It’s hard underestimate the power of words, and for me, fewer are as hard hitting as those spoken by Jesus in Matthew 12: 36-37
“I tell you, on the day of judgement, men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
And yet, barely a day goes by when I don’t have a “…probably shouldn’t have said that” moment. Ninety percent of the time I’m complaining about work; being tired, being overloaded…you get the picture. Whilst the utterance of these ‘careless’ words doesn’t necessarily pertain to serious sin, there remains that ten percent of the time where my “…probably shouldn’t have said that” becomes a “…definitely shouldn’t have said that” because I have spoken carelessly about another. If I reveal unnecessary information about a person or speak negatively about someone without due cause, then I’m guilty of a sin Pope Francis quite bluntly describes, as murder.
From a simple dislike of someone, to using information for self-advancement, many of us falsely rationalise gossip. As for myself I have been guilty of sharing information just to seem interesting, or exaggerating the flaws of others to seem less blameworthy. Whatever the intention, there is no such thing as innocent gossip. When we do it, we commit offences against the very thing we are called as Christians to live; the Truth. In 1 John 2:9 we are told that ‘he who says he is in the light but hates his brother is still in darkness’, and that ‘anyone who hates his brother is a murderer’.
This may sound harsh, but if we think about the effects of gossip it’s easy to see why it’s such a serious matter. The bible warns of slander and calumny many times. The recurring theme is usually that no act ever occurs in isolation; there is always a trigger and a consequence. In the Wisdom of Solomon 1:11 we are told to ‘beware of useless murmuring and keep your tongue from slander; because no secret word is without result, and a lying mouth destroys the soul’. This used to make me think I should spend the rest of my days in silence; but a priest once helped me think about it more clearly when he likened gossip to bursting open a feather pillow. All the feathers fly out in different directions, some remain near you, and others are carried out through the window and blown away with the wind. Just as it would be hard to retrace all the feathers, so it is with gossip. Once we say something, we lose control of that information and can never really know how it may be distorted and affect a person’s life.
There are of course instances where sharing information is necessary, but this requires careful consideration about what is shared, with whom and what our ultimate intention is. We don’t need to reveal the truth to someone who doesn’t have the right to know it.
So, ways to avoid idle words (and this doesn’t mean taking all the adjectives out of our sentences). We need to pray for the grace to be aware of them. Acts have a trigger as well as a consequence and if we recognise why we gossip, then we can nip it in the bud, and chose instead to respond or react with love. Jesus said one of the most important commandments is to love our neighbour as ourselves, and how many of us would be saddened to think of being misrepresented in the way we sometimes misrepresent others? Although the words of Christ are piercingly direct, we are given the tools and encouragement to use our words diligently, and be justified before him who is the Truth.