“Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Even the wording of this quote, and who said it, are also famous misnomers (some attribute it to Winston Churchill). It actually came from the not-dead-yet Mark Twain—which he confirmed to a reporter: “The report of my death was an exaggeration” (May 31, 1897).
How quickly false information can spread! “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” Ironically, both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill have been credited with this saying as well.
Maybe you have been the victim of swiftly spreading misinformation. Surely you have also been the spreader of incorrect information.
Do you gossip? Don’t be too quick to dismiss that question. Gossip isn’t just something spoiled rich high school girls do to climb the social ladder. It’s far more pervasive. Even if you don’t mean to lie, harm, or make yourself look better at someone else’s expense, you still can inadvertently spread falsehoods or carelessly pass along misinformation. It’s much easier than you might think! Realize how damaging it truly is, so you can stop it and stand up to it.
How to Break the Ninth Commandment
The Ninth Commandment of God’s great, royal law is worded this way in the King James Version: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Exodus 20:16).
The spirit of this commandment covers not just lying, but presenting a false representation of something (even in our actions). It forbids coloring a conversation to make us look better than we are. It restricts spreading our version of what we’ve heard about others—which can be based on our limited perception and sketchy memories.
“Do you realize that often, during conversations, you only hear what you want to hear, and not necessarily what was said?” the Good News asked. “Likewise, when you repeat what you want to hear, you present the information in such a way that you end up appearing innocent of any errors.” It then quotes Exodus 20:16, commenting: “Do you grasp the depth of this commandment? Bearing false witness against someone can not only involve lying, but also accusing, gossiping and spreading rumors” (“Why God Hates Gossip!”, Good News, January 1982).
When Herbert W. Armstrong addressed this problem in 1978—what he called the “number one and most prevalent sin in God’s Church today”—he acknowledged that, in the majority of cases, people were not trying to be harmful. “I fully realize that often this is mere carelessness—a sort of thinking through the mouth—with no deliberate intention to harm. But it does harm! And sometimes it is intended to harm!” (Good News, July 31, 1978).
He admitted that “much of such gossip or rumor has probably been done carelessly without full realization of the seriousness of it …. I realize that even many of us, including myself, may have been guilty of this through carelessness, thoughtlessness or neglect. I have decided, therefore, that first we must put emphatic emphasis on this matter in teachings, sermons and articles.”
Talebearers Might Be Truth-traffickers?
God elaborates on His Ninth Commandment in Leviticus 19:16, which forbids being a “talebearer.” The talebearer isn’t necessarily lying. The word for talebearer can mean a scandal-monger or simply an informer. In verb form, it can mean to slander or simply to carry tales. It comes from a root word meaning to go about, to traffic; or, a trafficker or merchant.
There’s nothing here about whether the “tale” is true or false, but someone is trafficking them all over—based on the image the Hebrew word gives us. So it’s not just about spreading false information.
In some more “innocent” cases, you can be spreading correct information that isn’t yours to share. Perhaps it’s news about Herbert W. Armstrong College or some other seemingly “official” information about the headquarters of God’s Church. We must be careful here. “Even when we convey a story correctly, we should be sure that passing the information on is appropriate. … We may sometimes become privy to information that may be true, but which should be conveyed only by someone in authority. … We may not present the information in the proper context, or we may not have the proper background information. When the proper person makes a statement in the appropriate forum, the statement has the maximum chance of being complete and accurate” (Good News, June-July 1982).
What’s striking about Leviticus 19:16 is how the second half of this verse relates to the first. After condemning “talebearing,” it reads: “neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour: I am the Lord.” Other translations render it as though we should not do anything to harm our neighbor. Some word it in a way that means: Don’t stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake. Both halves of the verse forbid harming someone’s good name—the first, by talebearing or gossip; the second, by remaining silent if we know someone accused is innocent.
As our Ezra and Nehemiah booklet says about Leviticus 19:16, “This verse shows that reputation-damaging gossip is as wicked as murder.”
Ezra and Nehemiah cites many of the Proverbs related to gossip, and states how these verses “vividly describe the evils associated with gossip. In a similar vein, we must also be on guard against being condemning and critical of each other. Do we have the right to judge, criticize or put down another one of God’s people? Let’s all work hard to stop this abuse of the brethren.”
Scriptures show that God hates someone being “critical” of another. Proverbs 6:16-19 flags seven things that are an abomination to God. “A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.”
That seventh one—sowing discord among family—doesn’t necessarily mean spreading lies. Truths can do just as much damage when they are “trafficked” where they shouldn’t be going!
Proverbs 20:19 reads: “He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets: therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips.” If you are in a conversation where someone is trying to be deceitful, just avoid them!
The first part of the proverb describes a talebearer who may not be lying; he may not even be trying to sow strife. But this person is carrying tales—a merchant of stories. They unveil secrets, and some things should be kept secret.
Proverbs 11:13 reads: “A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.” God’s way isn’t simply to make everything public. There is a proper way to conceal and an improper way to reveal.
