The single phrase, “Don’t tell him (or her) that I told you this, but . . .” – and the other phrases like it – are often preludes for what those in the recovery movement call triangulation – telling someone stories about someone else that they would not say to that person’s face. It’s a cowardly form of indirect communication, and scripture often uses terms to describe it such as talebearing or gossip. Some other terms that we have for this nowadays are spreading rumors, telling stories and backstabbing.
Unfortunately, most people say nothing when they hear this phrase, but they passively let the other person simply go on with whatever it was to say. Early in my first pastorate, I started to develop a habit of interrupting the person and saying as politely, gently and firmly as I could when they came to the “but”: “Please don’t go on any further.” Another way to address this would be to say something like, “Let’s back up. Why don’t you want the other person to know about this?” Or something like, “This sounds like something that that person really needs to hear from someone. Do you realize that you’re not doing yourself or that person any good by not telling him or her the truth in love?”
I only know of one person that was really offended by this approach, and she went on to make me one of the targets of her gossip afterwards. But that was a risk that I was willing to take. You see, I had come across Psalm 101:5 not long before: “Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off . . .”
I think that many times our passivity in these situations is more a result of our reluctance to avoid confronting evil when we see it. Very often we would rather want others to see us as an open minded, hip, up to date, nice guy Christian than to come across in the least ways as judgmental. But I can’t see Jesus sitting by passively in the face of slander. Rather, he would be the complete and utter fulfillment of the motivation that David gave for his planned reaction to attempted slander: “I will walk within my house with a perfect (or upright) heart.” (Psalm 101:2).