The Serious Sin of Slander
You can get in a lot of trouble over what you say about other people.
A young man had just got a job in the produce department when he was asked by a lady if she could buy half a head of lettuce. He replied, “Half a head? Are you serious? God grows these in whole heads and that’s how we sell them!”
“You mean,” she persisted, “that after all the years I’ve shopped here, you won’t sell me half-a-head of lettuce?”
“Look,” he said, “If you like I’ll ask the manager.” So the young man marches to the front of the store and says to the manager “You won’t believe this, but there’s a lame-braided idiot of a lady back there who wants to know if she can buy half-a-head of lettuce.” At this point out of the corner of his eye, he notices she’s standing right behind him, so he adds “and this nice lady was wondering if she could buy the other half.”
Later in the day the manager corners the young man and said, “That was the finest example of thinking on your feet I’ve ever seen! Where did you learn that?”
“I grew up in Grand Rapids, a city known for its beautiful hockey teams and its ugly women.” The manager’s face flushed, and he says, “My wife is from Grand Rapids!” “And which hockey team did she play for, sir?” [i]
You have to be careful about what you say about other people, not just because you may get in trouble with them, but because you may get in trouble with God.
One of the most repeated commands in the Bible deals with how we speak about others.
Le 19:16 You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people…
Ps 101:5 Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, him I will destroy…
Pr 10:18 …whoever spreads slander is a fool.
Yet it is perhaps one of the most ignored commands. How much of our conversations would be significantly shortened if any and all criticism or bad-mouthing of others were edited out?
One important passage that specifically deals with the serious sin of slander is found in James 4:11-12. In these verses, God warns us to be careful of what we say about each other.
Chances are, your mother warned you about the danger of slander many times. Remember what she said? If you can’t say anything good about somebody, don’t say anything at all.
Once upon a time, a woman overheard a man’s conversation in which he called her a pig. She sued him for defamation of character and won her case, and the man was ordered to pay a fine. The man reached into his pocket and forked over the money, and then asks the judge, “So this means I cannot call Mrs. Jones a pig?” The judge says, “That’s right.” The defendant replied, “Does this mean I cannot call a pig Mrs. Jones?” The judge replied no. The man looks directly at his opponent and smiles, and says, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Jones.” [ii]
Other people are a popular topic of conversation, whether it’s people we know personally or people we just know about. But when you talk about people, James warns us, you must keep in mind a very important command of God, which shows up in the first sentence. Do not speak evil of one another.
The word James uses here which is translated speak evil=lit., to speak against. It can describe literal slander, which is falsely spreading lies about someone else, or it can refer to saying something true in a harsh or unkind way. To speak evil of your neighbor is to say anything, true or false, in an unloving way or from an unloving heart.
James goes on to elaborate in this same verse: He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother… The word judges doesn’t refer to evaluation, but condemnation. Speaking evil is speaking unloving, condemning, malicious words about a brother/sister.
The idea here is not that you should never say anything negative about anybody. There are times when problems must be confronted honestly, which include legitimate criticism. One example would be in marriage, where honesty may require that you communicate your negative feelings about your spouse in order to deal with your problems. But even then, there should be no behind the back badmouthing. Even negative words can be said in a loving way.
But it is true that this kind of evil speech including harsh criticism, derogatory statements mean to put somebody down, or just spreading gossip that may or may not be true is wrong.
At some time, to some degree, all of us are guilty of speaking evil about somebody else, sometimes without realizing it. It is so commonplace to be critical instead of complimentary. There is something satisfying to our depraved nature about picking somebody apart with our words, especially if we feel threatened by them. It is so easy to indulge in a kind of secret revenge to get together with somebody who is on “my side” and badmouth the people we don’t like. There is a certain sinful pleasure in saying freely what we wouldn’t dare have the courage to speak to their face.
How do you know when you’ve crossed the line? Maybe the best way to be sure is to err on the side of caution. Somebody once came up with 3 questions to ask yourself before you say anything about someone else:
Is it true? Not This sounds true. Not I heard from a reliable source. But do you know what you are about to say about your brother/sister is true?
Is it kind? Is it kind to the person being spoken about? Is it kind to the person you are speaking to?
Is it necessary? Will this help the person I’m talking about? Will it help the person I’m speaking to? What good will it do to say this about this person?
That’s a good place to start!
Slander is something we should all be ashamed. Through James’ words, the Lord is telling us very specifically stop. Stop speaking evil of others, stop being unloving, malicious, harsh, condemning when you speak about one another.
That’s what we all ought to do with slander—get out of the habit of speaking evil of others.
Well the Lord knows we need some extra motivation, so He speaks through James to explain why we should take the sin of slander seriously.
He begins by telling us that whoever speaks evil of and judges your brother/sister, also speaks evil of the law and judges the law (vs. 11b). What law is James talking about here? The answer is found in James 2:8 in what he calls the royal law.
James says that slander is an attempt to undermine God’s law and God’s authority. Love your neighbor as you love yourself is God’s ultimate law governing human relationships. It is a law that is true for all people, at all times, in all situations, as universal as the laws of physics, or the law of mathematics. Disobeying this law is like trying to pretend 2 + 2 = 10. When you refuse to obey this law, you can expect chaos and confusion. Relationships won’t work the way they were intended to. You are trying to usurp an authority that doesn’t belong to you.
