Sticks and Stones
There is an adage: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. At first glance, this seems to make a lot of sense. To be hit by a stick or stone can really hurt and cause serious damage. Words on the other hand, leave no visible wounds or scars. However on deeper reflection the old adage about sticks and stones really does not ring true. Words can hurt very deeply and cause profound damage. While some people seem to handle malicious words quite well, others are devastated and crippled spiritually when they hear that a friend or colleague or some other acquaintance has been spreading some gossip or slander behind their backs. How their heart and spirit aches, sometimes for days on end, as the memory of those words haunts them. The blow of malicious words can cause an invisible and inner pain which equals the blows of sticks and stones. Moreover, gossip, slander and judging someone rashly and unheard can also cause some very visible and physical trouble. For instance, gossip and slander against a businessman can result in people no longer wanting to do business with him. Suddenly, words uttered in idleness or in a moment of spite can destroy a person's livelihood, reputation and happiness.
A Beautiful Gift and the Fall
The sad irony in all of this is that human speech is such a beautiful gift of God to his image in Paradise. Imagine life without speech. It is said that silence is golden. However it is only in certain situations that this is true. Imagine life without being able to pray to God and sing psalms and hymns to his praise and glory. Imagine falling in love without being able to say, "I love you." Imagine being a family and not being able to speak together as husband and wife, and parents and children. The ability to speak is God's precious gift which enhances our relationship with God and our neighbour. It is essential to being the image of God. Indeed, it is one of the things which distinguishes us from the animal world.
However, this most beautiful and rarest of gifts became the foothold by which Satan reached man and led him into sin. Remember what Christ said to unbelieving and rebellious Jews in John 8:44: "You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies."
You know the history of Genesis 3: Satan twisted and misrepresented the words of God and the man and woman allowed themselves to be caught up in his snare. They turned their backs on God and blatantly disobeyed Him. From that point onwards, Adam and Eve and all future generations began to reflect the father of lies in their speaking to and about one another. Once man's heart was pure and was the overflowing fountain of beautiful and edifying speech. But after the fall into sin, his heart became corrupt and there flowed from his mouth lies, gossip, slander and all manner of spiteful and damaging words. A classic example of that is found in 1 Kings 21 where Jezebel, whose husband Ahab coveted a vineyard of Naboth, engaged two scoundrels to accuse Naboth falsely of cursing both God and the king. The result was that Naboth was executed and Ahab took over Naboth's vineyard. By means of slander, Naboth lost his life and his family's allotted inheritance in the promised land.
The Horror of Sins of the Tongue
One would think that because of the horrendous nature of gossip, lying and other mean-spirited talk, there would be a high priority set on dealing with this sin and doing something to change it. Certainly our confessions do not take it lightly as we see in Lord's Day 43 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The catechism says firmly and powerfully: "I must avoid all lying and deceit as the devil's own works, under penalty of God's heavy wrath." This would also be addressed very clearly in the preaching. Similarly, the Form for Celebration of the Lord's Supper mentions in the list of those who should abstain from the table of the Lord: "all liars, backbiters and slanderers." And yet, the sad reality is that gossiping and lying goes on in Christian circles. It is even said: the really serious sins are killing, adultery and stealing. Perhaps most, if not all of us, are guilty of thinking at one time or another: a little bit of gossiping is not so serious.
Gossip is a sin of the young and the old, both male and female. For some it is a bit of a hobby. As soon as some damaging information is gleaned, they are on the phone: did you hear who got fired for incompetence? Did you hear whose marriage is in trouble? Did you hear about the church member who got pulled over while under the influence? Such dialogue is done with real pleasure and enthusiasm. But what is the good of it? Are there noble reasons for such gossip and slander? All a person is doing is allowing evil to fill his or her heart and so reflect the image of the father of lies. And ultimately, what it is doing is revealing one's own inadequacy and lack of confidence: putting other people down and making them look bad is a way of compensating for one's own insecurity and desperately trying to look better than that person. In other words, no one is the winner in such situations. Gossip, slander and lying do damage to the person under discussion and to ourselves as we engage in this work of the devil. How much terrible damage it has done in families, in church, in school, at the workplace and in all kinds of relationships!
Renewal in Christ
Where do we turn for help? We go to the same place where we always go in dealing with the reality of sins in our lives. We go to Jesus Christ. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself endured terrible slander. We read literally in Matthew 26:59 that the Jewish leaders "were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death." It is ironic that Jesus Christ's life was so pure and holy, that all the false witnesses who came forward just could not make their accusations sound plausible. At last two witnesses came up with the feeble and completely twisted accusation that Jesus Christ had said he would tear the temple down. Through such false accusations, he was condemned and put to death. It is in Christ's holy speech and in his dying under false accusations that we gain the assurance that he has paid for our sins of gossiping and slander and all unholy talk, and liberated us from the stranglehold of Satan, the father of lies. Also, we gain the ability through the Holy Spirit to begin reflecting Christ's image of righteousness and holiness. When Paul writes in Ephesians 4:24, "put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" then the first thing he says is: "therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body."
Clearly in Jesus Christ we are able to make a beginning in the fight against hurting one another by our spiteful words. How important it is to pray to God for his grace in the struggle against this sin. How important it is in our family life to instil in our children a love for the truth and a talk which brings us closer to God and builds up the life and reputation of our neighbour. Most importantly, it must be clear in our minds: gossip and similar hurtful talk is sin which is reprehensible in the sight of God, but in Jesus Christ, I can do something about it. By the grace of God we could effect such a tremendous change in our lives. We could make such a blessed change in the kind of talk which goes on in our home, in the church and school community, in our neighbourhood and at work. We could be known as someone who loves the truth and preserves the reputation of our neighbour. Others would quickly get the message from us: we do not want to hear any gossip or slander; and we do not even want to talk about someone if the purpose is simply to hurt and to revel in others' troubles.
Once only beautiful and edifying words came from the mouths of Adam and Eve. The same will happen in Paradise restored. In the meantime, let us experience a foretaste of that blessed day in the way that we talk about one another and to one another.