Guest Author: Adam Oldham
We live in interesting times.
We are one of the most spiritually expressive cultures in history, able to share our innermost thoughts and feelings with only a few thumb strokes, broadcasting to hundreds, if not thousands, of people inside of and connected to our social sphere.
Our posts and tweets say more than we realize, demonstrating a piece of the eternity inside of us: our longingness to be seen and heard, to be significant, to matter.
Even more incredible, the rise of social media, or platforms where we get to be the creators of content, where we get to decide what pictures and quotes and stories are worthy of publication, has given us unprecedented access to another eternal calling within every human being: the desire to influence others, to make a difference, to change the world around us.
We as individuals have huge digital audiences of followers and friends, and yet we are also a seriously socially confused people.
We are confused because, ironically, in a world where we are more connected by technology than ever before, we are at the same time more isolated from one another, replacing genuine human interaction with an electronic substitute.
The strength we have in our power to create and push content into our social network can too easily turn into aggression, which is tragic when we intend to be assertive instead.
And because human beings have always struggled to responsibly use the power we receive, we often stop caring about what that power sounds like and instead justify ourselves in its use because we believe our cause is just.
Others of us, however, aware of the dangers this power poses to cause waves and discord, choose instead to remain passive, which is likewise tragic when we unintentionally silence ourselves from important conversation and withdraw ourselves from the arena of social discourse.
We then stop caring about the power of silence and justify ourselves in our choice not to use the power because we likewise believe our cause is just.
How then, as children of God, are we to respond to the power of social media?
Salt and Light: The Charge of Christian Influence
In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus refers to His followers as “the salt of the earth,” “the light of the world,” “a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden.”
This passage takes place in the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps one of the most impactful pieces of literature on Western civilization, and it gives us a picture of how Jesus wants His people to view themselves in regards to their influence.
Salt that loses its taste is useless, “no longer good for anything except to be thrown out,” Jesus says, declaring that if we have no influence, then we are likewise useless.
“A city set on a hill cannot be hidden,” Jesus says, telling us that we have influence whether we want it or not.
No one lights a lamp and then covers it up, Jesus says, but puts it in a place where all can see, “giving light to all in the house,” telling us that our place is not in the shadows, but in a place where we can influence others.
Jesus ends this passage by instructing us to “let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works, giving glory to our Father who is in heaven,” charging us not only to be visible, but to be seen for a reason.
This visibility is to give others reason to glorify our heavenly Father, reasons that they see in our good works.
With the incredible visibility social media provides Christians, finding a way to harness its power should be of interest to us all; failing to use this power, however, could risk us being accused one day of being tasteless, of hiding the light God gave us under a basket, of pretending we are not visible to the world around us when it was impossible for us to be hidden.
Swift, Slow, Slow: The Charge of Christian Communication
In James 1:19-20, the inspired writer gives us the following advice:
“Know this my beloved brothers: let every person be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
God gives us this guidance because as human beings, we seem to be by nature slow to hear and swift to speak, which causes us to get angry quickly.
James tells us this because one sided, biased anger does not produce the righteousness of God, one sided because we refuse to listen, and biased because we refuse be silent when experiencing other perspectives.
That almost sounds ironic, as a lot of what we see on social media is exactly that – one sided, biased anger, the result of too much speaking and not enough listening.
God’s wisdom tells us that this anger of man does not produce, and is therefore not productive in revealing or demonstrating God’s righteousness.
And yet, ungodly anger does produce ungodly fruit, and Jesus warns in Matthew 12:33 that “a tree is known by its fruit” and again in verse 34, saying that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Let us be sure then that in all we say, and in how we say it, we reveal our true selves from within, that we are children of God above all other things!
Stumbling Blocks and False Pretenses
In Romans 14:1, Paul tells us to welcome those who are weak in faith, “but not to quarrel over opinions.”
I am convinced that Paul is not passing judgment on weak faith, but is instead warning us of a seemingly natural human trick I call “bait and switch.”
Knowing that God wants us to be visible and influential, listening to others and exercising restraint in our responses, we sometimes let God down and purposefully set ourselves up for quarreling.
There is a distinction, however, between unproductive quarreling and true engagement with our social network about things that are important.
But how do we decide what things are opinions and what things are important?