Missile Mouths and Belly Wounds
Proverbs 18:6-7 say a fool’s mouth invites a beating—that his lips are “the snare of his soul.” Notice the next verse: “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly” (verse 8).
The Bible condemns words that hurt! This proverb is repeated later in the book (just as a handful of important proverbs are recorded twice). It’s found in Proverbs 26:22—the section of the book that was added by King Hezekiah (Proverbs 25:1). They are Solomon’s words, but Hezekiah wanted to emphasize this wisdom. Indeed, it bears repeating!
Solomon also wrote, “As a mad man who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death, So is the man that deceiveth his neighbour, and saith, Am not I in sport?” (Proverbs 26:18-19). In modern language, that’s someone saying something cruel and then following it with, Just joking!
Some harm with their words but then say they were only kidding. What they’re essentially saying is, I can say whatever I want, and you have no right to be upset. If you are, it’s your fault, not mine. God says that’s like a madman with a fiery arrow, or to put it in modern terms, a maniac who can launch an arsenal of missiles at the mere push of a button.
The passage continues: “Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth. As coals are to burning coals, and wood to fire; so is a contentious man to kindle strife” (verses 20-21). Get rid of the story-merchant or gossip, and it’s like starving a fire of fuel—the spread of damaging information will die out.
The Word on the Street About You
Obeying this command helps protect reputations. We all have a reputation based on how we speak and act. But gossip can harm someone’s reputation without his knowledge. Even talebearing that supposedly is true and non-malicious can easily include opinions and thoughts about motives. We can influence others views about someone in ways that can create real problems.
Verses like Proverbs 22:1 and Ecclesiastes 7:1 show that we should value a good reputation over material things or wealth. There are things we can do to create, improve or harm our own reputations. We should all work to build an honorable reputation. If you think about it, you can understand what a problem it is to spead information that damages someone’s good name.
Our Ten Commandments booklet shows how the Ninth Commandment “forbids all lying, which includes the sins of slander and gossip. A thief takes physical things that are easily replaced; however, a man’s reputation taken by lies, slander or gossip is often never restored.”
Even here, perhaps we never intend to slander a brother or sister. Yet perhaps we’ve contributed to creating a “word on the street” for him that isn’t entirely true—and that was created without his knowledge.
In his 1978 article on gossip, Mr. Armstrong quoted a memo on the subject that said: “One of the worst things about all of this is that often the victim of the accusation doesn’t even know that he is being slandered, accused, cast in suspicion, judged. Things are said that may stick in the minds of those who hear. Though no action is taken, these slanders affect the relationship that people have with the accused person. People avoid him. Mistrust him. He is passed over for important jobs or assignments. All of this just because of a word or two said carelessly, neglectfully or maliciously!”
We might avoid certain people because we’ve only heard from others what they are like. This gives the “offending” party no chance—if the rumors are true—to grow and improve or—if false—to prove such rumors wrong!
Careless Lips Sink Friendships
Verbal violations of God’s law can wound us to our core, and they can damage our reputations. They can even wreck the closest friendships. “An ungodly man diggeth up evil: and in his lips there is as a burning fire. A froward man soweth strife: and a whisperer separateth chief friends” (Proverbs 16:27-28).
This “whisperer” may not be deliberate or malicious. Even carelessness in this area could kill a long-lived friendship.
Proverbs 17:9 reads: “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.”
Consider the spirit, or attitude, of how you talk about things. It goes either in the direction of God’s selfless law of love, or it goes in a selfish direction that separates the chiefest of friends. No friendship is safe from this kind of lawlessness.
Busybodies Busy Being Bored
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul wrote about gossip within God’s own Church! “And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not” (1 Timothy 5:13, see also 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12). He was addressing a problem that can creep up among God’s converted people.
The Good News of January-April 1971 quoted a medical doctor who had done a study on gossip and concluded: “Boredom and apathy also breed gossip. Idle talk becomes a filler to compensate for empty hours. Lonely people whose lives have become dull and devoid of interests use gossip as a form of reaching out or relating. Because they are not sufficiently involved with current events or issues, they cannot talk about them, and they feel that talking about themselves is dull and useless—so they gossip about others. … All these lonely, bored people are so involved in gossip that they don’t always realize they are telling tales or exaggerating. In short, they believe their own fabrications.”
Paul warned Timothy about “perilous times” that would come on this Earth in the last days (2 Timothy 3). On the list of unseemly traits and individuals he said would be prevalent in this end time was “false accusers” (verse 3). In Titus 2:1-3, Paul warns older women in the Church not to be “false accusers.” 1 Timothy 3:11 uses the same Greek word to say that deacons’ wives must not be “slanderers.”
The Greek word in all three verses is diabolos. If you speak a romance language, you probably know what that means—for instance, diablo in Spanish means devil. This Greek word is used 35 other times in the New Testament, and in those verses, it is always translated “devil”—once even referring to Judas as a devil when betraying Jesus Christ!
