Words can be harmful sometimes. I remember hearing that old rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” back in the 3rd or 4th grade and for the longest time I believed them. But as high school came and went, I began to doubt the truth within that rhyme. I agree, words alone cannot harm someone physically, but they can do even greater damage emotionally or spiritually.
I’ve written several things about taming the tongue or about the severity our words have in light of living like Jesus, but I often feel like it’s still overlooked in the mainstream of Christianity. Some might think that I’m specifically referring to cuss words or foul language, but I’m not. I’m also addressing crude language or judgmental language – basically any kind of language that is sinful or causes one to sin. And one element of language I find significantly difficult to keep control over is the area of slander.
Scripture seems pretty clear on slander and gossip. Proverbs 10:18b says, “Whoever utters slander is a fool,” which is a pretty direct statement. But what is slander? Is it any time you’re talking about someone when they’re not around? If that’s the case, then I’m guilty of slander at least a dozen times a day. But this isn’t what slander is; slander is when you talk about someone in a manner that degrades their integrity, typically when they aren’t around to defend themselves.
There have been a number of times when I’ll be talking to a friend about someone else in a negative way that will change my friend’s perspective of that person entirely. “Oh, I never knew they were like that” or “I thought that person was better than that” are phrases I’ve heard that indicate to me when I’ve been gossiping a little too much. Sometimes I don’t even pick up on it until long after I’ve had the conversation with the friend.
It’s especially hard in America to not slander or gossip because much of our society seems to encourage it. Entire newspapers, magazines and TV networks are dedicated to finding out all the dirty gossip of celebrities or athletes with the sole purpose of exposing every bit of their lives that they possibly can. Honestly, I’m glad I’m not a celebrity. But just because I find it difficult to avoid slander and gossip, doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible. In fact, the solution is quite simple: Just shut up.
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”– Proverbs 10:19
I think the best way to avoid slander is to not say anything about the person(s) at all. And here I’m reminded of another phrase I learned as a kid; “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” It might seem cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason; because it’s exceedingly helpful. When you don’t say anything bad about a person, you don’t open up the opportunity for transgression. You don’t enable the possibility of their feelings being hurt, of their integrity being tarnished, or of you sinning. Sure, you have to say might be true, but that doesn’t mean you should say it.
An example might be when someone sins against you. Let’s say your roommate stole money from you while you were doing your laundry or while you were just away from your wallet. And let’s say that you absolutely know it was your roommate who took that money. Would it be right if you updated your Facebook status with, “My roommate stole $40 from my wallet this morning,” or go around to your small group of friends and talk about how your roommate regularly steals from you? No, that would be uttering slander and rendering yourself a fool, according to Proverbs 10:18. In Jesus’ instruction on forgiving others, there’s a tidbit of information that I think tends to go overlooked; “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone,” – Matthew 18:15.
It doesn’t even have to be a situation where your friend or brother or sister or roommate has sinned against you. It could just be a sinful habit you notice in another person that you should probably keep to yourself or at the most, between you and him or her alone. “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends,” – Proverbs 17:9. A thought that has helped me with my struggle of slandering has been this; what if God told everyone about my sins? Certainly He knows all of my sins and if He wanted them to be revealed, He could. But He doesn’t display my sins for all to see, so why should I do so with my friends or coworkers or roommates or classmates?
God shows His love for us by the things that He does do and also the things that He doesn’t do. He doesn’t pour His wrath down upon us with lightning bolts or acid rain. He doesn’t pull the plug on our lifespan. And He doesn’t gossip about us while we aren’t there. It’s possible to speak critically of one’s work or what one does, but to speak about that person in such a way that degrades their integrity or their character is not at all Godly. Not only is it sinful, but it’s also harmful. Finding out that people have been talking about you behind your back is one of the most emotionally-damaging things to a person. It might cause them to trust absolutely no one and to retreat within themselves. Words can harm you just as much as your words can harm someone else.
The most helpful passage from Scripture on the issue is James 1:19; “Be quick to hear, slow to speak.” If you hear a rumor or have the ability to start one, think of what your words might do to the person(s) being rumored about. Would that rumor degrade their integrity? Would it cause emotional damage? Usually, if the answer is yes to either of these, then it’s probably slander. And if you have trouble discerning what the answer to those questions might be, play it safe and keep it a secret. One person’s sin is not made better by another person’s sin.
Here’s my revised version of the little kid’s rhyme;
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
And your words may tear my heart,
But my cheek will turn,
While your anger burns,
Until my soul departs.
**I wrote it simply because we all know words can actually hurt.