At Work

Counterfeit Gods at the Water Cooler

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A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal explored the dilemma of gossip in the workplace. The print version of the article, entitled They’re Gossiping About You: Strategies to Silence the Office Rumor Mill; the Talk Can Even Work in Your Favor, chronicles just that. Complete with winsome pictures and flow charts, Sue Shellenbarger’s column gives the following advice to frustrated nine-to-fivers:

 Not all gossip is bad. Some workplace talk can help ease stress or frustration over perceived injustices, research shows. It can pressure selfish or low-performing  co-workers to shape up. Knowing and sharing gossip are ways for employees who lack power to gain informal influence among their peers.

Is buying into the office buzz really as benign as the article would have readers think?

The Problem with Gossip

Contrast the above quote with this except from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:29-32).

In opposition to the argument that gossip is merely at tool for self-advancement, Paul contends for all speech to be used to love others and glorify God. The Gospels fuel this relational paradigm shift from self to others. Through the work of the Holy Spirit our conversations become what Paul describes in Colossians as “gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6).

Diagnosing Gossip

And yet, we still gossip. What makes the idle chatter so alluring?

I recently spoke with James Forsyth, senior pastor of McLean Presbyterian Church, about this question. He offered a compelling explanation through the picture of an erupting volcano.

Imagine Vesuvius or Mount St. Helens spewing hot lava and ash from deep within the earth’s core. Sin, gossip in this case, is like that lava, utterly destructive and yet only a foretaste of what is hiding below. What hides below our sins? Is it not the idols we worship?

Tim Keller defines the power of an idol in his book, Counterfeit Gods:

An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought.

Thus gossip stems from our idols’ control over our hearts. Perhaps your gossip feeds the god of power or placates the idol of human approval, both major categories Keller expounds upon in his book. Suddenly that snide remark whispered between cubicles takes on a more insidious tone.

Compelling Love at the Water Cooler

What is the solution to stopping gossip? Must we simply muster the self-control to resist contributing to the conversation? Quoting Thomas Chalmers from his famous sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Keller explains that idols must not be simply destroyed but replaced:

The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one. . . . it is not enough . . . to hold out to the world the mirror of its own imperfections. It is not enough to come forth with a demonstration of the evanescent character of your enjoyments . . . to speak to the conscience . . . of its follies. . . . Rather, try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts for the love of Him who is greater than the world.

Gossip, workplace or otherwise, indicates what St. Augustine called disordered loves. Keller and Chalmers attest that only the supremacy of Christ’s compelling love can heal our hearts at the deepest level. His perfect love can transform even our talk at the water cooler.

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  • Kevin Raymond

    thanks for articles they are very helpful,it puts a positive spin on break time talk.

  • Sid in Missouri

    Excellent article. I see and hear the same problem of work place gossip also among family and “friends”. And whether well intended or not, it doesn’t fit into the Christ-like attitude. Nor does it conform to the basic pattern we’ve been given to resolve conflicts, as stated in Matthew 18:15. “Go to your brother in private…”

    That one verse alone should be enough to realize that water-cooler gossip is forbidden for a follower of Christ. Let’s go a step further beyond the water-cooler….

    As Christ’s ambassadors, we simply must get rid of casual criticisms. Casual meaning we adopt the “just sayin'” attitude that is common on internet chat rooms, blogs, and commentary in social media.

    “Just sayin'” is a throw-away phrase that basically means, “I half-heartedly acknowledge that maybe some people will be hurt by what I said, but I’m going to claim I didn’t mean it as hurtful (even if I didn’t bother to think it thru before I said it)…but I was just tell it like it is. So therefore you have no right to be offended at my thoughtless treatment of something or someone dear to you”.

    Ugh, no Christian should have the phrase “just sayin'” in their vocabulary! It’s too casual and thoughtless to critique someone or something in a snarky way and then attempt to justify yourself by claiming yourself to be above reproach as a “truth teller.”

    Casual criticisms also apply to how we speak about our children, our spouse, our co-workers, our church leaders, and our Government when we aren’t feeling right with God. There is a distinction between venting our spleen when we feel cheated, betrayed, or just tired and snarky as opposed to giving thoughtful, constructive criticism that builds up and affirms.

    St. Paul tells us to speak the truth in love. Often, I get this wrong because I’m concerned only speaking what my perception of the truth is, and furthermore, I forget the “love” part entirely. We know from 1 Corinthians 13 that love always hopes, always perseveres, always forgives, always builds up, never keeps record of wrongs.

    If my speech is guided by these two principles–talking only to the person in question and speaking the truth with genuine Christian love–I will only please and glorify God with my words.

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