Often we justify these sins by telling ourselves that "I am just seeking guidance," or "I'm just getting it off my chest," or "I need some support." In reality, most of the time, these justifications are little lies we tell ourselves. And we are harming ourselves, and the person(s) we talk to, as well as the person(s) we talk about.
All too often, we also embellish our complaints about the faults of others with our own judgments, what he meant by this action, what her intentions were, what his motives were. And we might even deliberately or inadvertently add details that are simply false, making the object of our talk look worse than he or she is.
Even if I talk only to one person, supposedly seeking guidance or consolation, and even if that one person keeps the information to herself, I have harmed the other's reputation. I have denied myself the true consolation that might have been offered by God. I have set myself up as a judge, and have imposed upon myself the harsher judgment promised by Christ in his gospel. I have also set myself at risk to have my own reputation harmed by someone else's talk.
If my friend responds with her own take on things, she may add her own embellishments and judgments, thereby making things worse, ruining the other person's reputation even further in my own mind, confirming and worsening my own judgments and imputations, and bringing upon herself the same harms that God has promised to those who commit this sin.
And the two of us are stuck in this self-promoting loop of calumny and detraction, until we have utterly destroyed the object of our talk in our minds, and made of him a monster who seems utterly unredeemable.
And worse, if one of us decides to take this "information" to a fourth party, not only do we spread the ruined reputation of the object of our talk, but we risk ruining our own reputations by revealing our own sin of gossip and judgment. Further, we increase the retribution which we are promised by Christ.
This talk, or these emails, or these editorials, whatever form they take, can only feed our misery and make things worse for everyone involved. They are a form of injustice. EVERYONE without except has a right to his reputation, and we may reveal the faults of others ONLY to one who has a strict right to know, or who is truly capable of doing something about the faults or crimes the other has committed. When we reveal faults, or tell lies about others, or embellish real or suspected faults with inaccurate information or imagined or suspected details, we are also sinning against mercy, and we thereby cut ourselves off from God's mercy. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
I have personally experienced the "push-back" the arises from this kind of talk. I have, with a trusted confident, talked about the faults of others, and nearly every time I have done so, that talk has turned into a fight or a dispute between me and my confident. Because we were "eating the flesh" of some other, we ended up "eating the flesh" of each other. We began finding or remembering each other's faults, and turned on each other.
And I have often experienced the other effects I mentioned above of such gossip, and have found myself punished indirectly by my own sins, easily traced back to the calumnious or detracting talk I have engaged in.
"Love is patient. Love is kind, etc." We have tended to relegate this passage from Saint Paul to weddings, as if it were only about married couples. It is not. It is a summary of Christian perfection. It is a meditation on the Beatitudes. It is an illustration of the kind of love we ALL ought to be practicing toward everyone, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Detraction and calumny, or gossip, are also a form of revenge, and there is no room for revenge in the Christian life. It is a base form of consolation and pleasure that is utterly beneath the dignity of the Christian. It deprives us of God's mercy, of God's consolation, of spiritual Joy. It sets us up for ruin and misery. It can do no good.
I admit that I have often done this, committed this sin. I have often justified it by telling myself: "I'm only telling my wife. Surely I can talk to my own wife about how another has hurt me." "I'm telling my friend. I hope he can comfort me, or give me advice. He'll keep my secret." Right. I'm taking pleasure in my talk by exalting myself over my "enemy" as if I had done no wrong, putting him or her into the position of being judged by my friend and me in a private kangaroo court.
This kind of evil talk is condemned in many places in the psalms and elsewhere in the old testament and in the new testament. It is a poison that erodes the souls of the talkers and tellers. It poisons relationships. It harms everyone who is involved in it.
I repent of this evil and firmly resolve to strictly avoid any form of it from now on. I pray for those who are in the habit of discussing and embellishing and judging the real and supposed faults of others, that they too may repent before they destroy themselves in an endless loop of bitterness and shame and hatred. May all Christians repent and give up all the criticism and judgment, calumny and detraction, and all gossip, all the evils that Saint James says comes from the tongue which is a restless evil, a consuming fire.