A New Era magazine's "Mormonad" is illustrated by a line of hands dripping with black paint. It is obvious that as the tainted hand touches a clean hand, the clean hand is instantly stained.
The message, titled "Gossip, don't pass it on," is simple: If you come in contact with harsh words spoken about another, wash your hands before you inadvertently – or even deliberately – pass those words to another and leave your hands stained by the experience.
In essence, we must watch what we say because our words will leave a mark – for good or ill – on those with whom we come into contact.
The scriptures are clear on the subject. The Psalmist taught, "keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile" (Psalm 34:13). The Savior, in establishing the laws of the Restored Church, said, "Thou shalt not speak evil of thy neighbor, nor do him any harm" (Doctrine and Covenants 42:27).
And Solomon noted that ill-spoken words become the kindling of contention:
"Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no tale bearer, the strife ceaseth.
"As coals are to burning coals, and wood to fire; so is a contentious man to kindle strife" (Proverbs 26:20-22).
It's a principle we should all take to heart.
"It seems common practice for people to talk about their friends and neighbors and to criticize their seeming peculiarities and weaknesses," said President N. Eldon Tanner, then second counselor in the First Presidency in 1972. "In fact, it is so general that one would think that gossiping about and judging others was the thing to do. …"
But, he explained, "gossip is the worst form of judging."
"The tongue is the most dangerous, destructive and deadly weapon available to man. ... We never gain anything or improve our own character by trying to tear down another" ("Judge Not, That Ye Be Not Judged," Ensign, July 1972).
President Tanner said when he witnessed harsh words spoken, he often turned his thoughts to a hymn:
Let each man learn to know himself;
To gain that knowledge let him labor,
Improve those failings in himself
Which he condemns so in his neighbor.
How lenient our own faults we view,
And conscience's voice adeptly smother;
Yet, oh, how harshly we review
The selfsame failings in another! …
So first improve yourself today
And then improve your friends tomorrow (Hymns, no. 91, 1950 printing).
President Thomas S. Monson said it takes courage to avoid gossip and judging others.
"Oh, you may ask, 'Does this really take courage?' " he said. "And I would reply that I believe there are many times when refraining from judgment — or gossip or criticism, which are certainly akin to judgment — takes an act of courage.
"Unfortunately, there are those who feel it necessary to criticize and to belittle others. You have, no doubt, been with such people, as you will be in the future. … We are not left to wonder what our behavior should be in such situations. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior declared, 'Judge not.' At a later time, He admonished, 'Cease to find fault one with another.' It will take real courage when you are surrounded by your peers and feeling the pressure to participate in such criticisms and judgments to refrain from joining in" ("May You Have Courage," General Young Women Meeting, March 28, 2009; Ensign, May 2009, 123).
President David O. McKay said the process needs to start in our homes.
"But there are destructive termites of homes, and some of these are backbiting, evil-speaking and faultfinding on the part either of parents or of children," he said.
"Slander is poison to the soul. In the ideal home, there is no slanderous gossip about schoolteachers, about public officials or about Church officials. I am more grateful now, after years have come and gone, to my father, who with hands lifted said, 'Now, no faultfinding about your teacher or anybody else' " ("Our Greatest Obligation," Ensign, October 1972).
But the greatest problem with gossip is illustrated effectively in that Mormonad. Like the black paint, once words have left us to be passed to others by the people we taint, they cannot be reclaimed.
In the Miracle of Forgiveness, President Spencer W. Kimball wrote: "Lies and gossip, which harm reputations, are scattered about by the four winds like the seeds of a ripe dandelion held aloft by a child. Neither the seeds nor the gossip can ever be gathered in. The degree and extent of the harm done by the gossip is inestimable" (page 54).
Avoiding gossip is a simple way to ensure that our words will not leave stains on the hands of another.