But James also says that slander is an attempt to undermine God’s authority. Who is the Authority over this Law? There is only One Lawgiver, Who is able to save or destroy. Who do you suppose He’s talking about?
Jn 5:22-23 22For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, 23that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father… Jesus Christ is the Judge. He alone has the authority to acquit or condemn. He alone sits on the judge’s bench, holding the verdict for every one of us. When you disobey this law, you are trying to place yourself in the place of God.
This is why James drives his point home a little deeper when he asks But you! Who are you to judge your neighbor? (NIV) James is saying your job is to love other people, not condemn them.
James is not saying we are never to judge but only that we are not the Judge.
James cannot be saying we are never to judge people by their behavior. I know that because James himself makes some pretty pointed judgments in his letter (cf. James 1:26;4:4)
In fact, one of the main themes of this epistle is your faith is proven by your works—works which not only God sees, but which everybody else can see, too.
The Lord Jesus Himself makes this point in
Mt 7:15-16 15“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits…
I hear many people quote Jesus’ words in
Mt 7:1 Judge not, that you be not judged.
But they are not so quick to quote His words in
Jn 7:24 Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.
Lk 12:57 Yes, and why…do you not judge what is right?
The point I’m making is that there is a sense in which we are commanded to judge---by a person’s fruit, not just by appearances.
You may judge your brothers actions, but you must leave it to God to judge his motives.- Adrian Rogers
But more to the point, James is saying you have no right to slander a brother/sister. You have no authority to badmouth them, to judge them as unworthy of being loved as you love yourself. Only Christ has the authority to say who should be loved and who should not, and He’s already given us His verdict.
A woman and her grandmother were sitting on their porch discussing a black sheep member of the family. "He's just no good," the young woman said. "He's completely untrustworthy, not to mention lazy."
"Yes, he's bad," the grandmother said as she rocked back and forth in her rocker, "but Jesus loves him."
"I'm not so sure of that," the younger woman persisted.
"Oh, yes," assured the elderly lady, "Jesus loves him." She rocked and thought for a few more minutes and then added, "Of course, Jesus doesn't know him like we do…"
Jesus does know him, and He still loves him. That’s what James says you and I must do. Your job is to love others, not condemn them.
God’s Word tells us slander is a serious sin that you and I need to deal with. But how do we deal with it?
First of all, you need to confess you are guilty of slander and ask for forgiveness.
Ps 32:5 I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” And You forgave the iniquity of my sin.
You need to confess your sin of slander to God, and you may need to confess it to the person you’ve sinned against. You won’t ever escape a sinful habit until you admit it’s a problem. People who deny they are sick won’t ever get well.
If you think you have no problem with this area, ask the Lord to show you if you do. If you get real brave, ask your husband or wife if you are guilty! Maybe the next time you have a conversation, try listening more to what you’re saying. You might be surprised.
Second, you need a change of heart. We have to forsake a judgmental, condemning attitude towards other people.
I heard about a guy who came to a pastor one time and said, "I don't have but one talent." The pastor asked, "What's your talent?" The man said, "I have the gift of criticism." The pastor was wise and thought about the parable in the Bible and said, "The guy who had only one talent went out and buried it. Maybe that's what you ought to do with yours."
One way to do this is to ask the Lord to help you see yourself as He sees you—someone who has your own set of faults and failings, and yet somebody He loves deeply. Ask Him to help you love other people the way He loves you.
Eph 4:32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
Thirdly, you need to practice seasoning your speech about others with love and kindness.
Col 4:6 Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.
Eph 4:29 Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.
Yes, it will take practice. We’ve dug deep ruts of evil speech in our habits of conversation. It will take time and effort, and the power of the Holy Spirit to help us overcome them. But by God’s grace, and through our own commitment to obedience, we can change our behavior to match up with God’s Word if we want to.
A farmer’s wife had spread a slanderous story about her pastor through the village, and soon the whole countryside had heard it. Sometime later the woman became sick and confessed the story was untrue. After her recovery she came to the pastor and craved his pardon. The old pastor said, “Of course I will gladly pardon you if you will comply with a wish of mine.” “Gladly,” replied the woman. “Go home, kill a black hen, pluck the feathers, and put them in a basket and bring them here.”
In half an hour she was back. “Now,” said the pastor, “go through the village and at each street corner scatter a few of these feathers, the remaining ones take to the top of the bell tower and scatter them to the winds, then return.” She did so. “Now go through the village and gather the feathers again, and see that not one is missing.”
The woman looked at the pastor in astonishment and said, “Why that is impossible! The wind has scattered them over the fields everywhere!”
“And so,” said he, “while I forgive you gladly, do not forget that you can never undo the damage your words have done.” [iii]
Slander is a serious sin to others and more importantly to the Lord. It has serious consequences in the lives of other people. Do you and I take slander seriously? What will we do about it?
[i]10,000 Sermon Illustrations, electronic ed. (Dallas: Biblical Studies Press, 2000).
[ii]Lowell D. Streiker, Nelson's Big Book of Laughter : Thousands of Smiles from A to Z, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers
[iii]Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations : A Treasury of Illustrations, Anecdotes, Facts and Quotations for Pastors, Teachers and Christian Workers (Garland TX: Bible Communications, 1996, c1979).