Friday, December 19, 2014

The Principle of Overflow

One last section on the theological building blocks before we put them together to articulate a biblical definition of gossip.

Overflow: The Source of Good and Bad Words

The second aspect of the broader theological framework for us to consider is the source of words. From where do words come? We have already seen the Bible’s answer to this in several places, but it will be helpful to consider the Bible’s explicit teaching about the source of good and bad words.

In Matthew 12, the Lord Jesus excoriates the Pharisees for assigning a satanic origin to his exorcizing power. He indicates that their accusatory words come from their evil hearts.

Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned (Matt 12:33-37, cf. Luke 6:45).
D.A. Carson explains, “That Jesus describes the evil of the ‘brood of vipers’ in terms of their hearts or natures does not thereby excuse them. Far from it! . . . Jesus is saying that every spoken word reflects the heart’s overflow and is known to God. Therefore words are of critical importance.”98

Words come from hearts. Leon Morris says, “The heart is used here as an inclusive term to denote ‘the seat of the physical, spiritual and mental life . . . as center and source of the whole inner life, w. its thinking, feeling, and volition’ (BAGD, 1 and 1b). It is what the heart is full of (abundance) that determines what anyone says. People do not speak out of character.”99

Matthew records Jesus teaching something very similar in chapter 15. “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immortality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him unclean” (Matt 15:18-20, see the parallel in Mark 7:20-23).

Words Come From Hearts

This heart-word connection was also taught in the Old Testament. “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Prov 4:23). Life overflows from the heart. “The tongue of the righteous is choice silver, but the heart of the wicked is of little value. The lips of the righteous nourish many, but fools die for lack of judgment” (Prov 10:20-21). The Hebrew parallelisms equate the tongue and the heart and closely connect the lips of the righteous with the lack of judgment in the heart of the fool.100

James is certainly building upon this teaching when he asks, “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water” (Jas 3:11-12). The only way to truly clean up our speech is to change something at the headwaters, the spring, the root, the source of our words.101

This principle of overflow is very important to grasp for recognizing and resisting gossip. Sinful gossip comes from a sinful heart. The intent of the speaker is crucial. We have seen in both testaments the careless (at best) and malicious (at worst) intentions of those who gossip. What is motivating someone to spread bad news about someone else? As we have noted, motivation is also important for listening. Why are we so attracted to gossip (Prov 18:8, 26:22)? What in our souls is magnetically drawn towards bad news?

Often, to recognize sinful gossip as sinful, Christ-followers will need to be somewhat aware of their motives in either talking about or listening to bad news about someone else.102 Our hearts are active, and what overflows from them will have to be accounted for on the day of judgment (Matt 12:36-37).


[98] D.A. Carson, Matthew, EBC 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 293.

[99] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1992), 321.

[100] Examples abound. See, for example, Prov 10:8-10, 14, 31-32, Prov 15:1-4, 28.

[101] For more on the centrality of the heart, see the many works of CCEF especially Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2006), Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), Edward T. Welch, When People Are Big and God Is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1997), Edward T. Welch, Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2007), Winston T. Smith, Marriage Matters: Extraordinary Change Through Ordinary Moments (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2010), Michael R. Emlet, CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2009), and David Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003).

[102] They will also, while guarding against judgmentalism, have to be aware of possible motives of those with whom they are communicating.

Previous Posts in "Toward a Definition of Gossip"