Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Gossip and Innuendo

"A gossip betrays a confidence,
so avoid a man who talks too much."
Proverbs 20:19

The Hebrew word for gossip literally means "one who reveals secrets", a "tale-bearer" and "an informer". He is someone who goes around spreading stories, creating doubts about other people's character, and undermining reputations. Gossipers speak of the faults and failings of others and reveal potentially embarrassing or shameful details regarding the lives of others without their knowledge or approval.

Perhaps the best example of this type of person comes from J.R.R. Tolkien's character Gríma, better known as Wormtongue. Grima, once a faithful servant of King Théoden, fell in league with the evil wizard Saruman. Using the power of his tonque, he eventually enslaved Théoden in a web of deceit, innuendo, and lies.  Tolkien's decision to name this character Gríma was no accident. A master of ancient languages, Tolkien knew this Old English and Icelandic word meant "mask", and Gríma Wormtongue was a master as masking gossip as truth and betrayal as friendship.

The book of Proverbs has a long list of verses that discuss the dangers of gossip and the damage gossip causes. Proverbs 18:8 tells us "the words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's inward parts". There is something inside all human beings that loves hearing tasty tidbits of negative news about others. Like a radio dialed into a specific frequency, we naturally focus in on anything that sounds like "tale-bearing".

Yet gossip is perhaps most dangerous when it is subtly delivered. Kent Hughes, in his book Disciplines of a Godly Man, says that gossip is a cousin to innuendo. He goes on to tell the story of a ship's first mate who, after a drunken binge, was written up by the captain in the ship's log: "mate drunk today". Some months later the first mate got his revenge with a subtle entry of his own in the log: "captain sober today". So, with the power of a word unsaid, an awkward silence, a raised eyebrow, or a quizzical look, we can disparage another human being and caste doubt upon their reputation.

Jesus is calling us to live, and speak, differently. Ephesians tells us to "let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but only that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to those who hear it" (4:29). Even more directly, we are commanded to "get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander...." The Apostle James gives this command: "Brothers, do no speak against one another" (James 4:11). Notice that he forbids any speech which intends to run down someone else, even if it is totally true.

The words we choose, and even the innuendo we caste, are powerful things. They either tear down or they encourage and build up.  God hates one and loves the other. Which will you practice?

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