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CHURCH TALK: The power of the spoken word ‘to heal or destroy’

Friday 30 April 2021 | Written by Supplied | Published in


CHURCH TALK: The power of the spoken word ‘to heal or destroy’
The statue of Socrates, first Greek philosopher to seriously explore questions of ethics regarding gossips. 21042919

Gossip has been around for centuries. Have modern men and women mastered gossip or is it still rampant in our families, the workplace, schools, churches, politics and clubs? By Bishop Paul Donoghue of the Catholic Church.

The Bible uses this text as a prohibition against gossip: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people.” Leviticus 19:16. Though most people engage in gossip, it is an unwise habit. The eighth commandment of Moses states “You shall not bear false witnesses against your neighbour.” (Exodus 20:16)

By way of introduction I turn to how gossip was viewed in the centuries before Christ. I go back to Socrates who was an ancient Greek philosopher, one of the three greatest figures of the ancient period of Western philosophy (the others were Plato and Aristotle), who lived in Athens in the 5th century before Christ. He was the first Greek philosopher to seriously explore questions of ethics.

I hope this story will make it clear how Socrates viewed gossip. This story has been accredited to Socrates, although the original source may have been someone else. Either way it’s a great tale that gives us some helpful hints on how to better deal with those who gossip and how to stop ourselves from spreading rumours as well.

One day, a student came up to the great philosopher. “Socrates, I have just heard some news about one of your friends,” he excitedly exclaimed.

“Before you tell me this news, we need to make sure that it passes the triple filter test,” responded Socrates.

“What’s the triple filter test?” the man asked.

“The first test is that of truth.  Tell me, do you know that what you’re going to tell me is absolutely true?”  asked Socrates.

After thinking for a moment, the man said, “I heard this news from someone else, so I’m not 100 per cent sure if it’s true.”

“The second test is that of goodness,” Socrates continued, “Is what you’re about to tell me something good?”

“No, actually it’s the opposite…” the man replied.

Socrates interrupted the man, “So what you’re going to tell me is neither true, nor good?”

The man was slightly embarrassed and shrugged his shoulders.

Socrates continued, “There is one final test which is usefulness. Is what you’re about to tell me going to be useful?”

“Probably not,” the man replied.

“Well, if you’re going to tell me something that’s not true, good or useful, then why tell me at all?” responded the philosopher.

I’m sure that we’ve all indulged in a bit of gossip from time-to-time. We all come across salacious information occasionally that we feel compelled to pass on to others.

The next time you do, pass the information through the triple filter test to see if you really should be telling others.

Proverbs 26:20 says, “Without wood a fire goes out, without gossip a quarrel dies down.”

Let’s be peace-makers, not trouble-makers.

Gossip in Scripture

A helpful text to study gossip is that of the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians. Christ’s disciples have “clothed themselves with the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”  (Eph 4:24). By putting away falsehood, they are to put away all malice and all guile and insecurity and envy and all slander. St. Paul has in mind here when he advised “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful to building others up.” (Ephesians 4: 29)

You will find many other texts in the Bible, particularly the New Testament on gossip. Gossip is presented as divisive in the community. It poisons or makes toxic our relationships. And if we are honest when we use it, it makes us look foolish.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for not gossiping is that it can’t be undone.  This story is still used in our church of a woman who went to confession to the saint, Phillip Neri. The sixteenth century saint instructed the woman who had confessed this sin to make right the wrong she had done by taking a feather pillow to the top of the church tower. There she was to rip it open, and let the wind blow the feathers away.

But the penance didn’t end there. Philip Neri told her the second part of her penance was when she came down from the bell tower, she had to then collect the feathers that had been scattered throughout the town. The poor lady, of course could not do it as the wind had blown the feathers to every corner of the town. And that was the point Philip Neri was trying to make to underscore the destructive nature of gossip. When we detract from others in our speech, our malicious words are scattered abroad and cannot be gathered back. They continue to dishonour and divide for many days, months and even years after we speak them as they linger in people’s minds and pass from one tale bearer to another.

So hold it back because once you speak it can’t be undone. Gossip is toxic.


Surely deep down we all want to respect the reputation of others, see the best in them and not cause an unjust injury.  So aim for the heavens and not the gutter.

Furthermore, let us try to avoid rash judgements where we assume our opinion or judgement has to be the right one, the true one. Often we are mistaken and it is not the truth.

There is no need to talk about the faults and failings of others. Ask the question of yourself: What are my faults and failings? Would I be happy for these to be made public? If not, why then would I want to make the faults and failing of others known?

A word we don’t often hear today is “discretion” which means to distinguish.  Some say it is the lost virtue. Pray for discretion that we may all have the ability to determine what we can say to whom and when.

“Finally, Brothers and Sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things… and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9).