Friday, January 08, 2016

The Gossip Guy and Sins of the Tongue - An Interview

In preparation for both his new sermon series and our upcoming seminar on resisting gossip, my friend Russell Muilenburg interviewed me about the power of the tongue for good and evil.

Russell: Did you worry about becoming the “gossip” guy when you set out to write a book on gossip?

Matt: I did worry that I'd have to live with "gossip" jokes for the rest of my life. And I was right. My friends supply a seemingly endless stream of "behind the back" jokes at my expense.

But I'm okay with that because I was much more concerned that nobody was serving the Church at large as the "gossip guy," the expert on the topic of gossip. In my research, I discovered only five books in print on this problem that everybody deals with every day, and I could only recommend one of them as consistently helpful. And it didn't even provide a really good definition of gossip that was both biblical and practical. It has been a privilege to become the "gossip guy" if I can be used to help Christians around the world to resist this temptation.

Why are sins of the tongue such a big deal to you?  In other words, what led you to focus on this particular part of the Christian life?

Honestly, I didn't originally set out to tame anybody's tongue but mine. I was searching for a focus point for my doctoral research in practical theology, and I hit upon gossip as problem that I both knew that I struggled with and also had many questions about.  I knew that gossip was bad and that it hurt people, but even after a decade of pastoring I was still vague on exactly what qualified as gossip. What makes gossip "gossip?" Where do you draw the lines? Then I did some research and found out that a lot of other people were vague on these questions, too.

And when I learned how many other people struggled with this, I began to feel like it was a mission to which I was called. I was sure that the Bible had good gospel-centered answers. The treasure just needed to be dug up and presented to His people (Proverbs 2:1-5).

Do you feel like sins of the tongue are neglected in the Christian world today?  If so, why?

Definitely. And not just gossip. I'm not sure I know all of the reasons, but I can guess at some of them:

For one, we're Americans, and we have freedom of speech in this country--the right to speak our minds. What we forget, however, is that just because we have a right doesn't mean we should exercise that right. We are Christians first and Americans second. And Christians answer to a high authority--our Lord. We should only be using our mouths to speak what He would have us speak (Ephesians 4:29).

Another reason is that we tend to think that words are cheap; it's actions that count. And there is definitely truth in that statement. If we say something but don't follow through, it invalidates our statements. But that doesn't mean that our words themselves are not powerful. They are! Proverbs 18:21 says, "The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit." That's serious stuff!

Yet another reason is that the effects of our words are not always visible or immediate. If all words were like spells in Harry Potter, then we'd see a poof of smoke and things instantly starting to change around us. But Christians know that our words have consequences even when we don't see the effects right away.

One last reason I can think of off the top of my head is that our world is full of words, words, words. We live in the information age and are drowning in a deluge of words, so it doesn't seem like our own words, no matter how many or how bad, can really be that important in the grand scheme of things. But our Lord calls us to another perspective. He says that He is listening to our words and will be holding us accountable for them. In fact, he says that we'll have to give an account for every "careless word" we have spoken. Not just every malicious word but every idle one, too. That's a sobering reality.

James 3:2 talks about us keeping our whole body in check if we are able to control our tongues. What do you think is the connection between our words and the rest of our spiritual lives? Why is there such a strong connection?

Great question. That's a pretty provocative thing James says, isn't it?

I'm not sure exactly what the connection is, but I have a few ideas. One is that words bring definition to things. When you find the right word to describe something, you capture it. So words can set things in a new direction, whether for good or ill just because they set the rules. That's influence! The Scriptures are full of words because we need them to illumine the world for us.

Another reason is that words are our best tools for accessing truth. Truth is powerful. Of course, falsehood is powerful, as well. And that comes through words, too. Jesus Himself is called "The Word," the One who makes the Father known. Words are portals into realities. If we have the right words, we're going to be headed in the right directions.

James goes on to say that words can steer us. He uses the illustrations of rudders on ships and bits in horse's mouths. So, at least part of the connection is that words, though apparently small, guide our courses in life.  We've all seen this principle at work for both bad and good in marriage, parenting, the workplace, and the church. There is no denying that words are powerful.

One last thought. Since our words are inextricably tied to our hearts, any real progress we would make in taming our tongues has to come through a grace-based change in our innermost parts. So, in some ways James is saying that to have our "whole body in check" by having our tongues tamed, he's also intimating that we'd also have to have grown in sanctification first and foremost. The unstated implication is that the line runs from heart to mouth to the rest of life (cf. vv. 11-12).

Russell, I'm glad you are taking some time to lead your people through the biblical teaching about words, and I'm absolutely certain that if they take this teaching to heart, it will make a big difference in the rest of their lives as disciples of Jesus Christ.