Years ago, a couple who ran a group home for delinquent boys together in Kalispell, Montana were preparing to leave their job after three years. Coincidentally, shortly before they had given notice, the grocery bill for the home had doubled. The director suspected the couple were stocking up on groceries before leaving. What other reason could there be for groceries to go from the usual $800 to $1,600 in one month?
“What should we do about it?” the home’s director asked the chairman of the board.
“We aren’t going to be able to prove anything, and they are leaving soon, so just let it go,” he determined.
So, that is how it was handled. The director and chairman must have been tempted to tell a few people—at least other board members. After all, here was a couple in the helping profession yet they were stealing from the county group home!
A few months later, it was discovered that the bookkeeper at the grocery store had double-billed several agencies and pocketed the extra money. The couple had never stolen anything. That couple was my husband and I. The director told me about the situation months after we had left the job. I had wondered if there were people who heard gossip that we were crooks and would never know the truth. I have no idea who heard what but it personalized for me how a wrong impression could destroy a reputation and why we should avoid ever listening to gossip or stories against others.
Truth Doesn’t Make it Acceptable
Many times I’ve heard people say that they were not gossiping because what they were saying was true. In the story I shared above however, it seemed there was proof that we were thieves.
Regardless, if it’s scandalous or harmful, being confirmed only changes it from the sin of gossip to the sin of detraction. Detraction is the unjust violation of the good reputation of another by revealing something true about him. We have no right to spread information that ruins something so precious as a good reputation unless it is necessary as in defense of self or of others.
How is Just Listening Wrong?
If we don’t spread gossip or talk negatively about others, yet find ourselves in the position of hearing it, how can that hurt us personally? After all, we did not seek the information so how could we be held responsible? Below are 10 reasons why even just listening to gossip or unjust detraction is harmful to our spiritual well-being.
(1) “Don’t tell anyone else, but…” Those words are a signal that you are being told something you have no business hearing. Harboring stolen goods is wrong and so is listening to information that steals a person’s reputation.
(2) Hearing the bad information about others sorely tempts you to tell someone else and thus spreading the damage and sin.
(3) It gives you and the devil something in common. Making problems or scandals a source of your entertainment means you and the devil enjoy the same thing: the spiritual downfall of another.
(4) You can’t forget it. It may or may not be true, but regardless, it could cause you to treat someone unfairly or love him less.
(5) “Judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7: 1-3). Judgment follows on the heels of gossip.
(6) You are encouraging another to sin. If the gossiper did not have you listening, he would not be gossiping.
(7) It’s unloving. The object of the gossip isn’t being loved and neither is the gossiper. It’s a spiritual work of mercy to instruct the ignorant, so rather than listen, explain that gossip or detraction is spiritually harmful.
(8) “The measure with which you measure will be measured back to you” (Matthew 7:2). If you don’t want people listening to trash talk about you, then don’t do it to others. It’s an act of love to refuse to listen and it will come back to you either way in full measure.
(9) Listening to the gossip gives approval. Refusing may stop the gossiper from his behavior or at least repeating that particular story.
(10) Guilt by association. You can’t spend time with someone wallowing in the mud without getting some on yourself. If instead, people know that you don’t listen to gossip, your good example may even convert others or at least reduce their gossip around you.
At times, we all find ourselves in the position of being told scandalous or negative information. Let’s face it, shocking information is interesting. But, it is wrong to entertain it. We should bring it to confession and pray for those involved on both ends. It’s a way to grow in holiness—closer to God and away from evil. That is far more valuable than any enjoyment listening to gossip.