After all, Paul also says in 2 Corinthians 10:5 that Christians “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God,” so what topics warrant the use of “the weapons of our warfare?”
For a Christian, this distinction between important things and opinions should not matter, because if we follow Jesus’ guidance to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” in Matthew 10:16, and James’ guidance to be “swift to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry,” then the subject of our conversation is somewhat irrelevant.
Our mutual sin, however, is that we do not always follow Jesus’ and James’ guidance, and the result is divisive quarreling, causing brothers and sisters to stand at odds with one another, and giving no reason for our neighbors outside of Christ to glorify our heavenly Father.
Paul has something to say about this as well, continuing in Romans 14:13 to say, “let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”
How then can we engage with our social network without becoming a stumbling block to others?
Again, for a Christian, this should not matter, because if we are wise and innocent, swift to listen and slow to speak, keeping our emotions in check, then whatever we write will not be offensive, divisive, or quarrelsome.
Once again, we often stumble in this way by posting content with intentionally quarrelsome language – words that label other people in unflattering ways, mischaracterizing the perspectives of others because we do not truly listen, speaking not from a place of reason, but from a desire to be justified, not to win, but to silence to opposition.
But what of those of us who would rather not engage with our social network, deciding instead to avoid any conflict or argument at all, or further still, those of us who feel that any engagement on social media is quarrelsome?
The Romans were likewise experiencing a conflict when Paul wrote this letter, and his inspired wisdom can help us navigate these differences of perspective we have today over social media.
“If your brother is grieved [by what you post on social media], you are no longer walking in love. By what you [post], do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” (Romans 14:15)
“So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.” (Romans 14:16)
In other words, Paul warns us that our online behavior, which we may see as a positive work of social engagement, can become a stumbling block to our fellow Christians, which we must seriously consider for fear of harm to their spiritual well-being.
At the same time, however, Paul charges us to not let something we see as positive to be spoken of as something evil, which I believe reveals an important truth: how we present something to others is just as important, if not more important, than what we present.
“Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of [social media], destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what [they post].” (Romans 14:19-21)
Therefore, engaging on social media is neither right nor wrong for Christians, however how we engage on social media and the impact our engagement has on others should matter to us all.
The decision to engage with our social network must be a decision made from a place of faith, for Paul concludes this discussion with a simple charge – “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23)
The Lord’s Servant: How to Communicate Like a Christian
Paul summarizes how Christians should respond to the challenge of engaging with our social networks in his second letter to Timothy, another young person learning to navigate the difficulties of his day:
“Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies. You know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” (2 Timothy 2:23-25)
There are some topics and circumstances that we as Christians should just avoid, and one need look no further than the comments section of any online news article or viral Facebook post to understand why.
The internet and most forms of electronic communication give incredible power to express our inner most thoughts and feelings, however this rarely takes place face to face, which also tricks us into thinking our words have little impact on the people who read them.
When engaging with people we do not know personally, the anonymity of the internet emboldens us to say and do things that we would never say or do face to face – Christians must tread lightly in this kind of social media engagement, for it rarely if ever ends in productive conversation.
And yet, Paul tells Timothy how to engage with the world around him – be kind to everyone and teach others with patience and gentleness, which involves both correcting others and enduring evil in the process.
Once again, Paul’s instructions encourage engagement, but not just any engagement will do – how Timothy engages with others is just as important as what information he has to tell them.
We live in interesting times.
Christians have the power to engage with hundreds or even thousands of people on social media platforms, but these arenas must be entered with purpose and a reflection on who we are at our core – children of a loving Creator who desires both advocacy and peace.
We must be mindful of our words and actions online, for our behavior has not only the potential to bring glory to our heavenly Father, but also to cause quarrels, create stumbling blocks, and quite simply, to be very unChristlike.
To summarize, here are four guidelines from our Lord to help us navigate the world of social media:
- Christians must make an impact in the world around them, including within their social networks, both online and in real life.
- Christians must be swift to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry, for one-sided, biased anger is not productive in revealing or demonstrating the righteousness of God.
- Christians must not be quarrelsome, but communicate in a way that promotes peace and mutual upbuilding.
- Christians must be kind to everyone and able to teach in a spirit of patience and gentleness, both online and in real life.
May we all allow God’s light to shine through our posts, pictures, tweets, and content so that others will glorify Him!