When I started out in the working world, my older sister gave me some advice about gossip. She said I should never say anything to anyone that I would not say in front of the entire office.
Sad to say, I did not always follow her advice. Over the years I have found myself in the confessional on numerous occasions because I hurt others while gossiping. There’s something exquisitely painful–and rightfully so–about being caught spreading gossip.
Gossip is sin against the 8th commandment: do not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Gossip is an Easy Trap
This sin can easily get women side-tracked in the spiritual life because of our inclination to gossip. Not that men don’t gossip, they do. But, let’s be honest, generally speaking, we women like to talk. Once in a sociology class, I learned a possible theory for this. As cultures developed, the men went out to hunt, often alone. If they were with others, they had to be quiet so as not to alert their prey. Meanwhile, the women were back at the village in a group, taking care of the children, washing clothes, cooking, and talking. Makes sense to me!
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What St. James Says about Gossip
In chapter three of the Epistle of St. James, he clearly points out that the tongue “while a small member” can be devious and hurtful, wreaking havoc on our relationships. Gossip going non-stop at the water cooler, over tea in the kitchen, or when we’re plied with a few glasses of wine, can lead to sin. Gossip may consist of a single, passing comment or observation. But much more likely, it’s a detailed gab-fest about another person. (This is different from discussing a person or situation if we are seeking guidance. But we cannot use that opportunity to tear someone down.)
Gossip Leads to Other Sin
We may sometimes use the premise of asking for prayers for a person, which is good in and of itself. Except that, once the conversation gets going, it can devolve into unkind, judgmental remarks. Gossiping can lead to other sins: sharing private information that was confided to us; judging another person; embellishing the story; enjoying being in the spotlight because we know the scoop. These are offshoots of gossip that add to our culpability.
If we know we are habitually gossiping when we’re around a certain group, we may need to take a stand. Perhaps we are being called to offer fraternal correction. When our conscience is bothering us about gossiping, maybe we will need to simply explain to our friend or group that we know it’s wrong and are trying not to do it. We’re not blaming the group, the person, or trying to be “holier than Thou.” We are taking responsibility for our own actions. Some of our friends may feel the same way and will appreciate us taking the lead.
Prepare Ahead of Time
We can also help ourselves resist gossip by praying for the grace to be prepared ahead of time. Have a few comebacks ready: “I don’t know anything about it,” or, “I have enough of my own problems to figure out,” or, “I find that hard to believe.”
Making a positive comment about the person or defending them may take courage at first. But it can also bring the conversation back up to an appropriate level of charity.
Another practical tactic is diversion: “Oh look–there’s a hummingbird!” and then quickly change the subject. Or find an excuse to walk away. Let’s work harder to stop being givers of gossip. In this case, let’s not talk the talk.
The Golden Rule
One of the most telling comments of St. James comes later in the chapter. “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God.”
If we put those words to prayer and work on making it part of our spiritual tool kit, we can start to overcome our tendency to talk about others.
Although I am not always successful, I continue to work on overcoming the sin of gossip. But with God’s grace, I have learned to gauge conversations a little more insightfully and to think before I speak. A quote I committed to memory many years ago helps to keep it real:
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Lord, make my words both tender and sweet in case I might have to eat them.
Patty Price is a wife, mother, and grandmother. A catechist for many years, she enjoys teaching the Faith, gardening, reading, and keeping up with her four grandchildren.