The Church and the Whisperers
As many of you have come to recognize, I like to start sermons most weeks with a lighthearted story — often one about myself — that serves as an illustration for the message and that helps provide an emotional attachment point between you and me.
Today, I have no such lighthearted story.
In fact, today, my heart is heavy, and I feel compelled to share that with you — not so much so that we will have an emotional attachment, but so you will, perhaps, recognize the heart from which I speak today.
Today we will continue with the second part of the three-part series I have called “How to Break a Church.”
I did not want to preach this series.
While I was away on vacation — and, indeed, a number of times since then — I prayed that God would steer me in another direction.
I recognize that some of you are here today looking for an encouraging word. And while I believe that there is a clear message of encouragement here, I know that some will go away thinking that Pastor Res just keeps beating us up.
After all, one of the things I was called by our deacons to pursue here as your interim pastor was healing. So why would I spend three weeks on confrontation; why would I preach messages that I know will upset some of you?
When I was talking to Annette about this recently, it occurred to me that our daughter, Desiree’s, battle with cancer gives an apt metaphor for the position in which I find myself.
Desiree’s cancer is located in three small nodules in one of her lungs. The rest of her body, praise God, is healthy.
Now, we might be tempted, given these facts, to wish that her regular chemotherapy infusions would end — that she would no longer be subject to the sometimes harsh effects of the treatment, given that her cancer is so small.
But what we all know is that if cancer in the body is left untreated it will metastatize, and the parts of the body that were healthy will become diseased.
So we go after cancer with all the tools we have available, even if it’s painful. We monitor the treatments to see if they have been effective. And we pray for God to intervene.
Similarly, this church shows great signs of health in Jesus Christ. Our outreach ministries last weekend were perfect examples of the body of Christ performing in the healthy way for which it was designed.
But there are some serious problems, and, if they are left untreated and unconfronted, these problems will spread. This is the message the Lord has given me over and again as I have prayed for Him to release me from teaching this series.
The treatment may be painful, and its effects may temporarily even appear to be harmful to the body, but the treatment cannot be avoided if the body is to be healed.
So today, we will continue this series, and next week we will conclude it.
But I want you all to remember something I said two weeks ago, when I talked about grumblers in the church. Remember that I said that message was not for the grumblers, because they would never admit or even recognize the fact that they’re grumblers.
So, too, with this message today about the whisperers — the gossips and the idle talkers and the people who sow discontent with their words — this message is not for them.
This message is for the ones that I believe represent the great majority of believers here today — the ones who “trust in the Lord with all their heart, and lean not unto their own understanding,” the ones who seek to follow Jesus and continue to be made in His image by doing the things that He did and by loving the way that He loves.
This message is to help them know what the problem looks like and to know how it must be treated.
In what I consider to be one of the most beautiful passages of Scripture, the Apostle John wrote of Jesus being the very Word of God.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
4 In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.
God’s Word is light and life for mankind.
This isn’t simply some abstract theological concept.
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and that they might have it more abundantly.”
Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
These are the words of the one John called the Word.
The God whose Word brought light and life into a place of darkness and lifelessness is the God in whose image we have been made. Our own words, then, should be like His — words of life.
This is even more true of those who follow Jesus Christ.
Indeed, Scripture speaks in many cases of the life-giving power of our words.
In the book of Proverbs, for example, Solomon writes:
14 The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, To turn aside from the snares of death.
In another proverb, he calls the mouth of the righteous “a fountain of life.” And in another, he says that “a soothing tongue is a tree of life.”
The implications here are clear.
When we speak the wisdom of God, we communicate life, the kind of life that John described in his gospel — the life first described in the book of Genesis, when God breathed His Spirit into mankind and charged Adam and Eve with displaying His image throughout the earth.
Life in the sense used here in the book of Proverbs and again in the Gospel of John means representing the character and desires of God in this physical realm.
So when we speak the wisdom of God, we are representing His character and His desires here on earth. We are imaging Him.
Throughout the book of Proverbs, that’s what we see the wise man and the righteous man doing.
But the tongue is a dangerous tool. Solomon wrote that it “has the power of life AND death.” James, the brother of Jesus wrote, “See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!”
6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.
Later, he adds, “it is restless and evil and full of deadly poison.”
By now, you should be asking yourself an important question: Are my words a fountain or life or are they a deadly poison?
First youAre my words a fountain or life or are they a deadly poison?
We all have it within u
And I’m going to submit that you should be asking the same things about what you hear around the church, as well, even from those who claim the name of Christ.
