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31 May 2018

Gossip, prayer, and trustworthiness.

Sometimes it’s not a prayer request; it’s gossip.

The gossipy prayer request. High school likely wasn’t the first place I encountered it, but certainly the first time I became aware of it. We were in a youth group meeting, the pastor was taking prayer requests, and one kid raised her hand and proceeded to give us way too much detail about a girl most of us knew.

Definitely gossip. But that’s how gossips have discovered a loophole: Gossip may be bad, but praying for one another is good! So now they can gossip freely, on the grounds it’s all stuff we need to know. Right?

Wrong; rubbish. We don’t need to know a thing. All we need to know is someone needs God’s help, and that God can help. If your friend (let’s call him Vasko) needs prayer, all you gotta tell the prayer leader is, “Please pray for my friend Vasko; he’s having a rough time, and that’s all I can tell you.” A gossipy prayer leader will pry, but a wise prayer leader will say “Okay,” and respect it as an unspoken prayer request.

Yeah, you could try to leave Vasko’s name off it, but too many prayer leaders kinda prefer a name. They find it a little awkward to pray for “Jamillah’s friend,” or whatever your name is. But if you wanna conceal the name too, that’s fine; God knows who you’re praying about; tell the prayer leader, “Let’s call him [made-up name],” and that tends to work.

And yeah, if you’re in a roomful of immature Christians (namely kids) you might get someone who blurts out, “I know who you’re talking about.” Shut them up quickly: “Maybe you do, but I didn’t say who it is because I’m trying to respect their privacy.” Most times that’s enough of a rebuke to keep people quiet. Most times.

Do we have to define gossip? Guess so.

GOSSIP /'gɑ.səp/ n. One who (habitually) reveals sensational or personal facts about others.
2. Info of a sensational or personal nature; often unsubstantiated rumor.
3. Item one might spread rumors about.
[Gossipy /'gɑ.sə.pi/ adj.]

People blab sensational or personal facts because to them, knowledge is power—and here’s a power they get to wield, and feel mighty because of it. And feel valuable to people who value gossip. When they have something to gossip, they have power. When they’ve got nothing, they’re powerless, so they hunt for gossip. Watch out for them.

The translators of the bible sometimes use the word “gossip” to refer to a breach of confidence. If I tell you something privately, but you figure it’s okay to spread that info around, that’d be gossip. If I overhear something confidential, but I figure it’s news everyone needs to know, that’d also be gossip… unless of course it’s something people actually do need to know, like the pastor covering up a case of child molestation.

Most people realize the difference between actual news and gossip. But there are a few who are a bit deficient on the definition. Again: If you do need to know about it, ’cause it relates to an authority figure’s job, ’cause it might affect you personally, ’cause it might be harmful, or ’cause it’s a crime, it’s news. If you don’t need to know about it, even if you really wanna, it’s gossip.

Now, when a scandal isn’t true—rumor has it your neighbor cheated on her husband, but she never did—we have more than just gossip. We have a lie. Sharing and spreading that lie is what the KJV calls “bearing false witness.” Ex 20.16 Gossip becomes sin. And while not everything people call “gossip” is a lie, there’s just enough of a truth problem to make the whole field of scandal into something Christians oughta avoid. Just to be on the safe side.

Yet we don’t. We’re as entertained by scandal as anyone. Especially when it reinforces our prejudices. If we don’t like someone—a celebrity, a politician, a neighbor—we’re happy to believe any negative thing we hear about them, true or false. And spread it around regardless.

Note what happens when we hear a negative rumor about someone we do like: We’re quick to dismiss it. “Well that can’t be true; he’s not that kind of person.” Like when the pastor covers up a case of child molestation: The pastor’s loved ones would never, ever believe it. Even if it’s totally true. Our bias is just that powerful: We spread or fight stories based on our prejudices, not the truth. Based on what we want to be true.

