I think as a child I heard gossip explained to be a situation where you pretended to like someone, but spread lies about them behind their back. It was also called “two-faced” because you don’t really like them but wanted their ruin.
But what about gossiping about someone you don’t despise and want to ruin? Or someone you might even love and want to help?
I feel like there is another way to share and request information, especially in church culture, that we wouldn’t call gossip, but it works the same because it uncovers things that should remain private. It’s concern for the purpose of prayer.
Of course, there is the obvious example of sharing someone else’s prayer request, so you have a white sepulcher excuse to tantalize your friend’s ear with your tongue. (Keep your tongue out of your friend’s ear.)
Maybe it isn’t labeled prayer. You just want someone to agree with you about another person. I know summing up someone’s problems as a result of their actions is an attempt to comfort yourself that your diligence and wisdom will prevent your own calamity. It’s so easy to look from the outside and solve all the problems in another person’s life. If only they would eat right, get rest and sunshine, read their Bible and exercise—they’d be golden!
But sometimes, it’s also a desire for connection. I mentioned in creating teams through gossip that talking about someone else can create a false sense of intimacy with the one you are agreeing with, because sharing is vulnerable—and sharing someone else’s stuff almost feels vulnerable.
Sometimes we share facts or rumors because we want to feel like we are cared for
This happens when a person asks about someone else besides who they’re speaking to.
“How is your daughter really feeling?”
“How is your husband really doing?”
There are instances when this is appropriate. Your confidant, who loves you and loves the people you love, is a perfect example. Where it gets tricky is someone who knows you both, but wouldn’t ask your daughter or husband directly. Or if they did—your husband or daughter wouldn’t answer honestly.
They may just want to know what you think about the situation without having to sacrifice or invest in the person. There is no need to sympathize or suffer if they can hear it from you. It’s secondhand. Consider this a request for “unearned” details.
Or they may ask because they really care about you. This is difficult because we want to feel cared for. It can also be tempting to give too much because we feel our loved one’s pain as our own experience. So you have to decide how much of their story is your experience.
It may feel rude to answer a question like that by pushing back. However, by answering, we are not letting the subject be in control of their own story. And his or her story has value. It is precious to them.
Sometimes we request facts or rumors because we care
A young person complained to me about the familiarity assumed when their group asked direct questions during prayer requests. This is how a small group should operate, but it’s aged scotch—not this summer’s beer. That group dynamic needs to take time, and happen naturally.
I think I’ve mentioned before my experience at a women’s retreat where they tried to fast-track intimacy by requesting each of us share a sin the first night we meet. Vulnerability creates intimacy, right? I think everyone scrambled for cool and edgy, but mostly benign sins. Something like cussing at drivers while alone—because who doesn’t lose their cool in traffic?
Could you imagine if someone confessed to an unsolved murder? Woman’s retreat gone wrong, I think…
As Christians, we can consider it a right to all your details because we’re part of the body of Christ, and so are you. We can ask too-direct of questions under the umbrella of prayer and the privilege of being joined as one body.
Sometimes, however, this kind of forced intimacy will ultimately prohibit you from being part of that person’s life. Rarely would we want our therapist to hang out with us at a party.
The truth: you don’t owe anyone your story from details to overviews. And no one owes you theirs.
Your story is a pearl
I’m thinking about this because I typically prefer honesty, openness and authenticity in all my relationships. I know healing often comes through speaking up and speaking out. But I can be too vulnerable, and I need to watch this. There is a reason to guard some parts at some times. I say times, because of course there are people who should never have your story—but there can also be a time when you should protect it.
As always, I’m not talking about hiding sin. Yours or others. But Proverbs 17:9 says in the English Standard Version, “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” Sometimes it is right to cover yourself or to cover another.
Throwing down your pearls to be trampled by swine is just giving something precious to someone who won’t revere or protect it, like the treasure deserves.
We need one or two trustworthy people who can handle our pearls. But we also need to treat each other’s details as the treasures they are.