Now that might seem cynical to some of you, but even Jesus, when He sent His disciples out with the authority to cast out demons and the power to heal diseases, warned them:
16 “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.
16 “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.
17 “But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues;
Jesus calls us to be harmless to one another, but He also calls us to recognize that there are those — even among those who consider themselves to be religious people — who will seek to harm us.
So how can we know how to identify them?
Turn with me to Proverbs, Chapter 26.
While you are turning there, let me set up the book of Proverbs for you.
Proverbs divides people roughly into three groups: the wise, the foolish and the naive.
The wise are those who put their faith in the Lord and in His wisdom. The foolish are those who put their faith in themselves and their own wisdom — the wisdom of the world. And the naive are the primary beneficiaries of Solomon’s wisdom, though he also notes that those who are wise will “increase in learning” by studying the proverbs.
This is important, because this is how I conclude that these sermons on How to Break a Church are primarily for the great majority in the church who are seeking to follow Jesus.
Here’s what Solomon wrote about the matter:
11 When the scoffer is punished, the naive becomes wise; But when the wise is instructed, he receives knowledge.
The scoffer is one of the fools in this book. When he is punished, who becomes wiser?
That’s right, the naive.
And what happens when the wise person receives instruction?
That’s right, he receives knowledge. He becomes wiser.
There is no indication here that the scoffer becomes wiser, and, in fact, Proverbs is littered with warnings not to engage the fool, except in the case of answering a fool as his folly deserves.
In other words, we are to call out those who are acting foolishly so that they will know their folly is not tolerated.
That’s an important lesson for us, and it’s one to which we will return in a few minutes.
For now, though, let’s take a look at the ways we can tell when words are being used to spread poison, instead of giving life. We’ll pick up in Verse 20 of Chapter 26.
26 A wise king winnows the wicked, And drives the threshing wheel over them.
20 For lack of wood the fire goes out, And where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down.
Poison-spreaders are whisperers. They do not engage their subjects head-on, and they prefer to do their talking behind the backs of others.
We can think of them as gossips, but not in the modern sense we usually have of people who share secrets.
A more biblical definition of gossiping is “saying anything negative about someone behind his back out of any motivation besides love.”
If you go home today and call someone who wasn’t here this morning and say, “You should have seen what a nice haircut Pastor Res had,” that’s clearly not gossip.
But if your reaction to this sermon is to get on the phone and say, “You won’t believe what he said this morning,” then there’s a good chance you’re engaging in gossip.
Gossipers like to stoke the fire. Whisperers thrive on kindling dissension.
21 Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, So is a contentious man to kindle strife.
Contentious people in the church are not satisfied with unity behind the work of the Lord. They kindle strife by whispering to the naive about how they’ve been hurt, whether anything hurtful has occurred or not.
They are quick to find offense and slow to show forgiveness. And they are eager to share their offense with others, seemingly without care for the damage their poisonous words and attitudes have on the body of Christ.
22 The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, And they go down into the innermost parts of the body.
When we were in France, I was delighted to see all the beautiful pastries, and I sampled more than a couple of them.
But what I learned was that just because something looked light and fluffy didn’t mean it wouldn’t weigh on the stomach like a brick later on.
This is the effect of the words of a whisperer. They are not easily forgotten, and they cause pain to the Body of Christ later on.
But whisperers and gossips and contentious people in the church are like those beautiful pastries in France in another important way: They don’t always look like what they are.
23 Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel are fervent lips with an evil heart.
Now I’ve switched to the ESV for this verse, because its translation of the first half comes closer to the meaning of the original Hebrew. But the word that’s translated “fervent” has also been translated as “smooth,” which I think puts the whole verse in harmony.
Smooth talking can make even evil intentions appear nice, much as the glaze on an earthenware pot can conceal its blemishes.
The point is that gossips rarely present their gossip for what it is. In the church, they’re likely to pretty up their poisonous words with spiritual-sounding clichés.
“We really need to pray for Susie,” the gossip might whisper. “I saw her coming out of the ABC store the other day.”
As Jesus said, we need to be “shrewd as serpents” to see beneath the disguise to the deceit that lies below.
24 He who hates disguises it with his lips, But he lays up deceit in his heart.
We need to recognize that the wolf’s smile reveals teeth that can do great damage.
And there is not much distance between the one who whispers and the one who tells outright lies. Both conceal the truth in one way or another.
And even gracious-sounding words from whisperers reveal what’s really in their hearts.
25 When he speaks graciously, do not believe him, For there are seven abominations in his heart.
Now, Solomon wrote about the seven abominations in chapter 6 of this book.
