Oh, Be Careful, Little ThumbsSeries: Technology and the Christian
I was in my junior year when I came close to being expelled from high school. I was acquaintances with a young man who was Jewish. I always heard his friends making light-hearted jokes about how they didn't like Jews, and he would always laugh along and chime in with the jokes. There was a private online social forum we had started using recently at our school. Forums were new to us, but we enjoyed joking around and interacting on there. Then I got the bright idea to joke with this acquaintance using the same joke that had been made about his Jewishness in person many, many times. I don't know how many days it took for someone to notice it, but when it was noticed, I was quickly escorted to the principal's office.
I can't explain how humiliating it felt for all these people who knew me personally to read what I wrote online and feel like they had me pegged. No amount of explaining that "No, I don't actually hate Jews," and "It's the same joke he always laughs at in person" was sufficient. Even if I didn’t mean it, it was wrong to say. It didn't matter that this was a private forum that few could see. It didn't matter who others had previously perceived me to be; it didn't matter that I actually thought this guy was pretty cool; my words online told everyone clearly: Scott Kercheville hates Jews. Even worse, I had been known across the school as the Christian who wanted to preach. Some Christian I looked like!
When the principal said he should expel me, but was considering a two-week suspension, I was shocked. I thought it was unfair. Why didn’t anyone understand my innocent intentions? By the way, this principal knew me well.
Our screens are powerful tools and can be used for much good, but they also carry great dangers for Christians who are called to be the light of the world. Not only can our thumbs use phones and remotes to cause us to see and hear helpful and harmful things, our thumbs can type things that impact others more than we can possibly know. This morning I want to consider how Scripture teaches us about the influence of our words on others and how it teaches us about other's influence on us. This is not a tirade against technology, but a warning from Scripture about how to take great care with this powerful tool we have in our hands.
... What You Type
Jesus taught that we will be judged by our words (Matthew 12:36-37), and that includes what we type. One thing we must remember about communicating via screens is that somehow screens emboldens us. We can become detached from the intensity of our words, the values they represent and how they affect others. Because of that, I think it is helpful to remember the sins we can commit with both our mouths and our thumbs.
First, we need to put away anger and slander. “On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” (Col. 3:6–8 ESV)
I think we have all been there. Someone says or does something outrageous, and it occurs to us to pull out our phones and rant about it. We spread the report online. It feels good to get that off our chest. We may even feel like we did the right thing: we are standing up against rude and evil people. And yet, ranting online is not only foolish, it often comes from a heart of anger and results in slander — because, let’s be honest, the facts can get pretty sloppy when we are talking about emotional and controversial stories. And it can be harder than we realize to control who sees what we say. Trust me — I have actually stumbled across criticisms about my preaching on social media from people who didn’t realize that I could see their comments (ha!).
This can be tough because we may feel social media is how we can stop sin. We may feel that, if I don’t say something about the evil I see, I am allowing sin to run rampant. Though it is possible to post in a wise, godly way, our posts against sin often result in more sin. Whether the facts get sloppy or we use social media to vent our anger - sin lurks here. People may identify the continual raging against people online as “trolling,” but the Bible identifies it as wrath, slander, and stirring up strife. We must put this behavior away. As Christian author Tony Reinke put it, “We must have eyes to see through the hollow accusation that our silence is a passivity that allows sin to run unchecked.” (12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, pg. 170)
Second, we need to take care against causing division in the church over the opinions and harsh judgments we post.
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Rom. 14:1–4 ESV)
The church in Rome had all sorts of different people with different opinions —just as we do. We are all leaving behind old world views to see the world from the new truth we have learned in Christ. We all hold to one body, Spirit, faith, baptism, hope, Lord and Father. And yet, we still have some differences in opinion and practice. One person is convicted that they must not eat or drink something, and another eats and drinks the same thing in honor of the Lord. And you know what Paul says we need to do about that? Nothing. Verse 1: don’t quarrel, argue about it. Drop the subject. Why? We will all stand or fall before our own master. And God didn’t bring us together to argue over differences.
