Why Gossip Tastes So Good But Is So Unhealthy

In conversation, bulldozing is a way of trying to force our viewpoint through without really engaging with people. Failure to listen is also a failure to actually engage with people. Another way we fail to engage is when we have a problem with someone, we talk about that person rather than to that person. This is just one more way that we fail to have the conversations we need to have. As Joseph Grenny, et al., noted in their book Crucial Conversations, “At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations—ones that we’re either not holding or not holding well.” Our society is filled with talk about people, but few people are actually talking to the people with whom they have an issue.

The Bible presents to us a different alternative. It’s basic default is that we should talk to the person that we have problems with. For example, Leviticus 19:17 says, “Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.” Jesus tells His followers, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Mt. 18:15). In Galatians 6:1, we read the same from the Apostle Paul, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” When we are concerned about someone, we should talk to that person.

Now, not every issue we have is on the level of what we read in Leviticus, Galatians, and Matthew. There are many lesser issues about which we are afraid to talk. We often struggle even confronting someone who disappointed us in some way, who talked to us in a way we did not like, or did not do something we may have wanted them to do. If the bias on major matters is to talk to the person, how much so on lesser matters?

Why Gossip Tastes So Good
In spite of the obvious benefit of talking directly to people, we often prefer to talk about people instead of to people. Why? Because gossip tastes so good. Proverbs 26:22 says, “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels, they go down to the inmost parts.” The Message translation and paraphrase makes it a bit stronger: “Listening to gossip is like eating cheap candy . . .”

Why does gossip taste so good?

1. It builds intimacy. When you share your problems about someone else, you feel connected to the person with whom you are sharing them. It builds a connection and a sort of friendship. As Dan Allender put it in his book Bold Love, “It is a tantalizing thrill to repeat words that simultaneously deepen our position of power in an inner ring while we exclude someone else from being part of the group–a double pleasure” (100).

2. It gives relief. One reason we want to share about our problems with other people is because they give us anxiety. Sharing with someone provides relief. That’s one reason people don’t talk to the person they have a problem with after talking about them. They have found relief by sharing it with you, so they don’t need to share it with the person they are concerned about.

3. It refocuses attention. When we talk about other people and their problems, we can avoid dealing with our own. Dealing with our own problems is difficult. Dealing with the problems of others can be a welcome diversion. It also can make us feel better about ourselves.

These and other reasons are why I call gossip the best way not to solve our problems. They do not really solve the issues about which we have anxiety, but they provide considerable relief.

So why not do it?

Why We Shouldn’t Eat It
In spite of the advantages of gossip, we should avoid it. There are many reasons.

1. It freezes the problem; it doesn’t solve it. It makes us feel better, so we are less likely to deal with the real problem. That’s why a community characterized by gossip often explodes. There are all sorts of unsolved issues there.

2. It often makes things worse. The more people talk about another person and not to a person, the more distorted it often becomes. This is like waving a fan over a fire. “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down” (Prov. 26:20). It just gets worse and worse, and communities quickly become polarized and stuck.

3. People don’t like it. “. . . a gossip separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28). When others find out about it, it often breaks down a friendship.

4. It’s unjust. Gossip generally reduces someone’s reputation without a just hearing. “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (Prov. 18:17). Gossip gives one side a hearing without giving the other side of the story.

5. It builds a false connection. Be sure that if someone is talking to you about others, they are talking to others about you. “The one who reveals secrets is a constant gossip” (Prov. 20:19).

6. God’s authority. The Bible forbids it: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people” (Lev. 19:16). This means that we should not go about talking about others and listening to and sharing reports about what other people have done. The idea instead is: “Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.”

So, there are many reasons not to engage in it or to eat that cheap candy.

A Couple of Questions
The question people have is, what if I need advice on how to deal with someone? Well, gossip is often couched in a request for “advice.” The question I would ask is this. Is asking for advice merely release and relief, or is it seeking real advice?

Here’s how you know. First, does the person giving you advice challenge you as well as encourage you? If they just encourage you, you are not interested in advice. Get advice from those who will help you take a look at your own behavior. Second, does the “advice” ever manifest itself in you actually talking to the person with whom you have a problem? If not, then it’s not advice.

A second question people ask is, what if people come to me seeking “advice” about other people? What should I do? I recommend being willing to listen and encourage and challenge that person. However, I think it is also good to say up front that you will most likely encourage them to talk to the person, and, if they do not, then you may do so. This will change the tenor of the conversation.

Think about it, should I keep just one side of a story in my head and not allow another person to give their side of the story? Even with the best of motivations, this often ends up in distortion and unjust view of another person. It’s better to give all sides their hearing. This is how we move the community forward.

A third question is, what if I find out people are gossiping about me? My advice is, don’t worry about it too much. There is a great little passage in the book of Ecclesiastes. It says, “Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others” (7:21–22). That attitude will serve you well. Most people just don’t know how to actually deal with problems directly. We should be patient with others and ourselves.

Gossip is a part of life. We can’t avoid it. But we can be more deliberate about our involvement in it. If we can learn to talk less about people and more to people, we will make a great contribution to building up the communities in which we are involved in.

