Extinguishing Hellfire

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

James 3:5-6

Many years ago, a friend of mine once began to tell me a story: “Oh you’ll never believe what my sister told me! She said, ‘Okay, promise not to tell anyone but…’ Oh. Wait. Never mind. I promised I wouldn’t tell.”

And just like that, the story ended. She remembered her promise and fell silent, leaving me feeling oddly disappointed and chastened.

As followers of Jesus, we tend to focus on the “big” sins. The things that jump to mind might be murder, abuse or adultery—and for good reason. But there is one less visible, insidious sin that has the potential to do enormous damage: Gossip. Like a constant dripping, gossip has the potential to erode even the strongest foundation. Nowhere is this more true than in the Body of Christ.

“I heard it from a very credible source…”
“Well, I really shouldn’t tell you, but if you promise not to share it…”
“What I think really happened is…”

It’s so easy to slip from  social sharing to gossip, isn’t it? Sometimes we do it to make ourselves feel better about how we’re doing. (“Wow! Barb sure has put on a lot of weight lately.”) Sometimes we use it with false kindness. (“Bernard and Betty’s kids are so out of control… I’ve heard they’re having problems in their marriage. Let us pray for their parenting skills…”) Sometimes it can be so much worse. (“The pastor sent an email to the deacons to get Boris removed from the board… I haven’t seen it, but I heard it from a very reliable source.”)

At best, gossip gives us a momentary self-esteem boost while we stand on the failures of others. At worst, it breeds suspicion, lies, pain and destruction. Gossip can reduce a healthy, thriving, lively church to ashes faster than any absence of young families.

Sometimes being a peacemaker means knowing when to be quiet; it is choosing to shut one’s mouth before that tantalizing bit of information comes flying out. Sometimes that means getting one’s facts straight before forming a lynch mob. Sometimes it means gently challenging a friend before the story goes south. It always means pausing to examine one’s heart before opening one’s mouth… not something that comes naturally to many of us and certainly not to me.

The good news? Through Christ, we can do anything—even put a lid on gossip and extinguish the infernal fire before it starts. Because then we are truly children of God who build one another up, living out the love he has called us to have for one another.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Eph. 4:29

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