One warm evening, when the air was still and sounds carried well, I heard children playing across the street. One called out, “I’m going to tell . . . ” The threat carried with it an unspoken “ . . . if you don’t smarten up and play the way I want you to play.”
We did it when we were kids. Sometimes my brothers used their superior strength unfairly against my sister and me, and won the game. It made us mad; so we told on them. Or we practiced a special sign language and made our secret plans in full view - infuriating them because they didn’t know what we were “saying” to each other; so they told on us. Or sometimes all four of us got into something we shouldn’t have and the first to realize it rationalized that if they did the telling, maybe they would not get the spanking; of course not minding if the other three did.
Siblings are not the only ones who “tell.” Our complaints against those who don’t “play the way we want” takes many forms, from writing to our ombudsman down to our national pastime, gossip.
After hearing the children, I began to wonder, is it ever right to tell? Are there times when some people need to know about the failures of others. What does God think about tattletales?
Several scriptures came to mind. One admonishes against gossip, telling the wives of church leaders to be sober-minded and faithful, not slanderers. The word actually means “to speak evil against.”
Another one, Ephesians 5:11-12, says, “ . . . Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them, for it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret.” Christians are not even supposed to speak about the sinful things that people do, but go directly to the offenders and challenge them.
A third verse, Ephesians 4:29, says, “Do not let any corrupt communication come out of your mouth but only that which is good . . . to edify the hearers . . .” In other words, if something will not build up the listener in a godly way, don’t say it.
God gives commands, but they are not always easy to follow. For some people “telling” is almost as natural as breathing. One time I was going into a situation where everyone liked to “tell” on everyone else and I was inwardly dreading it. I didn’t want to gossip along with them and offend my conscience and my God, but I knew how easy it was to be caught up in what everyone else was doing. My sister gave me some advice: “Just gossip about yourself.”
After some reflection, I realized she meant I should freely be able to talk about my weaknesses and my shortcomings and not use gossip as an opportunity to put others beneath me. I tried it. Every time someone said something unkind about someone else, cutting them down with slander or criticism, I said something like this: “I have the same problem they do . . . I can’t overcome it at all unless I pray and get the Lord’s help or unless others will help me and pray for me.”
What a wet blanket! The juicy morsels of gossip dried up quicker than a shallow slough in summertime. After a while, the normal yackity-yak of that group gave way to silence. Maybe I spoiled their party, but I had a great time. Since that situation, I’ve not always been able to quench tattling that dramatically; sometimes I’m even guilty of starting it, yet I’ve never forgotten the lesson.
I’ve also learned that if someone genuinely isn’t playing the game right, God lets me realize it so I can either go to the offending person and help them overcome whatever they are doing, or at least pray for them, not run to others (or even accuse them to God) with “I’m going to tell . . .”