All teams, businesses, and families have a language. These are the catchphrases and shortcuts known mostly to insiders. Christians have a language, too. Assuming you are part of a local church, it too will have a language. Hang around for long enough and you’ll learn some of the buzzwords and phrases. Hang around certain people and you’ll also learn one of the slickest and ickiest form of communication among Christians. If you know this language, you can tuck in a sneaky put-down or juicy update on someone’s situation:
It may come dressed as a godly concern. “You haven’t heard? Well, you can just imagine how heartbroken I was to learn that . . .”
It may come as request to just listen. “Who else could I tell but you, dear brother (or sister) . . .”
It may come as an invitation to prayer. “Join me, won’t you, in praying for that church? I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they just . . .”
In the above examples, the immediate payoff comes when the other person raises an eyebrow upon hearing the news. His or her lips purse together in faux concern. Now both of you are playing along. And both of you can walk away feeling morally superior to whomever. And for the briefest of moments, you are distracted from your own struggles.
But it does no one any good. Ephesians 4:29 puts such talk in its place: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Is the talk coming out of that person’s mouth “wholesome”? Was that poor soul whose name was just dragged through the mud built up in any way? Did you need that update?
Horrible words wrapped in Christianese are still horrible words.
Talk as Though You’re On Speakerphone
An interesting phenomenon of our day is the accidental call placed from your phone. Oftentimes we refer to this as an anatomically assisted dial. (The colloquial term is more picturesque, but I’ve said enough.) Let’s just say that sometimes people unknowingly make a call from their back pocket. I’ve been told this can happen from within a purse as well. Many of us have received such a call. It’s awkward, because you are now essentially eavesdropping on a conversation you innocently tapped into. Still, you really should hang up.
Many have of us have also inadvertently placed that call. When it dawned on you someone had been listening in, did you play back the conversation in your head to make sure you hadn’t said anything ugly or embarrassing?
Or there’s this variation on a theme: Have you ever gone too far with your words and then looked down at your phone—just to make sure it was off?
I’ve heard well-intentioned people suggest things would be far different if we imagined ourselves speaking all our words in front of Jesus. And that makes sense. That should matter. But apparently it doesn’t. Apparently we forget our lives are lived before, as Hagar said, “the God who sees me.”[i] Gulp.
Until that comforting and convicting thought sinks in, try this: Take the split-second dread that you’d been found out by your friend and pull it forward—right before you say those words in the first place. Are these just mind games? Maybe not. Think of it as way to establish a new habit. For just a week, a month, a year, imagine that person listening in when you speak of him or her. What if you were on speakerphone for the whole team or small group or neighborhood to hear? How would your words be different? It is an interesting little exercise, that one.
What you just told me—is that true? How do you know this to be true? Where did you hear such things?
You will rarely get answers to these questions, but their mere presence will throw a smoldering blanket on the sparks of this potential wildfire. So much of what we whisper to others is half-heard, half-baked, half-true. Like children participating in a party game, we murmur an already distorted story in someone’s ear, and it only gains more inaccuracies as it’s passed down the gossip network. At each stop, this “true story” leaves more hurt and dissension, picking up steam along the way. We are so prone to believe the worst possible explanation that it will not take much for trouble to brew. The perverse person of Proverbs 16:28 stirs things up. This is what happens. Things are stirred up—true, half-true, or not at all true. But now there is dissension. Do not give it a chance.
What do you expect me to do with this?
Now we are back to something rotten wrapped in churchy language. Were you even supposed to be invited into this impromptu prayer meeting? Proverbs 11:13 says that “a gossip betrays a confidence.” Is that what just happened? Was a problem, an embarrassment, a struggle entrusted to someone, only to have him or her put that private pain on display?
Why did you tell me this?
Perhaps the motives are less slimy than I’m suggesting. But Proverbs 16:28 holds a dire warning and a different motive you should know about: “A gossip separates close friends.” The harsh truth is that some will intentionally try to separate others with their words. Rather than using a meat cleaver, they have developed a surgical precision with the carefully placed whispers. Beware.
Do you feel safe around such people? Well, you shouldn’t. Let me explain what they are doing when you are not around: the very same thing that is happening when you are in the room. Why would it be otherwise? In a gossiping culture, no one is safe—including the gossipers. Trust erodes so gradually that people don’t even notice when it finally died.
Do not let it go this far. Throw bright light on these words. Question one another.
And then, with