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Gossip and trustworthiness.

High school was likely not the first place I encountered it, but certainly the first time I became aware of a certain phenomenon: The gossipy prayer request.

We were in a youth group meeting, and the pastor asked us for prayer requests. One girl raised her hand and proceeded to tell us, in far too much detail, about the personal agonies of some girl that many of us knew. It was clearly gossip. But in her mind, it was justifiable gossip: At the end of spilling everything she knew (or thought she knew), she ended it with, “Yeah… if we could just pray for her? She’s really having a hard time.”

Probably made all the harder thanks to the gossip.

The bible and the culture’s definitions of gossip.

In the scriptures, “gossip” is usually the word translators use to refer to leaked secrets, whether they were secrets I was supposed to keep, or secrets I overheard. If I told you something in confidence, and you figured it was okay to tell someone else about it, that’d be a breach of confidence, and therefore gossip. And a much bigger breach if that other person spread the secret around.

In our popular culture, “gossip” usually means scandal—embarrassing or sensitive stories about other people. Often the stories haven’t been confirmed as true, but we don’t care so much about that: Say a celebrity cheated on his wife, and later confessed to it publicly. Though it was confirmed, folks would still call it gossip.

Now, if the scandal isn’t true—if the gossip is that the celebrity cheated on his wife, yet he never did—then we have a problem. We have a lie. Sharing that lie is what the KJV calls “bearing false witness” (Ex 20.16) —you weren’t there, you don’t know, you have no business passing the story around as if it’s true—you’re spreading lies. While not everything people call “gossip” is a lie, there’s enough of a truth problem to make the whole field of scandal something that Christians ought to avoid, just for safety’s sake.

But we don’t. We’re as entertained by scandal as anyone. Especially if it reinforces our prejudices. If we don’t like a celebrity, or a politician, or an individual, we’re quick to believe any scandal we hear about them, even if it’s false. If we do like such people, we’re quick to reject any scandal we hear about them, even if it’s true. Either way, we spread or fight rumors based not on facts, not on truth, but on what we want to be true—i.e. our prejudices.

If the scandal isn’t a lie, it’s not a sin. It’s the truth. In some cases it’s even news. (Maybe not news that certain people approve of, but news nonetheless.) If the celebrity did cheat, it’s no sin to say so. What we do with that information, once we have it, could become sin—we could hate him, or enjoy his embarrassment or misery or the ruination of his marriage, or mock him, or otherwise do what Jesus wouldn’t: We might assume we’re morally superior, refuse to learn from his example, condemn instead of forgive, encourage destruction instead of restoration, and harm instead of heal.

Okay. Scandal aside, what the scriptures call “gossip” is another thing altogether. That’s a lack of trustworthiness. In life, you’re gonna have friends, and your friends are gonna want you to keep certain things to yourself. You know, secrets. And if you don’t keep those confidences, your friends will quickly learn to not trust you.

Most of these secrets are, to be blunt, dumb. They’re about embarrassing things. People are embarrassed by some of the dumbest things. I had a friend who was trying to quit smoking, and I let that fact slip out once. (I didn’t know he was trying to hide it, and thought his success was something to be proud of, actually.) He rebuked me for exposing what he considered an embarrassing weakness. This is the sort of thing I mean: All the foolish things that your friends are self-conscious about, that they’d prefer you say nothing about. Plus the bigger deals, like sins they’ve confessed, personal stories they’ve shared, and all that.

Some of those things can cause scandal: If a friend of mine has a crush on someone he ought not, and is hiding it because he knows it’s inappropriate, and I reveal it just so I can be entertained by the chaos that results, that’s evil. (And years ago I did exactly that.) If another friend comes to confess a sin—that she’s broken a rule at her place of employment, or is planning to cheat 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’ve become a gossip—following both the biblical and cultural senses of the word. I may not be lying, but I’ve violated a trust, which is just as much a sin.

Are there exceptions to violating confidentiality?

I’m not a Roman Catholic priest, so I’ve taken no oaths to keep confessions to me absolutely sealed. Nor am I a lawyer or doctor or therapist, bound by those forms of confidentiality.

As a schoolteacher, I was required to follow certain guidelines as to what I could keep to myself, and what I had to report to the state. I think those are solid guidelines, so I stick with them, and recommend them to others. In general they work this way:

  • I will not keep a secret when a felony has been committed. If you broke the law, I’m gonna advise you to turn yourself in; don’t make me turn you in. If you committed a crime, you need to make things right. If you didn’t, you need to help law enforcement find the actual criminals. Keeping secrets will only get you in worse trouble. (Both of us, really; you’ve made me an accessory.)
  • I will not keep a secret if someone is being, or will be, harmed. 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.
  • I will not keep a secret in cases of life-and-death emergencies. Saving lives trumps secrets every time.

