Gossip is not only a sin of the mouth, but also a sin of the ears. It takes two: the one who speaks and the one who listens. Reading or listening to gossip is not a different sin from speaking or spreading it, but simply the opposite side of the same sin. It’s a quarter whether it’s head or tails, a die whether it’s six or one, and gossip whether it’s spoken or heard. It’s as sinful to hear it without protest as to speak it without apology. As the children’s song warns, it’s “O be careful little mouth what you say” and ”O be careful little ears what you hear.”
The trouble, of course, is that we don’t always know it’s gossip until we’re in it up to our necks. And then, as we begin to acknowledge that growing sense of disquiet, it’s often unbearably awkward to interject and ask, “Is this gossip?” or “Do I really need to know this?” or “Did he give you permission to tell me this?” And so we allow ourselves to be party to this sin, to learn what we should not know, to quietly allow what we should steadfastly refuse.
We must not gossip, of course. We must not strike the fire that will soon burn out of control (James 3:6,8). We must refuse to be the kind of arsonists whose crime is not burning down buildings or forests but tearing down people and churches. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!”
But we must also prepare ourselves to douse the smouldering tinder, to respond to those who use us as fuel for their fire. This requires careful preparation.
We must be prepared to identify the first signs of fire and to take swift action against it. The only way to do this is to interject and ask questions. “Before you continue…” or “Let me just ask a quick question…” These questions may feel uncomfortable, but they guard against adding fuel to a great conflagration. They may be awkward, but Jesus never promised holiness would come without awkwardness. It’s better to blush than to sin.
And long before there’s even the first wisp of smoke, we must douse the tinder so it does not easily burst into flame in the first place. Dry terrain is easily set alight; unholy hearts are easily stirred to gossip. We need to admit that our hearts are dry wood that desperately want to be sparked into flame and we need to set our hearts away from gossip until we are satisfied that we no longer even want to hear it. Our sanctified hearts are meant to be the water-soaked firebreaks that stop the flames from ever spreading. A holy heart is inhospitable ground for sin to spread.
I often wish I could take back every word I have said about others that was unfair, unjust, unhelpful, or unnecessary. I often wish I could unhear so many of the things I’ve heard about others. But the road through life and the path to holiness goes only forward, so I repent and I forgive and I resolve by God’s grace to build up and not burn down, to guard my mouth and my ears alike, and to make gossip both unspeakable and unthinkable.