No doubt there are many reasons underlying this phenomenon, which social media psychologists would be able to tell us more about. It’s not my position to speculate, outside of my competency. My question, for those of us who are Christians, is what should characterise how we engage with others in the social media realm.
It may be too much of a stretch to ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?” but it should not be too much of a stretch to ask ourselves “What kind of behaviour pleases him, and what kind saddens him?” with scripture as our guide.
Keep in mind in what follows that I am writing to Christians, from a Christian perspective, for those who (like me) think these are questions that are (or should be) important to us.
Like a classic sermon, three thoughts.
1. We are called to pursue righteousness
This is not the same thing as ‘being right’ in the opinions we post! Righteousness is doing what’s right, as God defines it. Jesus asked us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33) — as opposed to our own kingdom and our own righteousness, as we define it. Phil 4:8 offers us a list of tests that we can apply to our posts before we hit enter: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” ‘Being right’ is not the sole criterion. We may think what we’re posting is ‘true’ and ‘right’ but will it also be seen as noble, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy in the heavenly realms?
2. We should not see what we say as being in a lesser category to what we do
Sin wants to infiltrate our speech just as much as it does our actions.
Sidebar: I don’t like the word sin because it carries too much baggage in the ways the word is perceived and used, not least when Christians weaponize it. That said, the concept is important — we just need a better vocabulary for it. One way is to understand sin in terms of selfishness, and the worst kinds of sin as rampant selfishness — serving our own interests — with total disregard for the harm caused to others. That’s sin at the intra-human level. But of course, there’s another level as well: Sin is also when we choose to decide for ourselves how we will live and act without regard to God’s perspective. That was surely at the heart of Adam and Eve’s decision in the Garden of Eden (which we know is a ‘picture’ of humanity as a whole). The reason God said not to eat from that tree was not because he never wanted them to learn right and wrong. That’s an important part of growing up. Rather, they were supposed to learn that from him. Starting with that one small instruction, don’t eat from that one tree. Sin, in its very first manifestation, was deciding for themselves what they would do and how they would live (in postmodern terms, doing ‘what’s right for me’). They bought into the serpent’s suggestion to ‘second-guess’ what God had said and only do what they personally agreed with. Sin is prioritising the rule and reign of me in the kingdom of me (instead of the rule and reign of Jesus in the kingdom of God). It’s nicely contrasted in Judges 21:25, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
Anyway, back to the main point: we are as accountable before God for our speech and words as we are for our actions. Jesus said: “I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ [an Aramaic term of contempt] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Here we see Jesus using a manner of speech of the time — an over-the-top exaggeration to shock the listener, to get their attention. To more powerfully emphasise the underlying point and make them think harder about it. It’s not quite in the same league as “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse,” but it’s in the same vein! Another example of Jesus doing that is Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters … such a person cannot be my disciple” — which is hardly compatible, taken literally, with Matt 15:4 and 19:19.
3. For the sake of relationship — whether that’s with people we know or people we’ve never met except online — are we willing to lay down some of our rights?
Are we willing to hold off and hold back, for the sake of bringing people who know that we’re a Christian closer to Jesus and not risking harming them on their journey? To keep to ourselves statements and opinions that could damage Jesus’ reputation? Are we willing to lay down our right to hold and express an opinion, and our right to ‘be right’ about something (as we see it)?
Loren Cunningham said, “Jesus gave us the supreme example of giving up everything (all of His ‘rights’) for a greater goal.” Philippians 2:7. Giving up any right requires us to be intentional about it, and it will cost us something.
James 2:12 says, “Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom.” In other words, how are we going to use the freedom we have? He warns us in James 3:5-6 that we can use our words for great good or for great harm. The Message paraphrase captures it well: “A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.”
If the biblical writers were here now, here are some of the things I think they would say about our approach to posting on social media:
Romans 14:19: “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
James 3:18: “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
And then finally, Proverbs 18:21 (you may need to think about the second sentence): “Death and life are in the power of the tongue. Those who love it will eat its fruit.”
At a pragmatic level, someone wisely said: “There’s no point ‘being right’ and losing all our friends.”
I prefer the word ‘conversation’ to ‘discussion.’ Conversation is about journeying together. It gives as much attention to listening as talking. It seeks to win people rather than arguments. If we win arguments without having won people in the process, what have we really achieved?
Perhaps it can be summed up like this:
Will what we post on social media please or sadden our heavenly audience? Will it more likely attract people to Jesus, and to exploring becoming part of his people, or the opposite? Are we willing to pay a small price, in holding back on how we use our freedom, for the sake of the Kingdom?