Have You Heard? The Story of Gossip
by Jane de Glint
Have you heard the story of my friend? I'll tell you.
My friend is a teacher, and as such a bit of a public figure. His outstanding teaching performance, however, does not really suffice to explain the public curiosity about him. It is his bachelorhood that adds the spice. How intriguing: a single teacher in his late forties. Someone to keep an eye on!
It so happened that a mature-aged, single nurse moved into his congregation. The next biweekly church bulletin announced her arrival, duly noting that she had taken up residence at an apartment on Wright Street. Wright Street? Wasn't that where the unmarried teacher lived? It was immediately clear to all alert observers that this coincidence could lead to interesting twists as well as to immoral complications. Nobody was going to say anything, but, well, you never know, this was definitely something to keep an eye on!
The presumed relationship of my friend with the nurse became a dependable topic of conversation. One morning a group of ladies was celebrating a birthday. The aunt of the neighbor of the brother of the single nurse chanced to be there. Quite naturally the conversational flow entered the private life of my friend. "I am not sure," the aunt pronounced, "but I think that his apartment number is the same as hers." She looked around, relishing her triumph. In the suspicious minds of the coffee drinkers the possibility turned into a reality: the teacher lives with the nurse. Oh. Terrible! Outrageous! Unethical!
One of the partygoers was married to the clerk of the consistory. Discretely she waited till all the children were in bed before she approached her husband. "Dear," she confided, "this morning I heard that the new nurse actually lives with the teacher. I think the consistory should know."
Conscientiously the man made a mental note. At the next consistory meeting he informed the brothers of the fact that the addresses of the teacher and the nurse were one and the same. A charged silence followed. No one questioned it. The chairman expressed his bewilderment at the teacher's lack of professionalism and discretion. Everyone agreed that the ward elder should pay a visit as soon as possible.
The very next day the ward elder dropped in on the teacher. He had decided not to phone ahead, since advance notice would provide the "couple" with ample time for a cover-up. Was the teacher surprised to open the door to Mr. J.! He did not even realize right away that Mr. J. was his ward elder. Even when Mr. J. informed him that the consistory had taken note of the new nurse's address, he had no idea why someone came to tell him that.
"Where is she?" Mr. J. demanded. Suddenly my friend's mind made a few leaps. In a flash the picture became painfully clear to him. Fortunately (for my friend) he is a bit of a Robin Hood. With mischievous pleasure he suggested that they should look for her. Together they checked the spare bedroom, they ventured into the storage room, they inspected the couch. No sign of the nurse. "Do you want to check under my bed?" my friend proposed, opening the door to his private room with an inviting swing.
Puzzled and disappointed Mr. J. left the apartment. "If you want to find her," my friend suggested roguishly, "check number 307 in the building down the road." Closing the door, he gleefully observed how his visitor turned around to have a good look at the unit number beside his door.
Slowly my friend returned to his stack of notebooks. A gentle smile spread across his face. With peace in heart he spoke softly, "A good wife who can find?"
This is the story of my friend. It is a love story: it illustrates my friend's great love for his Lord and for his neighbor. But it is also a hate story: with delicate strokes it paints all the subtle and intricate contortions of gossip.
Everyone can fall into the trap of gossip. The story makes that clear. At first I was not sure whether I should include the consistory's involvement with the falsehood. Yet, particularly that part of the story shows how people can get entangled in the lie with the best of intention and with bits of integrity. The clerk's wife waited till the children were in bed. The clerk himself did not tell anyone till the consistory meeting. The consistory decided to send someone to my friend. All good and thoughtful things. But, strangely, no one, not even the clerk, verified the information. The story was assumed to be true. It made sense.
And that is possibly the single most insidious aspect of gossip. It contains a kernel of truth. It is based on facts. It is believed and perpetrated, because it is in line with what is generally known. It does make sense, as it seems to follow logically from undisputable truths.
However, the facts are dished up with a helping of fabrication. Sometimes a few sensational details are added for good measure. At other times some incorrect conclusions are drawn, which are conveniently not confirmed with the person under gossip. In the story of my friend it was concluded that his apartment number was the same as the nurse's. Anyone with a church list and some common sense could have checked that. But no one did.