If that was true of opinions about food, drink, and days then, it is true today. We all serve the same Lord; yet, we are all from many backgrounds and places and opinions. Because of that, we need to be careful about what we say, post, tweet, and message. The people we are supposed to be worshipping with see what we post. We must recognize that what we post on social media is displayed before this family. And, even if it is not immoral but just unwise or not careful, these posts affect people in this church. Especially those who are newer or weaker in the faith.
We are white, black, hispanic, asian, and more. Some of us voted for Trump, some voted for Clinton, some voted for Johnson, and some didn't vote at all. Some of us were born in the United States, but many in this church immigrated here (brothers and sisters, please be very careful if you decide to discuss illegal immigration online. That is a sensitive topic for good reason, and social social media is a dangerous place to discuss it). Some of us are rich, some are poor. Some of us have college degrees, some work hard in other ways. Some of us put our kids in school, others homeschool. Some of us vaccinate, some don't. And none of those things changes our standing with the Lord. And yet, these differences can make it challenging for us to get along at times, can't they?
We make unity here even more challenging when we post harsh or judgmental things about people who disagree with us. Do we not remember that those those Republicans or Democrats, those public-schoolers or homeschoolers, and those immigrants or native-borns are the ones we are sitting next to on Sundays and Wednesdays? "Do not for the sake of food," gun rights, and political opinions "destroy the work of God.” (Romans 14:20) "The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God." (Romans 14:22).
This doesn't mean we can't ever post about any of these things, but it does mean we should think seriously before we do. So much is posted in haste! Let me boldly make a request. We are entering another intense political season. Our worldly friends are going to rally, support, bicker, and fight. Let's avoid these discussions online. “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (Prov. 26:4 ESV) There really are important and controversial discussions we need to have — but face to face the place where we can hear tone and see facial expressions. Let's not post in haste about how we love or hate various candidates. These hasty posts can divide us with Christians who think otherwise. Hasty posts about gun control or immigration laws only start internet trash fires that dim our light before the world. Social media gives every person a pulpit, and not many of us should be teachers, brothers and sisters. And the church here is watching that foolishness play out online. Though, I would urge this church to not be hyper-critical of things we read online that we disagree with. If we are going to use social media, thick skin is required.
Now, a couple of “what ifs?” What if I am really upset about a controversial topic and I really want to post about it? Jesus teaches us to go to our closets and pray, “Our Father who is in heaven, make your name to be seen as holy, make your kingdom come, cause your will to be done on earth as it is done in heaven.” If that isn’t enough, we could consider purchasing a journal before venting our emotions to the internet.
What if — spur of the moment emotions aside — we feel like we are sitting on something really important? Contrary to what it may seem like, there is an appropriate time to post about things - even if people disagree with it. But we need to put what we say through some Scripture-based tests so those important posts come out in the most effective way.
- Does it pass the "truth test”? Exodus 23:1 says, “You shall not spread a false report.” We need to know: virtually all news sources — major or minor, conservative or liberal — have their slant. On controversial topics, they will rarely be balanced. They will almost always emphasize details that promote their argument and leave out details against their argument. Balanced stories that don’t make shocking, controversial claims don’t usually get people mad and so they don’t get attention or make money. GIFs that attempt to win a religious or political debate rarely present the full story. We need to ask - is what I am about to spread actually true? Is it the whole story?
- Does it pass the “slowness test”? "Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger." (James 1:19) Let it sit for a few days and ask yourself at the end - is this really that important? Most of the time, I find it isn't.
- Does it pass the "helpfulness test”? “All things are lawful,' but not all things are helpful." (1 Corinthians 10:23) A lot of things are true and lawful to do, but will this actually help people? Or, will this result in a fruitless discussion?