The rest of the time, if I hear something that I think needs to not be a secret, I will say so—but I have no business revealing such secrets, and won’t. Like I said, people are self-conscious about some of the silliest things; they’re embarrassed for no good reason. So I encourage them to share. In some cases I have even forced them to, just so they’ll see that there’s no basis for their fears. But again: I have no business revealing their secrets, and they’re not going to grow in character if I tell on them. They need to tell on themselves. I need to keep my mouth shut.

So do you, when people share their secrets with you. If you’re going to develop any sort of solid relationship with others, people have to recognize you as trustworthy. They have to know that you can keep things confidential when necessary. Make clear your guidelines for when you won’t keep secrets. Then keep all the other ones.

And if you’re gonna share any of them with your spouse, you’d better make that clear too. Some people won’t mind if you talk to your spouse. Others will really mind… particularly if your spouse is a gossip. I once knew a campus pastor whose wife was completely untrustworthy. If you confided in him, he shared it with her, figuring he should be able to get his wife’s advice; it’s a reasonable assumption, right? But she quietly shared the juicier stories with her friends. It ruined his ministerial career.

What if the secrets are eating you alive?

There are two sorts of scenarios when keeping secrets will tear you up inside. Both, of course, have to do with sin.

The first is if you’re a giant gossip. If you’re keeping a secret, but you don’t want to because it’s so entertaining, that’s a serious character flaw on your part. People blab secrets because to them, knowledge is power, and this is the only power they feel they’re able to wield. If they can’t gossip, they feel they have nothing of value. Thing is, if they do gossip, they do have nothing of value: They’ve revealed themselves to be untrustworthy, and having shared their secrets, they’ve given away all their power. You need to find some other way to be valuable—a less destructive way. And you need to struggle with keeping that secret—and win that struggle. With God’s help, you certainly can.

The second is when keeping that secret is truly the wrong thing to do. That’s why there are things I won’t keep confidential. If I found out that my neighbor was beating her husband, and had promised to say absolutely nothing about it, I would be miserable every time I saw him bruised. And if he obligated me to help him cover up the problem, and lie about it—well, then I’d be sinning as well. I’d go nuts, and probably do something drastic that would only make things worse. No; there are some secrets you simply don’t keep. Any secret that leads you to sin is one that you ought not have.

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.

Back to the prayer requests.

Sometimes you’re going to want God’s help about certain things that you need to keep confidential. You might actually need to make a prayer request when you meet for group prayer. That’s fine. But you don’t need to reveal anything.

The gossips will reveal everything, on the grounds that we need to know what we’re praying about. That’s baloney. We don’t need to know a thing. All we need to know is that somebody needs God’s help, and that God can help that person. So if your friend Walter needs prayer, all you have to tell the prayer leader is, “Please pray for my friend Walter; he’s having a difficult time, and that’s all I can tell you.” A gossipy prayer leader might pry, but a wise prayer leader will say, “Okay,” and move on.

The other way you can present your prayer request is to make it anonymous. “Please pray for my friend, who’s going to the hospital for a biopsy and is very anxious about it.” Don’t give the person’s name or gender or any other identifying details. That way people will know exactly what to pray, although not who they’re praying for. (If someone blurts out, “I know who you’re talking about,” shut them up quickly: “Maybe you do, but I didn’t say because I’m trying to respect their privacy.” Most times that’s enough of a rebuke to keep people quiet.)

As far as clamping down on gossipy prayer requests: Gossips are not naïve. They know exactly what they’re doing. They’re over-sharing because they have a juicy story and want to share it, and in so doing they get the rush of attention, and the rush of getting this story out of their system. If you call them on their bad behavior, they may act like they don’t know what they’re talking about—as if they never meant to gossip. In some cases they’ve truly convinced themselves that it’s not gossip; it’s news. But they know they’ve been inappropriate.

So this phrase takes care of it quite well: “I don’t need to know that.”

Say it kindly. Repeat as many times as necessary until people get the point. Sometimes they’re dense and don’t get it right away. Sometimes they ignore you and plow right ahead. Sometimes it’s the leader of the prayer group that’s blabbing right along. In the worst-case scenario (and I’ve been there), it’s your pastor. Still: “I don’t need to know that.” And if you get in trouble for saying it, have folks explain why you do need to know that, and see if they can back their reasoning up with some scriptures. Betcha they can’t.

In my experience, the reason gossips run amok is because nobody ever calls them on their bad behavior. 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 are already bothering them. If you’re mistaken and people aren’t actually gossiping, it keeps you away from false accusations. And it also works on people who talk too much. It has a lot of uses.

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