This begs the question. Why was the story so readily accepted? It was not because anyone had something against the teacher. Actually, it was a case of good gossip, if there could be such a thing. The teacher was respected and appreciated. As far as the nurse is concerned, she played a supporting role. She only served to shed an exciting light on the bachelor. The story was believed and embellished because we humans thrive on juicy tidbits. A dedicated teacher is nice, but boring. An unmarried, middle-aged educator who makes room in his house for an unattached female is so much more appealing to the sinful human soul. And even though it was a case of good gossip, the concoction of truth and falsehood was potentially harmful to the reputation of my friend.
Good gossip is an exception. Most cases of gossip are bad and very harmful. To say it more succinctly, bad gossip is meant to harm. With the intent to do damage the truth is twisted. Some supposed facts are added. A few arbitrary conclusions are drawn. And there you have a believable story which will break down the reputation of a neighbor. With his good name in the gutter he is liable to be stepped on by the rest of the world. He might never be able to clean himself completely. Gossip dirt sticks. At best it leaves stains and scars.
Though there are many reasons for gossip, jealousy ranks at the top. When our neighbor's achievements are out of reach, we can try to bring them down with slander. This process can be so subtle that often we do not realize it is taking place. Naturally sinful we still kill our brother. If someone outshines us, we have the tendency to snuff out his light.
Sensationalism follows a close second. We do not only want to kill our neighbor, but we also delight in his sin. Even if the stories are repulsive, we still enjoy them. We are not any better than the Romans who were entertained by the slaughter of humans by lions. The more gore, the better. Taking sinful pleasure in the sins of our neighbor, we increase our guilt by coloring his supposed fall with the darkest dye.
The third reason for gossip lies in every man's instinctive desire to hide his own sins. When someone else's misery is placed in public view, no one will notice our own derailment. From our shady hiding place we can gloatingly join the snickering.
Sadly, in too many cases it is not a neighbor who becomes the target of vilification, but a friend. Within the bond of friendship people confide in each other. Regrettably, some relationships are not founded on true brotherly love, but on self-interest. When such a shallow friendship turns sour, all the intimate details become potential public ammunition. The personal information is now up for slander. It can be quoted out of context. It can be mixed with bunk. It can be used as proof for allegations. This situation can lead to overwhelming grief, since the pain of being slandered intensifies the hurt of the lost friendship.
It is tempting to fight slander with slander. Plotting vicious counterattacks we shall trample our enemy underfoot! Pray, fervently pray, that such an attitude may not prevail. It is self-destructive. It sacrifices our spiritual peace to our need for revenge. We must leave the revenge to the Lord.
As we relinquish our need to get even, we gain the peace of the Spirit. In the hands of the Lord we are free from the threat of self-defense. We can entrust to him our sorrow, with the words of David. "My companion stretched out his hand against his friends, he violated his covenant. His speech was smoother than butter, yet war was in his heart; his words were softer that oil, yet they were drawn swords" (Psalm 55). With confidence we can cast our burden on the Lord, who will not permit his righteous to be moved.
Quite often the Lord shows us his faithfulness by sending us fellow-believers. Unaware of our trouble a caring brother or sister in faith may unwittingly greatly comfort us in our pain. And more than likely we will be able to share the details of our grief with one of these saints.
At the same time it needs to be acknowledged that also in the church gossip can spread like wildfire. In that setting we cannot assume that those who slander us are God's enemies. With recognition of our own weaknesses we must forgive those who hurt us and pray for their spiritual well-being. However, it does happen that believers get trapped in a net of Satan. Both David and our Lord Jesus were betrayed by friends who hated God under the pretense of love. Still, they did not opt for personal revenge. Instead they surrendered to the wisdom of the Father. "The LORD will deliver my soul in safety from the battle that I wage, for many are arrayed against me. God will give ear, and humble them, he who enthroned from of old; because they keep no law, and do not fear God" (Psalm 55.18, 19).
The power of gossip can be overcome. In the strength of the Spirit we can resist the temptation to slander, while we find rest for our troubled souls. The story of gossip has a happy ending.