People frequently justify their gossip by pointing out, “But it is true.” And sometimes it is. (That’s certainly the legal defense for spreading it.) So why’s it wrong? Intent. People aren’t really sharing gossip because they love the truth, or wanna spread useful and necessary news. They either wish to harm people by exposing their failings; or they don’t, but they want to be considered of value by the people who do wanna harm others. It’s that bitter, cynical, divisive attitude which turns gossip into a work of the flesh.

Can’t trust gossips.

When the scriptures rebuke gossip, it’s because the authors are trying to promote trustworthiness.

Proverbs 11.13 KWL
One who shares gossip is revealing confidences.
One with a faithful spirit, conceals the word.
Proverbs 20.19 KWL
One who shares gossip is revealing confidences.
Don’t get mixed up with one who entices with his lips.

In life we’re gonna have friends. (Or should, anyway.) And our friends are gonna want us to keep certain things to ourselves. You know, private matters. Confidences. Sometimes secrets. And if we can’t keep these confidences, we can’t keep these friends: They’ll quickly learn we can’t be trusted.

Most of these confidences are, to be blunt, stupid. They’re about embarrassments, and people get embarrassed by some of the dumbest things. I had a roommate who was trying to quit smoking, and had switched to nicotine gum. I casually mentioned that fact to some mutual friends, and he rebuked me: He considered his nicotine addiction to be an embarrassing weakness. (Whereas I figure fighting the addiction is something to be proud of. Nicotine is rough.) See, our friends have lots of little, silly things they’re self-conscious about, and would rather we say nothing about them. I haven’t even touched on the bigger deals, like sins they confess, personal stories they share, and all that.

Some of these confidences can definitely cause scandal. If a friend of mine has a crush on someone, shouldn’t, and is hiding it because he knows it’s not appropriate, and I tell on him just so I can be entertained by the resulting chaos, that’s evil. And yes, I have done precisely that, purely for the evil fun of it. Hugely entertaining for me, and the person he had a crush on; hugely mortifying for him, and ruined our relationship. Not worth it.

Likewise if a friend confesses a sin to me—that she broke a rule at her workplace, or cheated on her husband, or worse—I can make scandal of any of those things if I blab. Even if I share it to a group of other Christians, or my own confessors. I’d become a gossip. I may not be lying, but I violated a trust, and that’s just as much a sin.

Are there exceptions to violating confidentiality?

Every Christian is a priest, but I’m not a Roman Catholic priest. If people confess their sins to me, I’ve taken no oaths to keep these confessions absolutely sealed. Nor am I a lawyer, doctor, or therapist, bound by their rules of confidentiality.

On the contrary: I’m a “mandated reporter.” I work with vulnerable people, and if I suspect abuse, I’m required to report it to the state or the police. I follow mandated-reporter guidelines in my personal life too. They’re solid rules, so I recommend them to others. In general I won’t keep a secret when:

  • A felony’s been committed. If you broke the law, I’m gonna advise you to turn yourself in before I do. If you committed a crime, make things right. If you didn’t commit the crime, but you know about it, hiding it makes you an accessory: You need to help law enforcement catch the criminals. Keeping secrets only gets you into worse trouble. (Both of us, really.)
  • Someone’s being harmed, or will be. If you’re being bullied, beaten, abused, molested, raped, or threatened with bodily harm or death, I refuse to stand by and let it continue.
  • It’s a life-and-death emergency. Saving lives trumps secrets every time.

The rest of the time, if I hear something which I think needs to not be secret, I say so. But otherwise I have no business revealing such confidences, and won’t. Even if I think they’re silly; they’re still not for me to expose. In some cases I have pushed people to share, just so they can see there’s no basis for their fears. But again: Not for me to expose. They need to tell on themselves; they’re not gonna grow in character if I tell on them. I need to keep my mouth shut. And do.

And when people share their secrets with you, so must you. If you’re going to develop any sort of solid friendships, they gotta recognize you as trustworthy. They need to know you can keep confidences. Make clear your guidelines for when you can’t keep secrets. Keep all the other ones.