16 There are six things which the Lord hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him:
17 Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood,
18 A heart that devises wicked plans, Feet that run rapidly to evil,
19 A false witness who utters lies, And one who spreads strife among brothers.
Note that three of these abominations deal with our words.
Now, Jesus said, “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart,” so what we can glean here is that the one who spreads strife, the one who is a false witness, the whisperer and the gossip reveal with their words what is in their hearts.
Going back to our focus passage, in verse 26:
26 Though his hatred covers itself with guile, His wickedness will be revealed before the assembly.
God will judge every idle word, every whispered phrase and every malicious statement, no matter how well it has been disguised.
God knows our hearts. He knows what we’ve said and why we’ve said it. He knows the fool from the wise man, even if they do not recognize it themselves.
Writing to the church in Rome, Paul said the foolish hearts of those who did evil things had become darkened. “Professing to be wise, they became fools.”
And so, “God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper,”
29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips,
30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,
31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful;
Murderers. Haters of God. Unloving inventors of evil. And gossips and slanderers — those who defame others.
All in the same terrible list.
So what can the church do about it?
32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
Paul returns to the topic to answer this question later in the book of Romans.
17 Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.
18 For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.
Be “shrewd as serpents.” Keep your eye on them. turn away from them.
We tend to think that words aren’t that big a deal. “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That’s what we teach our children, isn’t it?
But we’re all old enough to know that isn’t really true, is it?
Gossip — the negative things we say about someone behind their backs out of any motivation besides love — can destroy friendships. And it can break a church.
“Do you know how many people it takes to split a church? Not half the congregation. Just two. One to start spreading the fiery negativity, and another not to confront that behavior as the sin that it is. [Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Preaching the Word: Proverbs—Wisdom That Works, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 132.]
1 Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Preaching the Word: Proverbs—Wisdom That Works, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 132.
Don’t miss the point here: It’s not just the gossip who is the problem. It’s the one who does not confront him and shut him down.
Solomon wrote about this, too, and his words stung me as I remembered the times in my life when I stood by and listened as someone tore someone else down in my presence.
4 An evildoer listens to wicked lips; A liar pays attention to a destructive tongue.
I found something about this in one of my commentaries, and I want to share it with you this morning:
“God wants us to know that just standing there and listening, tolerating the evil, shares in the evil. Listening is itself lying: ‘A liar [pays attention to a a destructive] tongue.” We lie to ourselves that we are not involved because we are only listening. But listeners are involved. Be careful what you listen to. A person can become a “garbage collector.” Someone in the group becomes the one to whom disgruntled people go, because that person will listen and sympathize and be a shoulder to cry on and a rallying point for complaints and a hero to those with hurt feelings. And that listener becomes a bigger problem in the group than the talkers. [Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Preaching the Word: Proverbs—Wisdom That Works, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 133.]
God wants us to know that just standing there and listening, tolerating the evil, shares in the evil. Listening is itself lying: “A liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue.” We lie to ourselves that we are not involved because we are only listening. But listeners are involved. Be careful what you listen to. A person can become a “garbage collector.” Someone in the group becomes the one to whom disgruntled people go, because that person will listen and sympathize and be a shoulder to cry on and a rallying point for complaints and a hero to those with hurt feelings. And that listener becomes a bigger problem in the group than the talkers.
Don’t be a listener. Turn a deaf ear. Walk away. Tell the gossiper that you will not participate in their contention.
Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Preaching the Word: Proverbs—Wisdom That Works, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 133.
Even better than that, make your words, like those of Jesus Christ, words of life, rather than words filled with poison.
Be an encourager and not a discourager.
Be wise and not foolish.
“Good words make people glad in Christ. And when a whole church does that together, it starts feeling like revival.” [Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Preaching the Word: Proverbs—Wisdom That Works, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 136.]
1 Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Preaching the Word: Proverbs—Wisdom That Works, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 136.
I know that many of you earnestly desire revival at Liberty Spring Christian Church and, indeed, in the greater church.
And I know that many of you earnestly desire for me to return to messages of encouragement from this pulpit.
Let me encourage you now: Jesus Christ — he who died for the sins of mankind and then rose again and ascended to heaven — stands at the right hand of His Father in Heaven, waiting for the hour when God says it is time to return to earth and take home all those throughout history who have followed Him in faith.
As we are taken home with Him, we believers will be given glorified bodies whose hearts are no longer inclined to evil. There will be no more cancer, neither in individuals nor in the church.
All things will be made new. We will still have voices, but our voices will never again be used to tear down one another.
Instead, we will sing, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.”
6 Then I heard something like the voice of a great multitude and like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.
And, indeed, He does reign.