Sunday, June 26, 2011

[Matt's Messages] "Instead of Gossip: Listening"

“Instead of Gossip: Listening” [Audio Page]
Resisting Gossip - Summer 2011
June 26, 2011
Proverbs 17:4

We’re returning this morning to our Summer sermon series on “Resisting Gossip.”

I’ve been sharing with you some of what I’ve been learning as I’ve been reading for and writing my doctoral project on the problem of gossip.

So far, we’ve learned together a definition of sinful gossip, that is, bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart; we’ve talked a lot about that bad heart and the different kinds of gossips that come out of it, and last time when we were in this series together we began to think about what to do “Instead of Gossip.”

Last time, we learned what to say instead of gossip, instead of speaking gossip.

Today, we turn to the other side of the coin–listening.  Instead of listening to gossip, what should we do?

Because listening is very important.

We’ve already learned that the words of a gossip are like choice morsels they go down to a man’s inmost parts.

They are a delicious poison.

But not only can listening to gossip be harmful to us if we do it, but it can be downright evil to do, as well.  Look down at Proverbs 17:4.

“A wicked man listens to evil lips; a liar pays attention to a malicious tongue.”

Hmm.  There is a category in Scripture of evil listening.

Not just evil talking, but evil listening.

“A wicked man listens to evil lips; a liar pays attention to a malicious tongue.”

Some of the most popular paraphrases of the Bible see gossip in this verse.

The New Living Translation puts it this way, “Wrongdoers eagerly listen to gossip; / liars pay attention to a destructive tongue.”

The Message paraphrase renders 17:4 like this, “Evil people relish malicious conversation; the ears of a liar itch for dirty gossip.”

“A wicked man listens to evil lips; a liar pays attention to a malicious tongue.”

We can sin–not just in what we say–but in how we listen when others are gossiping to us.

We’ve all been there, right?

We’ve all been in a conversation that all of a sudden has taken the turn into gossip.

What to do then?

About a month ago, I was talking with a nurse who said that that’s about all they do among the staff where she works.

Any chance to talk about other people and talk them down gets taken.  And it’s hard to escape.

She said that recently they have been talking about a particular new employee, about what they’d heard about her personal life and how deficient she was in doing her job.

And here’s my friend in the circle of people talking about her.  What to do?

We can sin, not just in what we say, but in how we listen when others are gossiping to us.

Now, not all listening is evil.  Right?  Of course, not!

The Bible commends and commands listening.

James 1:19.  “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry...”

So listening is important, and we’re supposed to do it, regularly.

And sometimes we have to listen even to bad news about other people when they are not present. Especially if we are in a position of authority or responsibility.

But there is listening and then there is listening.

There is an evil kind of listening that receives sinful gossip and is just as bad as being a liar itself.  Proverbs 17:4–“A wicked man listens to evil lips; a liar pays attention to a destructive tongue.”

The difference, of course, comes down to the heart.

How we are listening is determined by why we are listening.

And the key, again, is to listen in love.

Just like we saw last week with the law of love.

“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Listen to your neighbor talk about another of your neighbors as you would want your neighbor to listen to stories about you.

Now, that’s not easy, but it is possible.

It’s possible to listen to your neighbor talk about another of your neighbors as you would want your neighbors to listen to stories about you.

Let me give you four biblical strategies for doing just that.


Let me start off by saying that there is no one-size-fits-all action to take when someone is trying to share what seems like sinful gossip to you.

Some teachers might give the impression that whenever gossip starts to flow, the only response is a righteous, “Stop!  This conversation is now gossip, and I will not be party to it!”  As if we’re the “gossip police!” 

Now, there may be a time for that, though probably never in that tone of voice, but there are several biblical strategies that a believer can take.  It’s not one-size-fits-all.

There are a lot of factors to consider.

What’s the situation?
What is my relationship to the person talking?
What is my relationship to the person being talked about?
How serious is this gossip?
Is it a lie?  Is it true?  Is it just a rumor?
How serious is the bad news being shared?
Is it just a foolish thing that someone did or is it really shameful?
Is this the focus of the conversation or is it going to just move right on?

Those are just a few of the factors involved.

It’s not one-sized-fits-all.

So, we need wisdom and discernment in those gossip moments to know how to respond.

And where are we going to get that?

Pray and Weigh.

One of the best things in the whole world for Christians is that the Holy Spirit of God lives inside of them.

The Lord Jesus promised on the night He was betrayed that He would send the Spirit to take His place in our lives.

