So last night I met up with an old friend I hadn't seen in a while, and of course, in the process of catching up on everything we'd been up to over the past twelve years, she told me about some things that had happened between herself and a mutual acquaintance.
Now I use the term "mutual acquaintance" loosely, because while that person - let's call him Peter - is a friend of some sort to several people I know, I've only met him perhaps once, and then it was of the most insignificant, fleeting nature. He'd had some sort of negative impact on me in the past, but either it was so long ago, or of such a vague nature, or both, that I can't even remember now what it was he did.
However, because Peter knows a few of my own friends, I'd heard enough about him to confirm the negative impression I'd had of him over the years. I'm ashamed to admit that on the odd occasions his name would crop up in my conversations with friends, I'd mentally shake my head, or smirk, or snort, or all three at once.
So anyway, last night my girlfriend told me some things about Peter which, I'm afraid to say, included the word "psycho". And so of course you can imagine me doing the mental head-shake-snort-smirk thing, the whole time I'm listening to the gory details. Naturally, my girlfriend noticed my expression, and asked how I'd known Peter was, indeed, a "psycho".
And as soon as I opened my mouth to say that yeah, I'd always had a negative impression of him ya-di-ya-di-ya, I felt the Holy Spirit convict me. Isn't it Psalm 34 that says, "Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit". Or Proverbs 16 that says, "A perverse man sows strife, and a whisperer separates close friends".
Anxiously, I tried to salvage the situation, by backtracking and saying that I couldn't even remember what Peter had done to me, and that really, most of my feelings were based on hearsay, but of course it all just added to the unfortunate picture we were painting. Because by just looking negative, I'd only confirmed what my girlfriend already thought, and encouraged her to share even more; I'd done nothing in all fairness to help Peter, or to help repair the hurt between the two.
Since starting to walk more closely with God, I've really been trying my best to curb negative, judgmental thoughts and words about others. Sometimes that would entail stopping mid-sentence to literally slap myself and admit to the person I'm talking with that I'd just had a mean thought or was about to say a mean thing.
However, as most of us know, "Gossip is so tasty — how we love to swallow it!" (Prov 18:8). I mean, goodness, people actually publish gossip, and they sell like hotcakes off the newsstand. What is it that makes us talk of, or listen to, the faults and failings of others? Why do we judge and criticise, as if doing so somehow makes us feel or look better? "But I tell you, on the day of judgment men will have to give account for every idle (inoperative, nonworking) word they speak" (Matt 12:36).
It takes a real, conscious effort to refrain from indulging in gossip, or unkind, judgmental thoughts and words. Gossip is so subtle isn't it - we usually substitute it with words like "caring", "worry" or "concern". When we ask our friends to share their stories, or information about people or situations, I think we really need to check our intent and objectives. Are we really hoping to help, or comfort, or heal? Or are we simply being malicious, mean, idle, or plain nosy?
"Let no foul or polluting language, nor evil word nor unwholesome or worthless talk [ever] come out of your mouth," Paul writes in Ephesians 4, "but only such [speech] as is good and beneficial to the spiritual progress of others, as is fitting to the need and the occasion, that it may be a blessing and give grace (God's favor) to those who hear it".
In Romans 1, Paul speaks of those who have rejected God and embraced a sinful lifestyle:
"And so, since they did not see fit to acknowledge God or approve of Him or consider Him worth the knowing, God gave them over to a base and condemned mind to do things not proper or decent but loathsome,
"Until they were filled (permeated and saturated) with every kind of unrighteousness, iniquity, grasping and covetous greed, and malice. [They were] full of envy and jealousy, murder, strife, deceit and treachery, ill will and cruel ways. [They were] secret backbiters and gossipers,
"Slanderers, hateful to and hating God, full of insolence, arrogance, [and] boasting; inventors of new forms of evil, disobedient and undutiful to parents.
"[They were] without understanding, conscienceless and faithless, heartless and loveless [and] merciless.
"Though they are fully aware of God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them themselves but approve and applaud others who practice them" (Rom 1:28-32).
It's horrible to realise that backbiters, gossipers and slanderers are hateful to God; murder, yes, but bad-mouthing? Yet by no stretch of the imagination, one can easily see how gossip feeds enmity, contempt, spite - or worse. How often do we check our hearts for ill-will, cruelty or lovelessness? And how can we walk in love, or make the world a better place, if we keep going around saying such-and-such about so-and-so? For "with his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor" (Prov 11:9).
And oh man, what do I find in my devotional when I get home? "The Critical Mind". And the quoted verse? "[My] brethren, do not speak evil about or accuse one another. He that maligns a brother or judges his brother is maligning and criticizing the Law and judging the Law. But if you judge the Law, you are not a practicer of the Law but a censor and judge [of it].
"One only is the Lawgiver and Judge Who is able to save and to destroy [the One Who has the absolute power of life and death]. [But you] who are you that [you presume to] pass judgment on your neighbor?" (James 4:11-12, from Battlefield of the Mind devotional, by Joyce Meyer).
Of course, I am certainly not going to repeat anything of what my girlfriend told me, and, with regard to the Peters in my life: "Set a guard, O Lord, before my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips" (Ps 141:3).