Monday, August 04, 2008

Keller and Powlison: Should You Pass on Bad Reports?

Tim Keller and David Powlison recently collaborated to provide some biblical wisdom and guidelines on speech and relationships. Our thinking was that perhaps bloggers would want to adopt these and spread the word about them as a way, in Keller's words, to "spiritually season Christian conversation in cyberspace."

So if this perspective resonates with you (and I hope it does), I'd encourage you to pass it along or post it on your blog.

May the Lord help each of us to have truth-in-love speech that is always gracious, salt-seasoned, gentle, respectful, peaceful, and edifying (Col. 4:6; Eph. 4:15; 1 Pet. 3:15; Rom. 14:19)

Should You Pass on Bad Reports?
by Tim Keller & David Powlison

One obvious genius of the internet is that it’s “viral.” Information explodes to the whole world. The old neighborhood grapevine and the postal service seem like ox-carts in a speed-of-light universe. (Do twenty-somethings even know what those antiquities once were? In the old days, people had to talk to each other or stick a stamp on an envelope.) Instantaneous transmission produces some wonderfully good things. Truth, like joy, is infectious. A great idea feeds into a million inboxes. But it also produces some disastrous evils. Lies, rumors, and disinformation travel just as far and just as fast.

So what should you do when you hear “bad reports” about a person or church or ministry? We want to offer a few thoughts on how to remain constructive. To paraphrase Ephesians 4:29, “Let no unwholesome words come out of your computer, but only what is constructive, in order to meet the need of the moment, that what you communicate will give grace to everyone who ever reads it.” That Greek word translated “unwholesome” is sapros. It means something that is inedible, either devoid of nutritional value or rotten and even poisonous. It applies to thorny briars or to fish or fruit that’s gone bad. At best, it’s of no benefit to anyone. At worst, it’s sickening and destructive. Consider three things in how to stay constructive.

What Does James Say about Passing Along Bad Reports?

Humble yourselves before the Lord.
Brothers, don’t slander or attack one another.
(James 4:10-11)

The verb “slander” simply means to “speak against” (Gk. kata-lalein). It is not necessarily a false report, just an “against-report.” The intent is to belittle another. To pour out contempt. To mock. To hurt. To harm. To destroy. To rejoice in purported evil. This can’t mean simple disagreement with ideas—that would mean that we could never have a debate over a point. This isn’t respectful disagreement with ideas. James warns against attacking a person’s motives and character, so that the listeners’ respect and love for the person is undermined. “As the north wind brings rain, so slander brings angry looks” (Prov. 25:23). Everybody gets upset at somebody else: slanderer, slanderee, slander-hearer.

The link of slander to pride in James 4:10 shows that slander is not the humble evaluation of error or fault, which we must constantly be doing. Rather, in slander the speaker speaks as if he never would do the same thing himself. It acts self-righteous and superior toward one’s obviously idiotic inferiors. Non-slanderous evaluation is fair-minded, constructive, gentle, guarded, and always demonstrates that speakers sense how much they share the same frailty, humanity, and sinful nature with the one being criticized. It shows a profound awareness of your own sin. It is never “against-speaking.”

James 5:9 adds a nuance: "Don’t grumble against one another." Literally, it means don’t moan and groan and roll your eyes. This refers to a kind of against-speaking that is not as specific as a focused slander or attack. It hints at others flaws, not only with words, but by body language and tone. In print, such attitudes are communicated by innuendo, guilt by association, sneering, pejorative vocabulary. In person, it means shaking your head, rolling your eyes, and re-enforcing the erosion of love and respect for someone else. For example, “You know how they do things around here. Yadda, yadda. What do you expect?” Such a “groan” accomplishes the same thing as outright slander. It brings “angry looks” to all concerned. Passing on negative stuff always undermines love and respect. It’s never nourishing, never constructive, never timely, never grace-giving.

What Does the Book of Proverbs Say about Receiving Bad Reports?

He who covers over an offense promotes love,
but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.
(Proverbs 17:9)

The first thing to do when hearing or seeing something negative is to seek to “cover” the offense rather than speak about it to others. That is, rather than let a bad report “pass in” to your heart as truth, and then get “passed along” to others, you should seek to keep the matter from destroying your love and regard for a person. How?

Start by remembering your own sinfulness. "All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord" (Prov. 16:2). To know this automatically keeps you from being too sure of your position and of speaking too strongly against people that you hear about or people on the other side of a conflict. You intuitively realize that you may not be seeing things right. Your motives are never as pure as you think they are. To know this acts to keep you from being too sure of the facts, too sure of your position, and of speaking too quickly and too negatively about other people. Knowing your own sinfulness helps you not make snap judgments that take what you hear too seriously.

