Posted by: Mike Willoughby | April 27, 2011

Relationship Matters (Damaging Words)

As I prepared my thoughts for this article, I thought of the few things in this life that have the power to simultaneously do tremendous good or tremendous harm.  Atomic energy came to mind.  An atomic fission reaction can power a clean energy power plant that supplies power to millions of homes or it can trigger a hydrogen bomb that can kill millions.  The human tongue also came to mind.  The human tongue = power plant or a nuclear bomb?  Within our relationships, the tongue is absolutely the equivalent of a tremendous source of power for good or for destruction.  I don’t think the analogy is a stretch.

James had this to say about the power of the tongue in James 3:5-10:

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

The key scripture for this series from Titus 3:1-8 reads simply, “speak evil of no one.”  This kind of evil speech is known as gossip or slander and is designed to tear another person down with rumors, falsehoods and innuendo.  This is not the same thing has offering true testimony in a situation where someone needs to be protected.  This difference is clearly stated in Leviticus 19:16.

Don’t be a gossip, but never hesitate to speak up in court, especially if your testimony can save someone’s life. (CEV)

This difference between gossip and testimony is sometimes confusing especially for teenagers whose cardinal rule is “never rat out your friends.”  Parents understand it’s sometimes necessary to “rat out” your friends when their behavior or choices pose a danger to them and their friends.  As parents we warn our children to watch who they associate with because we want to protect them from danger.  We may even warn them against hanging with a specific individual because of that individual’s activities.  This is not the same as the gossip that God warns against because our motive is to protect our kids.  However, even in these situations we must be very careful to say no more than absolutely necessary.  There’s a fine line between gossip and testimony and the difference is in the factual nature of the information provided AND the intentions of the one speaking. 

Think this is an important issue?  Pay attention to the warning Jesus gives us in Matthew 12:36-37:

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

When we are speaking about other people in any context, I believe we must use “filters” in our speech in order to avoid being guilty of gossip or slander.  First any information we pass on in a conversation must consist of verified facts.  Providing defamatory information about a person to a third party that is not factual is slander.  Just because you heard something from someone you believe to be reliable does not mean the information they provide is factual.  Facts must be witnessed first-hand or verified by two or preferably three first-hand witnesses.  If information cannot be verified, do not pass that information along and a word of warning to the speaker is in order.

The second “filter” we should use is honestly evaluating our motivation in providing information regardless of whether the information is factual.  If my intention is to damage the individual, I should keep my mouth shut.  Motives for gossip include the attempt to elevate oneself by lowering someone else, the “thrill” of being the first to provide some tantalizing piece of news, satisfying a deep-seated insecurity by becoming the center of “positive” attention while calling attention to the negative aspects of someone else or simple vengeance for some real or perceived wrong done by the individual.  Regardless of the motive, the result is the same – damage to another.  As James said, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”

 Gossip is a central tool for the bully whether the setting is the schoolyard or the corporate coffee bar.  It is encouraging to see movements such as Rachel’s Challenge dealing straight-up with the insidious damage caused by bullying behavior including gossip.  Aimed at schools, businesses and other organizations, Rachel’s Challenge seeks to replace chain reactions of negativity and violence with chain reactions of compassion and positive encouragement.  The movement is named for Rachel Scott, one of the students killed during the Columbine High School shooting.  The shooting is believed to have been motivated by the reaction of the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to the persistent bullying they received at school.  Do you think my nuclear bomb analogy of the destructive power of the tongue is a stretch in light of the damage done at Columbine High School?

In stark contrast to the destructive hatred of a gossip and a bully, Rachel believed in the positive power of a loving individual.  She wrote:

I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion then it will start a chain reaction of the same.

This week, let’s take up Rachel’s challenge and begin by stopping the gossip and slander that so easily slips off the tongue.  Let us “speak evil of no one.”  Even if we don’t take the next step and speak positively and lovingly about others, we will at least be doing no harm.  That is a good first step!

Until next week,

Meet me at the intersection!

Previous Intersections Articles

Relationship Matters (Attitude of Service) Relationship Matters Hope is a Strategy! (Part 3)

Copyright © 2011 Michael Willoughby. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to author and/or owner with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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