And the Spirit came and now indwells every genuine believer in Christ.

One of the Spirit’s ministries to us is to give us that kind of wisdom.

In Ephesians 1, Paul says, “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.”

The Spirit of Wisdom.

The Spirit loves to give that wisdom to us.

We just need to ask.  James 1:5 says that if anyone lacks wisdom, he should ask for it, and God will give it generously!

That WISDOM is also found in the Bible.  And we should be ransacking it for its teaching to guide us when we get into these gossip situations.

So, pray and weigh.

What do I mean by that?

I mean, we should have an inner dialogue going on with the Lord all of the time.

Our lives should be on speakerphone.

But especially in those times and situations when we think we might be getting into trouble.

When that conversation starts to go down a dark path.

Shoot up a signal flare prayer.

“Lord!  Help!  Help me to discern here and know what to do.”

And as we’re listening, we need to weigh carefully what we hear.

Turn to Proverbs 15:28. 

Proverbs 15:28 says, “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.”

It’s one of those think-before-you-speak proverbs.

The wicked person just says what comes to mind.

But the righteous person ponders, considers, weighs what they are about to say before they say it.

As people are talking to us, we need to weigh what they say in our minds.

We need to be careful to not fall into judgmentalism, like we saw a few weeks ago, right?

We need to not jump to conclusions.
We need to consider both sides–sometimes we don’t get both sides.
We need to suspend judgment.

We need to weight what we hear.

Many years ago, I received a warning about a neighbor and was told some stories about them.

The person that was telling me these stories was telling me out of love.

They weren’t gossiping.

It was bad news behind someone’s back, but it came from a good heart.

It was a biblical warning.

So, I weighed that out.  And I’ve taken that warning to heart even though I have nothing but stories to go on with my caution about that person.

Pray and weigh.

The Bible calls for us to be discerning.

Now, sometimes that doesn’t take long.  You don’t always have to pray and weigh for long.

I have a friend who gets anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night that are a just voice calling to tell her something bad about her husband.

The only good thing to do there is to hang up and maybe get a trace on the call for harassment.

I sometimes get anonymous notes about people, including our people here at church.

I just tear them up.

It doesn’t always take long to weigh what is being said.

And if it does begin to seem like sinful gossip, then we have to take action and not just passively receive it.

#2.  AVOID.

Turn over to Proverbs 20, verse 19.  That’s to the right a couple of pages. 

Proverbs 20:19 says, “A gossip betrays a confidence; so AVOID a man who talks too much.”

That’s pretty straightforward.

Avoid a gossiper.

Here’s one way to not listen to gossip–don’t go near someone who gossips!

That might mean for you and me, skipping some social situations because we know that that’s all there is going to be is sinful gossip.

And that might be a sacrifice, but it might be worth it.

Pray and Weigh.  And sometimes avoid.

It definitely means to avoid the gossip television show, the gossip blog, the gossip magazine, the gossip column, the gossip channel, the gossip Facebook page.

Those things are no good for our souls, and we need to avoid them like the plague.

I’ve read enough gossip doing my study for this doctoral project, to last my lifetime!



Now, sometimes you can’t avoid the person because of your relationship to them.

Like my friend, the nurse, she can’t just skip the breakroom and always eat on her own.  Sometimes, she needs to be there with the other staff.

I have other friends who are part of social circles that fall into gossip, but they are there strategically to be salt and light and influence those people for Christ.

They don’t avoid those people, because they are trying to reach them.

What about then?

Sometimes, I think we need to avoid, not the person, but the topic.

We need to re-direct a conversation and avoid the gossip in it.

That’s something I encouraged my friend the nurse to do with her group.  When the topic turned to their co-worker’s faults, I encouraged her to simply change the topic.

Ask them about their plans for the weekend or about their family or about something they love.

Just avoid the topic.

That’s biblical, too.

Proverbs 26:20 says, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.”

Just removing the gossip can change the temperature in the room.


#3.  COVER.

Turn back to Proverbs 17 and look at verse 9 now.  That’s Pew Bible Page #642.

Proverbs 17:9 – “He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.”

That should sound familiar.  It’s sister verse is Proverbs 16:28, “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.”

The opposite of gossip is “covering.”

Proverbs 10:12 – “Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.”

Now, what does that mean, to cover over wrongs?

Again, it does NOT mean to pretend or to sweep something under the rug.

This does not give perpetrators of crimes a blank check.

Sin needs confronting.

