Truth Is Not An Absolute Defense Against Lashon Hara

About fifteen years ago or so I was threatened with a libel lawsuit for copying an e-mail received and sending it to those who had been concerned about it.  And it is true that truth is an absolute defense against libel.  But I wonder if that is enough.  Obeying the standard of the law is not a very high standard, not least when that involves libel.  And I am self-aware enough to recognize that when the law of land is tougher than the biblical standard that I am not silent or restrained enough to keep myself out of harm’s way.  Today, I would like to return again to the issue of lashon hara, or evil speech, and discuss how it influences biblical rebukes and prophecy.

For those who are not aware [1] of the concept of lashon hara, it is the Jewish family of speech known as evil speech, and it includes a wide variety of speech including gossip, rumors, and deception.  Do we have evidence that this particular standard of truth is used in the Bible as the standard of truth?  Yes, we do.  In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that the biblical standard of rebuke and truthtelling is such that it would include a great deal of conduct that we take for granted in our contemporary society as being acceptable.  Open rebuke is celebrated by the righteous.  See, for example, Leviticus 19:17-18:  “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.  You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”  We read similar sentiments in Psalm 141:5:  “Let the righteous strike me; it shall be a kindness.  And let him rebuke me; it shall be as excellent oil; let my head not refuse it.  For still my prayer is against the deeds of the wicked.”  Here we see the side of the biblical statement of truth that commands a certain openness in one’s rebuke.

But at the same time the Bible shows the incredible sensitivity of corrupt but powerful leaders to the rebuke that they receive from others, and their tendency to view painful and pointed statements as being improper.  Consider Amos 7:12-13:  “Then Amaziah said to Amos:  “Go, you seer!  Flee to the land of Judah.  There eat bread, and there prophesy.  But never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is the royal residence.””  Paul receives a similar rebuke in Acts 23:3-5:  “Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?”  And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?”  Then Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’””  Hearing the statement for which Paul was accused (correctly) of having broken the law, I can think that I have said harsher things about some heads of state, and I have heard those who consider themselves to be Christians to have said things about the past four American presidents in the course of my lifetime, and about others in writing who were presidents before that.  Such people were surely guilty of lashon hara, evil speech, whether or not it is punishable by the laws of man.

Understanding the seriousness of this speech, we can gain a greater understanding for the seriousness that Paul considers the sin of gossip.  1 Timothy 5:13 tells us, for example:  “And besides they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not.”  Nor is gossip condemned by Paul alone, for as it is written in Proverbs 16:28:  “A perverse man sows strife, And a whisperer separates the best of friends.”  Both Paul and Solomon considered gossipers to be whisperers and perverse and evil.  Even if we acknowledge gossip to be a sin, we do not consider it to be a particularly severe one.  Not a day goes by when I am not tempted concerning gossip in some fashion.  Whether one is talking about the romantic drama of coworkers or discussing why someone is all of the sudden moving far away from where they are currently living, or looking at matters of behavior concerning commissions chargebacks, the temptation to gossip is serious and continual.  And we may console ourselves by telling ourselves (and others) that what we are saying is the truth and it needs to come out, but that isn’t what the Bible says at all.  The author of Proverbs and Paul’s statement do not care whether or not people are gossiping the truth or speculation or outright fabrications, it is condemned all the same for its effects in dividing friends from each other and in creating strife.

What, then, is a defense against lashon hara?  How do we avoid the sin of evil speech?  There are a variety of ways to do so.  For one, we can take a lot more matters to prayer and a lot fewer to use as juicy gossip for friends and family members.  Also, if something must be shared, it should be shared with the person the gossip is about, not least so that they can answer for whatever accusations are being made about them.  If they are unwilling to admit truth, even the awareness that one’s behavior is spoken abroad, conveyed privately and respectfully, will give someone the chance to take evasive action, along with the commitment to the person that one will not spread the matter abroad.  We can proactively stop at least some sorts of gossip by simply living privately in certain aspects of our lives, and not giving ammunition to those who would interpret our actions in an evil light.  Likewise, building a reputation as someone who is willing and able to take a lot of guff in personal interaction can reduce the interest that people would have in gossiping to others in the belief that their rebuke or comments would be wasted on us.  This is not to say that any of these solutions are easy, but let us consider the alternative, when we realize to be whisperers and malicious backbiters, or to approve of such treatment of others, is to merit the judgement of God, as it is written in Romans 1:28-32:  “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.”

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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