THIS is the fifth of the ‘One another” sayings in the New Testament, “Do Not Slander One Another” (James 4:11, 12).
Let me begin with a story about a family living in a small town in North Dakota: The mother had not been well since the birth of her second baby, but everyone knew she did all she could to create an atmosphere of love in that home.
The neighbours would see the father being met at the door each night with hugs and kisses from his wife and two small children.
In the summer they could hear the laughter and joyous good fun coming from within the house.
Often the family would romp together in the backyard while the mother looked on, thoroughly enjoying their activity.
Then one day a village gossip whispered that the man was being unfaithful to his wife, a story entirely without foundation.
Eventually it came to the woman’s ears, and it was more than she could bear. A few weeks later she suffered a mental collapse, and one evening when her husband came home no one met him.
There was a coldness and quietness that sent a chill of fear over his heart. Soon the awful truth became apparent.
He found that his wife, sick and in despair, had taken her own life and those of her children! The man was beside himself with grief.
Later his innocence was proven to all, but the gossip’s tongue had already borne its terrible fruit.
Solomon put it, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Prov. 18:21a).
In Isaiah 55 we see the creative force of God’s word.
He says that it will not return to Him empty but will accomplish His desire and achieve the purpose for which He sent it (Isa.55:11).
God’s word either saves or condemns. When received with humility, it saves; but when refused passively or actively (rebelliously), it condemns.
As creatures who are made in God’s image we also have this unique ability to create…with the power of words.
We either minister life or death, encouragement or discouragement, hope or despair, comfort or sorrow. Everything we say affects somebody. If no one else, at least ourselves.
Our words mirror our souls.
Justin, the early church father put it, “But examining the tongue of a patient, physicians find out the diseases of the body, and philosophers the diseases of the mind. Jesus put it, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34b).
No one writes more about the danger of speech than James. He gives the following advice to his fellow believers: “Brothers, do not slander one another.
Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him, speaks against the law, and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.
There is only one lawgiver and judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you, who are you to judge your neighbour? (Jas. 4:11, 12).
The word “slander” or the phrase “speaks against” (katalalon) means literally “one who talks down” someone else. It means to “speak evil of,” “defame” or “backbite.”
It includes gossip, as in the case of speaking evil of someone in that person’s absence. It connotes criticising, insulting and putting someone down when he/she is not there to defend himself/herself.
James is not saying we should never rebuke another person. Christians sin and make mistakes, and there are times when we need to speak to each other.
But it must be done face-to-face. James points out the sins of his fellow believers in several of the chapters of his letter, but he does so directly to his hearers and for their own good.
He addresses these Christians as members of a family, God’s family. Within two verses James refers to these Christians as “brothers” three times.
The word usually used in showing the love relationship between fellow believers is Philadelphia which means “brotherly love.”
Openness, not deception; compassion, not judgmentalism, honesty, not backbiting are to characterise God’s family.
Yet James is forced to rebuke his Christian brothers for malicious speech. In the Christian community nothing is as volatile, explosive and damaging as slander. Why? Because it is so pervasive.
For some diabolical reason gossip has not been recognised for its heinous nature. It has been tolerated as “weakness” rather than as “sin.” Pascal said concerning the pervasive nature of gossip, “I lay it as a fact, that if all people knew what others say of them, there would not be four friends in the world.”
Another reason why malicious rumour is so damaging is that it is impossible to retract spoken words. Harold Fickett illustrates this point with the following story: A young man came to his father asking how he could stop a rumour he had started while angry with a friend. The father told him to distribute a bag of chicken feathers one by on the doorstep of every home in the neighbourhood.
After he had done this the father told him to regather the feathers. The boy tried but the wind had blown many of them away.
The father made the obvious application. The wind of gossip had already taken the rumour far beyond the reach of the young man to stop it.
Benjamin Franklin said, “The slip of the foot you may soon recover, but a slip of the tongue you may never get over.
Oh, the power of the tongue! A Japanese proverb says, “A tongue three inches long can kill a man six feet tall. While one tree can make a million matches, one match can also destroy a million trees. James described the tongue as a bit in a horse’s mouth, a small rudder that controls the ship, and a great forest set on fire by a small spark (Jas. 3:3-6).
It is not an exaggeration to claim that Gossip “is like a fire that burnt up a building, a cancer that consumes a body, an atomic bomb that levels an entire city or quicksand that buries anything with which it comes in contact.
By REV. ERIC D. MAEFONEA