The Danger of Feeding Frenzies and Fueling the Fires

There was a little saying that I have heard all of my life.

If you can’t say something nice about them…then don’t say anything.

Had I practiced that very wise advice I would have had many more “quiet times” in my life. I have not always practiced that simple principle even though I have read and nodded solemnly in agreement as I read James and Paul warn of the dangers of gossip and an uncontrolled tongue.  Whether you call it venting or sharing it is always perilously close to gossiping. That is one of those “fine line” challenges. Like Dave Barry’s quote that “there’s a fine line between ‘hobby’ and ‘mental illness’.” I would submit that there is a fine line between venting/sharing and gossip. Gossip is one of the favorite tools that Satan has in his toolbox.

Brooklyn Tabernacle takes gossip very seriously. New members hear this charge as they become members of the church. 

And now, I charge you, as pastor of this church, that if you ever hear another member speak an unkind word of criticism or slander against anyone—myself, another pastor, an usher, a choir member, or anyone else—you have authority to stop that person in mid sentence and say, ?Excuse me—who hurt you? Who ignored you? Who slighted you? Was it Pastor Cymbala? Let’s go to his office right now. He will get on his knees and apologize to you, and then we will pray together, so God can restore peace and unity to this body. But we will not let you talk critically about people who are not present to defend themselves. New members, please understand that I am entirely serious about this. I want to help resolve this kind of thing immediately. And meanwhile, know this: If YOU are ever the one doing the loose talking, we will confront you.

If every church practiced this I suspect we have far less division in the church. An interesting thought about gossip comes from Frank A. Clark. “Gossip needn’t be false to be evil – there’s a lot of truth that shouldn’t be passed around.”

Ouch. That convicted me. I have vented and shared things that were true. Somehow that made me feel better that I was venting truth. But I later realized that my venting was not edifying to the body of Christ. I may have been right but I was not righteous. One of the biggest lessons I am learning about the spiritual dangers of gossip is the Piranha Principle.

The Piranha is an interesting fish. I wrote about visiting the National Aquarium in New Orleans several years ago in my book When Bad Christians Happen to Good People. The potentially deadly fish swam peacefully and quietly in the tank. I read the plaque about the behavior of the fish. Piranha are peaceful when they are fed, water levels are normal, and food sources are readily available. But when the water gets low they feel crowded and threatened. When you add hunger to that situation the entire personality of the Piranha change. They get angry, aggressive, and prone to feeding frenzies. They begin to attack anything in the water, including one another.  

I have seen too many church goers become emotionally frenzied like these Piranha. When we (Christians) are well fed and happy we swim happily about the sanctuary. But if the environment changes watch out. When the Pew Piranha feels threatened or change is instituted the frenzy can begin. Just like our fish counterparts, a feeding frenzy is never a solo act. Others get caught up and join in. And before long the blood of division is in the water. And it is a tragedy for the church, the body of Christ, and for those who get involved.

I have witnessed emotional feeding frenzies in many churches. It is truly amazing the emotional power that is generated by a group of passionate people (often very good people) sharing their frustration and anger apart from prayer, repentance, and forgiveness.

King Solomon wrote that “a perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.” How tragic. But that is happening every single day in the church. Later he notes that “without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.”

So my challenge to you and to me (as I look uncomfortably into the mirror) is to not add any fuel to the gossip fire. I have too often added kerosene instead of kindness. I want to be tender and not tinder. I cannot use the lyric from the old Billy Joel song as an excuse that “we didn’t start the fire”. Jesus is asking us to not spread the fire and, when we can, to extinguish it with grace.