“The tongue is a fire” — James 3:6

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear. Eph. 4:29

Glenn D. Rolfsen, a psychotherapist that works in corporate health service in Oslo, Norway, argues that in his many years of addressing unhealthy work environments, the unrivaled number one factor behind toxic work environments is backbiting gossip. He defines this sort of gossip as “speaking negatively about a third party when they are not present,” and says it contributes to division, mistrust and prevents people in an organization from pursuing healthier and more productive ways of dealing with issues.

Rolfson also argues that it is frequently the case that such backbiting gossip flourishes in institutional systems where the healthy channels of communication that are essential for addressing grievances or engaging in group problem solving are not functioning properly. In the absence of those open channels, people tend to find other — dysfunctional — ways of addressing those issues that, in the end, work against the healthy synergy every organization depends on for success.

In addressing this problem, Rolfson offers what he calls the ‘triple filter” test for determining whether information sharing is gossip or not. And then he encourages staffs to sign a six-month agreement to refrain from all communication that does not pass the triple filter test. The filter includes:

First, is what you are saying true? Is it based on solid evidence? Is it the whole truth or a misleading partial truth? Are you presenting it in a way that, to the best of your knowledge, will help others see a greater truth about this person or situation? Or are you distorting the information to cast a darker shadow?

Second, is it good? Does it have anything good to affirm about the person, amid the negative, that offers as charitable (though honest) a read as possible? Is the reason you are sharing it for the person’s good or for some other substantive and greater good? Do you have both a right and a duty to share the information you share? 

Third, is it useful? Does your sharing of information serve a clear and constructive goal? Is the person you are telling someone who can do something about the situation to somehow make it better? Is your decision to share information a step toward dealing with the person or situation you speak of more directly and appropriately? 

In sum: are you speaking truth in love?

Of course, as dealing with human relationships is a complex art, determining what constitutes backbiting gossip can be quite difficult at times, e.g. searching your motives or judging your tactics for effectively dealing with difficult people, situations and dysfunctional environments. I find navigating this art a constant challenge, and so it is a frequent focus in my daily examination of conscience.

Ask: Am I serving Christ’s mission to reconcile and make us ‘one family,’ which he achieved at the cost of his death? Or am I an ally of the Slanderer and Accuser whose goal is always to sow seeds of division and mistrust?

This is a prayer I wrote once after Confession to keep me from this sin:

Lord Jesus, you are the Truth
that sets us free.
Teach me to always speak the truth in love.
Give me right judgment and wisdom of heart, to know how to speak a word that will foster unity, forgiveness and build others up.
Quench in me the fires of envy, lying, malice and revenge.
Create in me a magnanimous spirit.
Forgive all my sins against your truth
and give me the courage to resist every temptation to gossip.
Spirit of Unity, make me an instrument of your peace.
Mary, Mother of Reconciliation, pray for us.

2 comments on ““The tongue is a fire” — James 3:6

  1. Marianne says:

    So true! James Ch.3:3-12 speaks of the tongue. Also, a quote from St. Paul of the Cross that convicts me, where he speaks of the tongue and receiving communion with piety.
    “Always prepare yourself well for this Sacred Banquet (Holy Communion). Have a very pure heart, and watch over your tongue, for it is on the tongue that the Sacred Host is laid.” Wow!

    • Marianne! Just beautiful, thank you. The sacred reverence of Holy Communion, such a sacramental sign of what life is to be always.
      Similarly, I always loved St Cyril of Jerusalem’s mystagogical catechesis on receiving Communion as a further extension of St. Paul’s words on the body’s sacred identity in grace:
      May we live and love Christ always with such reverence in all His haunts!

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