On rare occasions, my wife drags me to the supermarket. Since I’m the primary beneficiary of what’s purchased there, she figures I should occasionally share in the burden of actually purchasing it. After thirty minutes of mindlessly pushing a wobbly cart up and down the aisles, I find my attention drawn to the gossip magazines at the checkout counter, which usually carry a story on Britney Spears or one of the three presidential candidates. On a good day, they carry stories about all four.
And when I find my attention thus drawn, I ask myself why a graduate-school-educated pastor would let himself get suckered into interest in that trash.
But let’s be honest: Who doesn’t like to read a little gossip now and then?
The Book of Proverbs recognizes the enduring power of gossip, of saying things about others behind their backs in order to harm them.
The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
they go down to a man’s inmost parts (18:8, 26:22).
Several months ago, some parishioners treated me and my wife to a dinner they had won from a professional caterer. The food was unbelievably tasty. Unfortunately, it was all marinated in so much butter that when we were finished eating, my stomach rebelled. Gossip is like that. It tastes good on the lips, but it does bad things to your soul.
Why? Well, sometimes it involves breaking trust with a friend.
A gossip betrays a confidence,
but a trustworthy man keeps a secret (11:13).
A gossip betrays a confidence;
so avoid a man who talks too much (20:19).
Sometimes it destroys relationships.
A perverse man stirs up dissension,
and a gossip separates close friends (16:28).
As a north wind brings rain,
so a sly tongue brings angry looks (25:23).
Without wood a fire goes out;
without gossip a quarrel dies down (26:20).
Sometimes it results in damage to our own reputations.
Do not bring hastily to court,
for what will you do in the end
if your neighbor puts you to shame?
If you argue your case with a neighbor,
do not betray another man’s confidence,
or he who hears it may shame you
and you will never lose your bad reputation (25:8-10).
And sometimes it ends up blowing up in our own faces.
Do not slander a servant to his master,
or he will curse you, and you will pay for it (30:10).
In each of these cases, it doesn’t matter whether what we’re saying is true. Obviously, it would be wrong to say something false about a person behind his back. But gossip may be built around true information and still be morally reprehensible. It is quite possible, after all, to speak the truth with malice and contempt in your heart. In fact, that’s what wrong with gossip: Information, whether true or false, is shared in order to harm someone else.
The next time you’re standing in line next to a gossip magazine, don’t look! If you wouldn’t want others to say those kinds of things about you, don’t read them about others!

Matters of the Heart

Americans spend billions of dollars each year on psychotherapy. Sometimes this is money well spent. I myself, for example, benefited from seeing a Christian counselor when I suffered depression several years ago. Sometimes, however, psychotherapy is not such a good investment. I know people who were offered bad advice by incompetent practitioners and came out of the process worse and poorer. The Book of Proverbs is a great psychotherapist, and the best part about it is that its advice is free.
Let’s take a look at what it says about matters of the heart.
An anxious heart weighs a man down,
but a kind word cheers him up (12:25).
Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life (13:12).
A heart at peace gives life to the body,
but envy rots the bones (14:30).
A happy heart makes the face cheerful,
but heartache crushes the spirit (15:13).
A cheerful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones (17:22)
At one level, what these proverbs teach is both obvious and trite. Positive emotions have positive effects on us, but negative emotions have negative effects. But these proverbs are not merely describing the relationship; they are prescribing certain actions. Speak kindly to an anxious man! Don’t defer hope indefinitely! Don’t envy others! We want to be happy, but happiness is the emotional byproduct of moral living. Do the right thing, and you’ll be happy.
Part of doing the right thing is speaking kindly to others.
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life,
but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit (15:4).
A cheerful look brings joy to the heart,
and good news gives health to the bones (15:30).
Our words have an incredible power to cheer others up. Unfortunately, some souls are so sour that not even singing songs is successful therapy.
Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day,
or like vinegar poured on soda,
is one who sings songs to a heavy heart (25:20).
This last proverb reminds us that we can be only so helpful to others. At some point, they are morally responsible for their emotional states.
Each heart knows its own bitterness,
and no one else can share its joy (14:10).
As water reflects a face,
so a man’s heart reflects the man (27:9).
Indeed, in some circumstances, it’s not even our job to try to cheer people up.
A man tormented by the guilt of murder
will be a fugitive till death;
let no one support him (28:17).
They are depressed because of immorality. Until they confess and make restitution, their guilt and shame will continue to sadden them.
In fact, while we all want to be happy, some level of sadness is simply part of the human condition.
Even in laughter the heart may ache,
and joy may end in grief (14:13).
We live in a sinful world, so some level of sadness is just our lot in life. But so is some level of happiness if listen to Dr. Proverbs wise counsel.

Social Insecurity

I live close to my church, so every now and then, a poor person comes to my house and asks for help. Such was the case with a woman who knocked on my door not long ago. From the way she was dressed and the way she spoke, it was clear that she had not been homeless long. She said she needed lodging and help with bus fare to Seattle.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t in the mood to help. I had just finished a frustrating day at the office and was tired. My wife was sick. We were looking forward to spending a quiet evening alone. And, since I’m being honest, I resented the fact that the only reason this woman knocked on my door was because a church volunteer pointed out where I lived. Had he not done so, she wouldn’t have bothered me.
My conscience got to me, however, and after asking her a few questions, I arranged for lodging and drove her downtown to the bus station to buy her ticket to Seattle. On the way home, I reflected on my lot in life and hers. I was happily married, gainfully employed, respectfully housed, and socially secure. She was none of those things. She was socially insecure. I thanked God for the blessings he had given me and repented of the hard heart I had toward others less fortunate.
I tell you this story not because I’m proud of myself. Frankly, I’m a bit embarrassed about my initial response to this poor lady. Rather, I tell you this story because it reminded me of the yawning gap between the socially secure and the socially insecure in our society, between the haves and have-nots, between people with bright futures and people with no hope. And also because it reminded me of the yawning gap between the way I think about the socially insecure and the way God does.
Consider these two proverbs:
The Lord tears down the proud man’s house
but he keeps the widow’s boundaries intact (15:25).
Do not move an ancient boundary stone
or encroach on the fields of the fatherless,
for their Defender is strong;
he will take up their case against you.
Apply your heart to instruction
and your ears to words of knowledge (23:10-12).
“Widow” and “orphan” is Bible-talk for socially insecure people, that is, people without wealth, relationships, or skills to rely on when hard times fall on them. All they had was their ancestral plot of land from which they could not be disinherited by law. But because they had no wealth, relationship, or skills, widows and orphans often lost their land to unscrupulous people who took it from them by force. Against such unscrupulous thieves, God pledged himself to the socially insecure as their “Defender.” The point of these proverbs is that anyone who believes in God ought to be a defender of the widows and orphans too.
Remember that the next time a poor person knocks on your door!

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