What are your thoughts on this? I would love to read them in the comments below. If you like what is written here and want to read more, subscribe below (mobile) or on the sidebar (laptop). Thank you for taking the time to read this article.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

10 Quotes Reflecting on Christian Counseling

A few years back, in the process of working on my Doctor of Ministry, I read numerous books on Christian counseling. These were books on the theory of counseling and its application to specific issues. How do we engage and talk to people in such a way that helps people move forward to what God has called them to be? These are deep waters. Here are a few of my favorite quotes that I still reflect on with links to the books from which they came as I think about how to help myself and others move onward and upward, processing the past well, living well in the present, and having hope for the future.

1. “Tragedy always moves our story forward in a way that shalom could never accomplish” (Dan Allender, To Be Told, 44). My comment: think of the great stories of the heroes of the world and the faith. They experience great challenges, but they rise to meet them. This is one way to re-think the challenges and hurts we have faced in our own lives.

2. “It takes a lifetime to discover exactly how our past shapes our future so we can live wholeheartedly and passionately in the present, but we can begin. We can seize the present with greater insight and vision” (Dan Allender, The Healing Path, 185). My comment: I did a lot of reflecting on my past when I studied these books. Five years later, the insights continue to come and help me engage better in the present. Note: you can see some of the directions I explored with this here.

3. “[I]n this life we must recognize that we will inevitably experience disappointments, pain, and a lack of complete relational satisfaction. When we stop fighting this reality and become willing to accept it, we can be free to move into the world with a real sense of purpose and direction” (Harry Schaumburg, False Intimacy: Understanding the Struggle of Sexual Addiction, 99). My comment: this seems almost obvious when you say it, but how easily do we begin to think that we will avoid pain and disappointment? Happiness in this life will not be found by eliminating pain and disappointments but by finding a way to live with them. Continue reading “10 Quotes Reflecting on Christian Counseling”

What’s Wrong with the Family?

The family can be one of life’s greatest blessings.

One of my favorite family memories was when over 100 descendants of my Great-Grandparents Clarence and Roberta Keith gathered together for a family reunion in 2014. It was a time of love, encouragement, faith, and fun. I went away refreshed and renewed.

But we don’t always leave family gatherings that way. Family can also inflict some of the deepest wounds.

So many families seem stuck in patterns that are harmful and hurtful rather than helpful and encouraging.

Is there any way out of these family problems?

In order to understand the way out, I think we first need to understand what creates, freezes, and intensifies family problems.

My basic thesis is this. Problems always exist, but blaming others freezes or intensifies family problems. Taking responsibility for one’s own functioning promotes family healing.

Think about it. If we blame other people, there’s very little we can do about it. Our options are limited because our ability to change others is rather limited. On the other side, though it’s not easy to change ourselves, it can be done. If we are to change the way the family relates, then taking responsibility for our own functioning is our best option.

I believe that this is illustrated in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Genesis shows us that blaming others freezes or intensifies family problems and that when one member takes responsibility for his or her own functioning, there is opportunity for family healing.

Take our first father Adam as an example. The occasion of the family problem was that he did exactly what God told him not to. At that point, he could have taken responsibility. He could have confessed his own sin and apologized to God and his family.

Instead, he blamed his wife. “The woman You gave me . . .” He introduced division into the relationship with his wife by placing the responsibility for the wrong squarely on her shoulders. Remember that Eve did have a role in this, but what Adam ignored was his own role. This brought alienation and shame into the family.

The seriousness of this pattern can be clearly seen in the next generation. God accepted the sacrifice of Abel, Adam and Eve’s son, but not the sacrifice of their other son Cain. The problem was between God and Cain, but what did Cain do? He blamed Abel. The end result was that Cain killed Abel and refused to take responsibility for the murder, even when confronted by God. In this case, blaming intensified the family problem.

One more example of blaming. God promised to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son, but it took a long time. Women often feel and at that time certainly felt that childlessness was a threat to their identity, and so no doubt Sarah felt very anxious about it. Then, she had to wait many childless years for God’s promise of a child to be fulfilled. No doubt this increased her anxiety. In the midst of this, she came up with a solution that was common in the day but contrary to God’s design (see my article on God’s design for the family ): for Abraham to have a child with her servant Hagar.

The results were predictable. Hagar got pregnant. She begin to see herself as “above” Sarah. Sarah got upset. She blamed Abraham: “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering” (Gen. 16:5). Let’s be clear: Abraham was responsible. He did wrong, but Sarah also did wrong. Blaming only made the situation worse, and it continued to be an issue in the family passing over into the next generation in the relationship between Isaac (Sarah’s son) and Ishmael (Hagar’s son).

When we blame others for the family problems, we freeze them in place or make them worse.

Is there any hope for better?

The answer is, “yes.” Even though the curse introduced family enmity, God had promised something better for Abraham. He would bless him and in his seed “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” God was going to change the family situation.

And how does God bless the families of the earth? Through individuals. By His grace, He enables one person or more persons to act differently and take responsibility for their own functioning. This can begin to shift the family dynamics and bring hope for healing and change. I will flesh this out in my article next week.

For now, it’s worth considering? Where is my family stuck? Where am I subtly or not so subtly blaming the family for the situation and freezing it in place or making it worse? Could I do something to change the dynamics of the family?