- Does it pass the “love and grace test”? Ephesians 4:29 says, "Let no corrupting speech come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear." It may be important, true, and helpful, but can we say it in a loving way that gives grace to our hearers? Will God’s Spirit in us be grieved when he hears what we say?
Remember, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (Prov. 18:2 ESV) If we miss the mark, don’t be offended if someone comes to you and says, “Hey, can I talk to you about that post from the other day?” I had to learn that lesson in a really painful way as a teenager, but it was a very valuable lesson to learn. So, let’s be receptive when we caution one another about what we say online.
... Where You Go
With our thumbs, eyes, and ears, we also need to be careful where we go, what we watch, and what we listen to; for, Peter says in 1 Peter 5:8, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” It’s funny — I read that verse and I know we all agree with it. But the moment I start to actually apply it to a subject like this, I know I sound like a fear-monger with a doomsday chart. That’s how Satan wants it to be. He and his forces would love nothing more than to convince us that they never prowl on social media, television, or in news articles. And yet, terrible dangers rest in our pockets and hang on our walls. Pornography is terribly seductive, but I’m not even trying to talk about that this morning.
Notice 2 Corinthians 11:14-15. “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” We must shed a light on the seductive, addictive, and destructive forces of pornography. But we are being naive if we think that's the only way Satan gets us through our screens.
Paul says that Satan dresses himself as an angel of light. His servants are dressed as servants of righteousness. Most of us know the overt forms of evil when we see them, but Satan and his forces can be far more subtle. They can come in the form of friends posting their thoughts, life, snaps, and videos online. Do we catch it when their flawed worldview on work, time, money, fashion, and relationships shine through?
In the survey I sent out this spring, I was surprised by one result: a number of people said social media has connected them with people they stated they shouldn’t be connected with. This is one thing for us to be aware of with our kids — they don’t see the same things we see on social media because they have different platforms and different friends. I rarely see more than pictures and posts from Christian friends, but their friends are mostly teenagers. They spend all day with them, and if they have social media, they spend all evening with them too. They are constantly being shown what the world looks like from the perspectives of inexperienced, non-Christian peers. And again, it is the subtle flaws in their friends’ worldviews that can be most dangerous.
Satan’s forces dress as light. They can also come in the form of movies telling us to stand up for ourselves and fight, TV shows telling us what family should be, news outlets telling us what government should do, music telling us what love and sex should look like, and even religious articles telling us how to understand the Bible.
The shifts seem innocent. As we see all our friends on social media taking big vacations, we can start to think, “when is it my turn?” instead of rejoicing with them. As every family in TV shows has a nice 2-story home and a new outfit for all 150 episodes we can start to think, “that's how life is supposed to be” and look down on what we have.
I have said it, and maybe you have too: "that kind of stuff doesn't bother or affect me."
And yet Paul disagrees. “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” (1 Corinthians 15:33) Why is it that that we can be so easily deceived into thinking that the company we keep on screen doesn't affect us? Maybe we are already so deep in it that we can’t see how blinded we already are. We don’t realize how worldly our perspective has already become. Our religion, relationships, and politics have already been compromised.
I’m not suggesting that the only wise approach is to never get on social media, listen to music, watch TV, or read religious articles. If we consume media wisely, they could have a place in enjoying God's blessings and in great learning. But using them wisely requires moderation and eyes alert to see Satan's lies. Using them wisely requires being bold enough to avert our eyes or turn stuff off.
God has given us numerous blessings. I love how our phones can be used as tools that connect us in amazing ways. When Ruth was in NICU, friends who heard about our situation from Facebook prayed for, encouraged, and even served us. I enjoy watching an occasional baseball game, show, or movie with Ashley and my daughters. I love the resources our screens give us to learn about the world and even about God’s word. But these screens must be used righteously as tools. Like fire and water, they are beautiful and they are dangerous. Let us own our tools and honor God with them.