But this is talking about people who are uninvolved in the case.

Or people who could overlooking an offense.

It is covering over the wrong.  Drawing a veil over it.

Do remember what Noah did after he came out of the ark?  Genesis 9?

Well, first he praised God and worshipped.

And then he grew a vineyard.

And then he got plastered.

And there was some shame in his tent.  Not quite sure what it was exactly.

Well, one of his sons blabbed about it to his brothers.

But the other two sons took a garment, laid it across their shoulders and walked backwards covering their father’s nakedness.

And covering his shame.

They did something right and beautiful.

They covered him.

And we can do that for other people.

Not make an excuse for them but cover over their shame so that it is not exposed where it need not be.

This weekend, Heather and I went out for dinner with some friends, and the dinner conversation turned towards some people whom we both knew.

And Heather and I knew something bad about those people that the other couple didn’t.

And I really struggled at the table to figure out how much to say and how much to not say about that situation.

I think we did okay.  But my goal was to be honest and forthright but also to not share more than was needed.  Because it wouldn’t help anybody.

And “he who covers over an offense promotes love.”

Joe Stowell says that we can do that from the get-go.

In his book The Weight of Your Words, he says, “Many times at social gatherings someone will get just far enough into a story have everyone’s attention and then say, ‘You know, I really shouldn’t be telling you this.’ [Ever had that happen to you?] And of course, the listeners all respond, ‘Oh, come on, you can’t stop now!  We won’t tell.’  It would be refreshing to hear someone respond instead, ‘Good for you. Don’t tell. I admire your self control.’ We need to do what we can to stop negative talk before it gets spread’” (pg. 138).

This kind of “covering,” I think, includes defending someone else’s reputation, especially if you know the story is false.

I was at a table once where someone’s name came up and a story was shared about that person that was, as far as I knew, patently false.

And I had to say, “No, that’s not true.”  And that was awkward, I’ll tell you!

Unfortunately, it turned out to be true.  And I had to apologize.

But it’s right to defend someone’s reputation.

Sometimes, the right thing to do is to say, “I’m not sure about that, but I don’t think that it’s any of our business.”

That’s a loving rebuke.

And that’s covering.

My nurse friend and I brainstormed some more covering kind of strategies for her.

She came up with the idea of offering an alternative interpretation to the gossip about their co-worker.

“Well, maybe she hasn’t been trained very well on her new duties.

I remember when I was just starting out and how hard it was to get the knack of it all.”

My friend decided to offer mercy in the name of her friend next time the conversation came to around to her.

Isn’t that great?!

Not just passively listening to gossip but actively loving in the midst of it.

We also came up with the idea of suggesting ways to help that new co-worker get her job done well.

Now that would be even better!

Remember, the goal is to live a life of love–even when listening.

“He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.”

#4.  GO.

And here, I mean go to the person that’s being talked about.

My wife reads this little book to the kids at bedtimes when I’m not there.

It’s called Bearing Fruit by Diana Kleyn.

Story number 38 says, “There was once a minister’s wife who had a very effective way of stopping a person from slander or gossip in her presence.  Whenever someone would say something unpleasant about someone else, she would get out her hat and coat.”

‘Where are you going?’ the person would ask.

“I’m going to visit the person you mentioned and and ask if what you said is true.’

People became very cautious about speaking unkindly about anyone in her presence.”  (Pg. 136-137).  I’ll bet!

But that’s good advice.

If you hear a story about someone, don’t just receive it.  If you think you need to know, then go to that person.

And it’s even more important if they have sinned against you.

Matthew 18:15 says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”

Don’t go to someone else and gossip.

Go to them.

And if they bring you the story, go together back to the horse’s mouth.

If they are in trouble, they need you!

Galatians 6 says “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Which we know is to love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Sometimes, it’s important to tell someone that others are gossiping about them.

Do it as carefully as you can.

Try not to gossip about the person that has been gossiping!

It’s best to encourage them to go personally to the subject.

But sometimes, if their reputations is being significantly harmed, it’s important to let them know what you’ve heard.

And pray for them that they can straighten it out.

Sometimes, we’re the person that has gossiped.

Next Sunday, Lord-willing, I’m going to talk about what to do when we are the one who has gossiped and are regretting it.

There is mercy and grace at the Cross of Christ.

Because his love covered all of our sins, not just drawing a veil over them so that they aren’t the subject of gossip–but paying for them, covering them with the precious blood of Jesus Christ who died for us.