Now, lots of people share everything with their spouses. Seriously, everything. Which is fine… provided those spouses are trustworthy. Some of ’em are. Some of ’em really aren’t. I once knew a campus pastor whose wife was completely untrustworthy, as the students quickly found out: They confided in him, he shared it with her, and she blabbed the juicier stories to her friends. It ruined his ministerial career. Anyway, if you share everything with your spouse, let everyone know. It’s only fair that they take your spouse’s trustworthiness into consideration too.

“But the secrets are eating me alive!”

There are two scenarios when keeping secrets will tear us up inside. In both of ’em, sin’s the problem.

The first is when you’re a giant gossip. You are, for once, keeping a secret—and don’t wanna, because it’s just that entertaining. You still need to fight the temptation to share it. The Holy Spirit can certainly help.

See, power corrupts, and gossip feels like power to the person sharing the secrets. But it’s a destructive power: It reveals the gossip to be untrustworthy, a person of flawed character, a person with no value after they’ve entertained you with their scandalous stories. If you’re quitting gossip, you need to find some other, better, healthier way to be valuable to others. Like being trustworthy.

The second is when it’s actually wrong to keep that secret. That’s why I have those guidelines on what not to keep confidential. If I find out my neighbor is beating her husband, I’m never gonna promise to say nothing about it. If I did, I’d be miserable every time I saw him covered in bruises. If I had to actually lie to keep this secret—and it’s the kind of secret where you inevitably wind up lying—yep, that’d be sin, promises or no promises. No, there are some secrets you simply don’t keep. If any confidence leads to sin, that’d be one of those secrets.

There’s a scenario that’ll actually tear you up from the outside, and that’s when you have a gossip in your life who’s trying to extract secrets from you. Break off those relationships. That may be hard to do, especially when they’re family members. So be honest with them: “I can’t tell you, because I can’t trust you.” Yes, it’ll probably hurt their feelings. But it might just make them realize who they’ve become, and repent.

A third will tear you up from the outside—and that’s when there’s a gossip in your life who is trying to pry secrets out of you. Sometimes that’s easily fixed by breaking off your relationships with gossips. Sometimes it’s not, especially if your family members are the gossips. So just be honest with them: “I can’t tell you because I know you won’t keep it quiet. You’ve made it obvious I can’t trust you.” Yes, it may hurt their feelings for you to say this. But it may also make them repent.

All right, back to the gossipy prayer requests.

As far as clamping down on gossipy prayer requests is concerned: Gossips aren’t naïve. They know exactly what they’re doing. They overshare because they’re trying to get a juicy story out of their system, and get attention. When we call them out on their bad behavior, they may act like they don’t know what we’re talking about, as if they never meant to gossip. In some cases they truly convinced themselves it’s not gossip; it’s news. But they know they’ve been inappropriate.

So when in doubt, try out this phrase; it works quite well: “Don’t need to know that.” Say it kindly. Repeat as often as necessary till people get the point.

Sometimes gossips are dense and won’t get it right away. Sometimes they ignore us and plow right ahead. Sometimes it’s the leader of the prayer group who’s a gossip. In the worst-case scenario (and I’ve been there), it’s the pastor. Still: “Don’t need to know that.” Be insistent. And if you get pushback, have folks explain why anyone does need to know that. See whether they can back up their reasoning with some scriptures. Betcha they can’t.

In my experience, gossips run amok because nobody ever calls them on it. And “I don’t need to know that” rebukes them just fine. It doesn’t accuse; it doesn’t condemn; it shouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings unless their consciences already bother them. If you’re mistaken and people aren’t actually gossiping, it keeps you away from false accusations. It also works on people who talk too much. It has a lot of uses.

Just remember: Say it kindly. And don’t forget to apply “Don’t need to know that” to yourself where necessary.