly about another person? The wisdom of Ecclesiastes proposes it in chapter 10, verse 20:
Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.
Well I’ve met those birds, and trust me, they’ve got good ears. Those birds were in Denny’s one morning and were listening in as my friends and I discussed our weekly Bible study. Somehow, this particular morning of study of God’s holy Word turned into a rag session about a particular co-worker. Later that day, this particular co-worker came up to me and said, “Kara, I just want you to know that a friend of mine heard what was said about me this morning at your Bible study, and she told me everything.”
Hey, now just relax. Don’t you think I learned my lesson from the heinous, gossipy e-mail I sent that still makes me wince? I am teachable, you know. Anyway, this co-worker went on to say, “And I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am to you that you defended my character.”
Whew. That’s all I could think (So, I don’t blame you for thinking it, too). I walked back to my office utterly stunned. Whew. Thank God I defended his character. What if I hadn’t? While this man and his wife had always been good to me, it’s true he was a little quirky. It could have been easy for me to jump on the gossip bandwagon.
And then it hit me: I was more concerned about what he thought than what God thought. Sure, that time I did the right thing. But what if every time there was an opportunity to gossip, I thought more about how it wounds God’s heart even more than it would the person I slandered? What if I tried to take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ? What if I at least tried? What if I could just bite my tongue?
Oh, the tongue. I know Jesus said that what comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart, but you’d think we could just learn to keep our mouths shut. I blame it on the tongue. It is the strongest muscle in the human body, you know. It’s true — just consult Grays Anatomy. It’s hard to believe that such a little thing can cause so much damage. The disciple James agrees, and writes,
… 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. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (James 3:5-6).
Gulp. (Note: the tongue also makes gulping possible.)
Yet, the tongue can also speak blessings. Inspiring and affirming words of the tongue can change the course of a person’s life. Presidents have moved entire nations with their speech. Commanders have motivated their soldiers with words to win battles against all odds. Parents can train and encourage a child with the simple praise of their lips.
Here’s the bottom line: “Whoever of you loves life and wants to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies” (Psalm 34:13-14). Why not choose to speak “life,” and bless others with the power of your words?
Copyright 2005 Kara Schwab. All rights reserved.