How much does it hurt when someone slanders you? How long does it stay with you when someone shares negative things about you with others? How deep does it go when someone slices into your reputation with twisted words you know don’t represent the truth?
Slander is serious business. It poisons hearts and fractures friendships. It widens the chasm between already-divided opponents, and splits churches the world over. Yet for all its danger and destruction, it’s still pervasive throughout our polarized reporting, ubiquitous in our paparazzi culture, and omnipresent in our online consumption.
Far more disturbing, every day our own evil thoughts sprinkle the seeds of unripe suspicions and unproven accusations into the soft soil of our own slander-ready hearts. And these seeds sprout far more quickly than we realize, slithering their tendrils through the lattice-work of societal acceptance and plopping their poisonous fruits into minds and hearts that are just as eager to hear our juicy insinuations as we were to grow them. “The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body” ((Proverbs 18:8; 26:22). Indeed, as an older mentor of mine once said, “We’re far too careless with each other’s reputations.”
The term diabolos means “accuser.” It’s used thirty-seven times in the New Testament; thirty-three times it refers to the Devil himself, and four times it refers to human beings. Of these four, twice it’s used to describe what mature older women are not (1 Timothy 3:11; Titus 2:3); once it’s used to refer to the “slanderous” evildoers marking the last days (2 Timothy 3:3); and only once does it describe a named human being: Judas (Luke 6:70).
But what exactly does it look like to be an “accuser” or “slanderer”? The best way to learn is to watch the master at work. We find the term diabolos a remarkable thirteen times in two cohesive chapters of the Greek translation of the Old Testament: Job 1–2. Laid out before us, in icy detail, are five slippery steps toward slander.
1. Look for opportunity (Job 1:7; 2:2).
The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
What’s the Accuser doing as he wanders around? Not collecting seashells. Peter warns, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Lightning doesn’t strike because trees exist; lightning strikes as a violent expression of its nature. Slanderers don’t slander because evil people keep bumping into them; slanderers slander because malice is in their hearts. They’re proud, and want others shamed; they’re jealous, and want others discredited; they’re vengeful, and want others punished. Human accusers, like the great Accuser himself, look for opportunity.
2. Condemn hidden motives (Job 1:8-10; 2:4).
And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.”
Recognizing people’s ulterior motives is an important part of growing up. We learn to distinguish encouragement from flattery. We learn that persuasion is different than manipulation. Jesus condemned the elitist motives of religious hypocrites, and Paul exposed the selfish motives of rival preachers. There are times, places, and ways in which motives are revealed, and once revealed, good judgment doesn’t deny what’s clearly seen.
But to pretend like you have X-ray vision and to go around running a constant, silent MRI on people’s motives is dangerous and wrong. For the handful of times each day when we interpret others’ motives rightly, we no doubt get them wrong just as often. And even when we’re right, we’re rarely completely right. There’s usually much more to someone’s intentions than what the eye can see or the mind can guess. All of this makes the habit of condemning others’ hidden motives a sinful and slippery step toward slander.
3. Project the worst (Job 1:11; 2:5).
“But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”
Not content to disparage Job’s hidden motives, the Accuser now begins predicting (with great confidence) Job’s presumed response to projected suffering. Rather than assuming that Job’s blameless character would endure serious hardship, the Accuser projects not only a poor response but the worst possible response: “he will curse you to your face.”
Those whose hearts are regularly (1) looking for opportunity and (2) condemning hidden motives will not find it difficult to take the next step and begin projecting the worst onto people.
4. Reject good evidence (Job 2:3-5).
And the Lord said to Satan, “Job . . . still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”
An accusing heart will twist the best of evidences. Job has passed God’s devastating test with flying colors, and has overcome Satan’s harshest temptations. But the Accuser rejects this pristine evidence of extreme blamelessness and still predicts that Job will curse God once Job’s own body begins to suffer.
Here we see that an accusing heart will twist anything, whether good evidence or even neutral facts. She lives in a nice house — she must be materialistic. She’s got a great personality — she must be flirtatious. She memorizes Scripture — I bet she’s proud about it. She looks nice — I bet she got work done. Her children are obedient — she must be a stickler. Her children are struggling — she has no control. Anything at all, up to and including evidence of good character, will be twisted and rejected by a slanderous heart.
5. Find ways to harm (Job 1:12; 2:7).
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.
Like water runs downhill, an accusatory heart runs to harm others. Here the Accuser strikes at Job’s body. But slander, in some ways, does far worse: It strikes at a person’s name, which is far more valuable than we like to think. If “a good name is better than riches” (Proverbs 22:1), then slander is theft.
We all feel victimized when we’re the victim of reputational larceny, but how often would we find ourselves suspects rather than victims if God were to publicize the many harmful words we speak about others each week?
Nevertheless, the greatest problem with slander is not the harm it does to the good names each of us hope to have. The greatest problem with slander is that it cuts jaggedly across the grain of the forgiving gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the gospel we find a perfect God-man with an immaculate and eternal reputation who endures the wrongful accusations made against himself and absorbs the rightful accusations made against us. With unparalleled mercy, he suffers in his body on the cross all the deep piercings our slanderous words have caused.
In other words, we serve a Savior who doesn’t make accusations but embraces them, taking them into himself and extinguishing their legal power against us.
Thus those of us who call ourselves Christians now walk in his righteousness and his good name, and when controlled by his Spirit, we harness our hearts and muzzle our mouths lest we defame the good name of our Savior by standing in accusation over those he readily forgives.
In this way the slippery steps toward slander are meant to be reversed in the sanctified Christian life: We climb Calvary’s hill each day to marvel anew at the cross where all our sin-debts were carried away to die, and then we linger there, striving to live cross-worn lives that absorb the sins of others with mercy and forgiveness, offering no violence, verbal or otherwise, in return.