When you remember your sinfulness, remember God’s mercies. "Love covers all offenses" (Prov. 10:12). The God who is love has covered all your offenses. He knows everything about you (and the whole story about that other person). He has chosen to forgive you, and life-saving mercy cost Jesus his life. He could write you up with a 100% True Bad Report, but he has chosen to bury your sins in the depths of the ocean. That makes the life and death difference. If your sins are not buried in the ocean of his mercy, then you will be justly exposed and will justly perish. But when you’ve known mercy, then even when you hear report of grievous evil, an instinct toward mercy should arise within you. To savor the tasty morsels of gossip and bad reports is very different from grieving, caring, and wishing nothing less than the mercies of Christ upon all involved. And most bad reports are much more trivial. They are the stuff of busybodies and gossips going “tut-tut-tut.”

Then remember that there is always another side. "The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him" (Prov. 18:17). You never have all the facts. And you never have all the facts you need all at once. You are never in a position to see the whole picture, and therefore when you hear the first report, you should assume you have far too little information to draw an immediate conclusion. What you’ve heard from someone else is only “hear-say” evidence. It has no standing or validity unless it is confirmed in other ways.

So when you hear a negative report about another, you must keep it from passing into your heart as though it were true. If you pass judgment based on hear-say, you are a fool. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check out the facts. Go to the person. Hear other witnesses. If you’re far away from the scene, wait for more of the story to come out. Suspend judgment. Don’t get panicked or stampeded by mob-psychology and rumors. Be content not to know many things. You don’t need to have an opinion about everything and everyone.

Third, what should you do if you are close enough to the situation to be involved AND you think the injustice or matter is too great or grievous for you to ignore? For starters, notice that you only really need to know something if it touches your sphere of life and relationships. In that case, you should do what will help you to express God’s call upon you to speak Ephesians 4:29 words of wise love.

In Derek Kidner’s commentary on Prov. 25:7–10, he writes that when you think someone has done wrong you should remember, “One seldom knows the full facts (v.8) and one’s motives in spreading a story are seldom as pure as one pretends (v.10). To run to the law or to the neighbors is usually to run away from the duty of personal relationship.” See Christ’s clinching comment in Matthew 18:15: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother." In short, if you feel the problem is too great and you can’t keep it from destroying your regard for the person, you must go personally before you go to anyone else.

When Should You Go?

Galatians 6:1 says we are to go when a person is caught in a trespass. That means there should be some kind of "pattern" or the unmistakeable exposure of a wrong. Don’t go the first time you hear a bad report about someone doing wrong. As we said above, there’s another side to most stories, and our motives are never totally pure when we get indignant. Go if the person seems caught—that is, trapped or stuck in a habit pattern of wrong behavior or falsehood.

How Should You Go?

Galatians 6:1 says we are to restore gently and in humility, bearing all the fruit of the Spirit. Beware of your own tendencies to be tempted—perhaps to the same sin, perhaps to reactive sins of self-righteousness or judgmentalism, perhaps to avoidance sins of cover-up and pretending. Galatians 6:2 goes on to say that we actually fulfill the law of Christ by bearing each other’s burdens. We become nothing less than lesser redeemers in the pattern of our Great Redeemer. Jesus in Matthew 18:15ff says we should also go persistently, and not give up in the process. Patience is one fruit of the Spirit because problems don’t always clear up quickly. There is a progression in efforts to get to the bottom of a bad report, to confirm the facts, and to work at bringing restoration.

Who Should Go?

Galatians 6 says you—plural—who are spiritual should go to the straying one. That both defines how you should go and it calls for multiple people to get involved. Similarly Matthew 18:15ff says to bring in other people if matters don’t resolve one to one. The right kind of checking out a bad report is always done in person and often will be done by involving multiple wise persons.

Why Should You Go?

In both Galatians 6 and Matthew 18 the goal is to restore the person and to re-establish sin-broken relationships. You are working to restore people both to God and to others.


In summary, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, the principle is this. If you hear bad reports about other Christians you must either cover it with love or go to them personally before speaking of it to any others.
  • The first thing to do is to simply suspend judgment. Don’t pass on bad reports.
  • The second thing to do is “cover” it in love, reminding yourself that you don’t know all about the heart of the person who may have done evil—and you know your own frailty. Don’t allow bad reports to pass into your own heart.
  • The final thing to do is go and speak to them personally.
What you should never do is rush to judgment, or withdraw from loving another, or pass on the negative report to others. This is challenge enough when you’re dealing with the local grapevine or slow-moving postal service. In a world of instant world-wide communication of information it’s an even bigger challenge, because you can do bigger damage more quickly. Whether the bad report offers true information, or partial information, or disinformation, or false information—it is even more important that you exercise great discretion, and that you take pains to maximize boots-on-the-ground interpersonal relationships.