Christians aren't generally fuzzy on the concept of gossip. We know it's wrong; Paul talks about 'no corrupting talk' coming out of our mouths (Ephesians 4:29), James warns that the tongue is 'set on fire by hell' (James 3:10), and Jesus himself says that 'what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person' (Matthew 15:11). We all know that gossip is damaging, ugly and a mark of immature character.
Yet perhaps more than any other sin, gossip seems to be a challenge which the majority of Christians struggle with on some level. Often it happens unintentionally, as a positive or neutral conversation strays unexpectedly into more controversial territory. Sometimes it happens because we're angry, or even feeling vengeful – which is perhaps a different issue. But almost stereotypically, often gossip between Christians take place under the guise of an apparently helpful and well-intentioned conversation.
It's a little bit of a standing joke: two busybody Christians meet and discuss the things that they should be praying for in their community – a list which just happens to include painstakingly detailed news of Helen and Geoff's marital breakdown and Simon losing his job. While perhaps it doesn't quite happen as starkly as this, often we can find ourselves releasing or seeking information about others in our conversations, under the auspices of concern and a desire to pray or otherwise intervene. If we're really honest, these conversations are usually very enjoyable – exciting even. Who doesn't love being in on a secret, or hearing the juicy details of other people's lives?
Yet we hold this in tension with the first point: we're absolutely aware that gossip is wrong. That's the problem with sin – it usually is quite enjoyable (at least on a very base level) – and we have to decide to ignore the temptation to do it. In the case of gossip, transgressing that boundary is usually effortless, and often without any obvious consequence. It's a really easy trap to fall into.
For that reason, we need to have a line: a way of measuring whether a conversation is in the territory of helpful discussion, or gossip. Perhaps there are just a few questions we can ask – in our heads – before we allow that effortless mistake to be made:
1. Would I want the person to know I was talking about them like this?
This is a great acid test for all conversation about others. How would we change what we're saying if they were present alongside us as we spoke? Would we radically alter the tone and content, or would we actually choose to say nothing at all? Of course in many cases, the answer will be that you'd be very happy to say exactly the same set of words. If so, it's likely you're not gossiping. Now, the fact that you wouldn't be prepared to say exactly the same thing if the person were present isn't a foolproof way of spotting gossip – it still might not be, and the conversation might still be valid for the person's own good – but it's a strong indicator.
2. How am I feeling about the person I'm talking about?
The next thing to question is your own current feelings about the subject of your conversation. Have they annoyed, frustrated or upset you, or wronged you in some other way? Are you actually secretly quite pleased at some mistake they've made, or piece of bad news heading their way? If so, there's a good chance that this is not about a genuine concern for their welfare. Conversely, if a little bit of soul searching leads you to realise that you're feeling very positive about that person, and want the best for them, then this is probably a helpful conversation.
3. What is the outcome of my sharing this information?
Finally, a really important question is what you want and expect to happen as a result of your conversation. In an age of slackitivist #prayer hashtags, obtaining a prayer request doesn't always equate to a subsequent time of prayer. A healthy conversation about others should always lead to some sort of positive outcome for those who are being spoken about, whether that's genuine sympathy, a plan of how to help, or actually stopping to actually pray for them. If instead, all that happens is you feel a bit excited or smug to be 'in the know', then what you're engaging in is probably gossip in some form or another.
Gossip is a sneaky thing. It ensnares us when we're not even thinking; trips us up even when we're otherwise in a spiritually healthy place. Keeping these three rules in mind won't gossip-proof our hearts and minds by any means. But they might just be a useful tool to draw on, next time someone asks us to share a bit of someone else's news, 'for prayer'.
Martin Saunders is a contributing editor for Christian Today and the deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.