The word for slandering or accusing falsely is the same as the one for the devil. Talking this way is the devil!
Slander isn’t necessarily false but simply tearing someone else down with our words. Accusing falsely is likely to occur when we are in a little bit of trouble, and we try to make ourselves look best—throwing others “under the bus” to cover our own shortcomings.
Saying “just kidding” after cutting a guy down or insulting a girl’s outfit doesn’t make it OK. Such language is of Satan the devil—the father of lies and the accuser of the brethren (John 8:44; Revelation 12:10). He works on you, as youth, even today—to accept “the word on the street” about your peers, so you might give up on a potential friendship before it begins. He is sowing seeds for later in your life to harm how you date, marry and rear children!
And if you are hurting others and dividing friendships with your words, you are doing Satan’s work for him!.
No wonder David said in Psalm 101: “Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off: him that hath an high look and a proud heart will not I suffer” (verse 5). David would not stand for this! If he had access to modern technology, he wouldn’t be shy about unfollowing, muting or shutting off a slanderous message!
Gossip Shut Down
Here are four rules for stopping gossip:
1. Ask yourself, Do I have all the facts? Remember how easy it is to misperceive others and to assume you know more than you do.
2. Ask yourself, Can I say this in the presence of the person involved? Consider their reputation.
3. Ask yourself, If I share this information, will it do any good? Is it edifying? Will it help others or only tear down?
4. Stop gossip by not listening to it and tactfully taking a stand. Proverbs 25:23 says an angry countenance drives away a backbiting tongue just like the north wind drives away rain. Often, when in a conversational situation that turns to gossip, we don’t want to look self-righteous or make anyone uncomfortable, so we stand there and let it happen. But God says it should be confronted.
Use tact. If someone older than you is gossiping, be respectful in dealing with it. In any case, you can excuse yourself from conversations if necessary, or ask, in silent prayer, for a tactful way to change the topic—maybe latch onto a phrase someone uses and change the subject with Speaking of such and such ….
The Verdict on Our Verbiage
People may talk badly about us because of the right things we’re doing, which the Apostle Peter said would be a typical hardship for a Christian (1 Peter 4:14, 16). In verse 15, however, he adds: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters.” That puts that sin in some rotten company!
God’s Church is under judgment now (verse 17). Christ said that we would give account for every idle word we speak (Matthew 12:36). As youth attending God’s Church, you are being judged now because of what you know. Every “idle word”—or as it can read, “careless word”—is being judged. We’re giving account for what carelessly comes out as “thinking through the mouth”!
Pastor General Gerald Flurry writes in The Epistle of James: “Once your communication begins turning negative, that cycle becomes destructive very quickly. We must repent, and watch our tongue! Christ holds each one of us accountable for every word we utter!”
James 4:11 says not to speak evil of another. As the James booklet states: “Watch gossip! … You may say harsh things about other people, but it’s you whom God will judge harshly for it!”
Never Before Heard—the Tamed Tongue!
James 3 contains a wealth of vivid images to describe our unruly tongues. If we can control our tongues, it’s as though we control our whole bodies (verse 2). The following verses describe the tongue as a bit in a horse’s mouth, able to steer this robust beast—or as a rudder of a large ship, able to move a mammoth machine. He describes how men can tame every kind of beast, but not the tongue (verse 8). But God can! We need His help!
“Why is it so important that we learn to tame our tongues?” the James booklet asks. “Because we are preparing to teach every person who has ever lived. We need the mind of Christ to direct everything we say. Jesus Christ continually spoke uplifting words while He was here on Earth. With His mind in us, we can do the same! We must control our tongue, because we are destined to control the universe.”
Let’s be honest, sometimes we have jealousy in our hearts (verse 14). Though much of our gossip may be carelessness, some of it occurs because of our envy. If that’s in our hearts, it will come out our mouths (Matthew 12:34). That represents wisdom that is “earthly, sensual, devilish” (James 3:15).
God shows us the opposite of this earthly, devilish way of speaking: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (verses 17-18).
This is the way to peace, and often it begins with our tongues. The James booklet again: “We must learn to say things that will encourage people and lift them up. When we fail to do that, we can easily beat people down.” Consider: This covers what we say to people and what we say about them!
How to Obey the Ninth Commandment
Ephesians 4 also contains valuable instruction for how to obey the Ninth Commandment. Verse 25 reads: “Wherefore putting away lying,speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another.” We replace sin with righteousness—with positive, lawful actions. The solution to gossip is not a vow of silence. Speak the truth, and speak to build people. Verse 29 says to replace corrupt communication with things that edify, or upbuild, and that benefit those hearing it.
Verse 15 says we should be “speaking the truth in love ….” After all, love—selfless outgoing concern—is the foundational principle and fulfillment of God’s law!
We are about to help God rule the world in love. We are about to teach all mankind from His perfect, truthful Word. As the James booklet states: “We are God’s ambassadors who must speak for God. … This world is about to be filled with tongues that speak like God.”