The internet is an interesting and often frustrating place. It feeds our natural inclination for narcism, it is often illusory and deceptive, and it tends to feed a beast within us of hostility in disagreements where we write quickly, unkindly, and with an intent to win arguments and share our own opinions, rather than to discourse with grace, dignity and a yearning for truth. This beast isn’t uncommon in other spheres, but it seems especially prevalent and more released when we engage via the internet than in other more personal spaces.
This reality doesn’t make the internet and spaces such as Facebook and blogs inherently bad, but it ought to make us careful, slow to speak and quick to forgive. The written word, in a medium such as the internet, gives us the benefit of time, that we don’t have in face-to-face interactions, to be wise in the words we choose, to consider them, their honesty, truthfulness, helpfulness and necessity, before we push “enter”. And, as Christians, how we interact in these spaces must speak loudly of our faith. In the face of inflammatory and reactionary comments in online debate we are to be careful, forgiving, gracious, honest, and offer a defense of our faith with a tone that is above reproach, with the dignity of one who does not need to be reassured by accolades or to prove our worth by a “good” argument. We must speak, with grace, with patience, and a desire to share the truth that we know and live in Christ.
Unfortunately, we aren’t impervious to the vicious temptation of the internet realm. We are easily offended, we put heavy stock in our well-crafted and intellectual arguments, and sometimes we just really want to add that last sarcastic quip that has just enough truth to inflict harm. Some of us do this in personal debates too, but the internet is an especially ripe place for this kind of sin, because we forget the person (or persons) with whom we engage. We forget our purpose in discussion in the first place, because it is easier to just see a profile picture and not the person, in all their complexities, that stands behind it.
This blog often receives a fair amount of pushback. Oftentimes comments I receive offer gracious, thoughtful, and intelligent disagreement; on other occasions they are unkind, sarcastic, condescending and cruel. And I so easily fall into defensiveness, I’m easily offended when my words are criticized, and my pride is quickly bruised when someone treats me with condescension. I’m quickly frustrated by those who seem impervious to critical thinking and I am desperate to convince those who are unconvinced. I don’t have much patience or grace for poorly formed arguments or snide remarks. And I am quick to jump to the keyboard and try to formulate snarky responses, to pour on sarcasm and take cheap shots, and I put far too much faith in my own abilities to change people’s minds (which they never have, so it’s a misplaced faith indeed).
I hold the “delete” key down, a lot. And I should probably make use of it a lot more.
There is a place for debate, and as Christians we are commanded to make a defense for our faith. But let’s be clear here, we make a defense for our faith, not for ourselves. When we engage, in whatever sphere of discussion, it is not to make much of ourselves, to show our prowess in argumentation, or to prove how much we know; rather, we engage in order to share who God is, what he has done for us, and what he offers the world. We make a defense of his validity, of the security of hope we have in who he says he is and what he promises, and the certainty we have that he will fulfill what he has promised.
When we engage it is to make much of God.
When we look at discussion in that light then personal criticism isn’t offensive anymore, because what people think of me is irrelevant, and ultimately I have a security in Christ that my value is not held in how intelligent I am, how convincing my arguments are, nor how much knowledge I have, rather my value is in who he is, what he has done for me (that I neither earned nor deserved), and my new identity as a fellow heir to God’s kingdom. I don’t need to enter into a debate in order to prove myself, or to look good, or even to convince someone.
When we approach disagreements this way, and remember that ultimately it is God who changes hearts from stone to flesh, and not us: not our words nor our actions, then we can allow our frustration, anger and hurt to roll off of us and on to our God. Because ultimately, as much as we may care about something: a hardened heart, apathy, blindness to truth, or grave injustice, he cares infinitely more. He wants people to believe his words, he wants us to care for the suffering, he wants truth to be known, and he wants injustices to be put right, after all, he has left the church here for just that purpose, and he promises to return to bring those things to be the full and permanent reality.
By trusting God’s character and his promises we are able to speak the truth with grace motivated by the desire for those who oppose us to come to know that same freedom. This perspective washes away any need to defend ourselves, frees us from the anxiety and frustration that inevitably come with disagreement, and it allows us to be wise in the type of conversations we engage in, enabling us to discern what is important and shedding light into dark places. Naturally the truth will continue to permeate our own hearts in the process, dispelling darkness by the light of Christ. Debates and defense of truth are worth our efforts (even in the internet realm), but they are only worth engagement when they are by Christ in us, and for his glory. We can love people when we engage their minds, when we challenge poor thinking, speak the truth, and defend our faith, but we must always approach it as an act of love that points them to the truth of Christ, not as an avenue that gives a false sense of pride in ourselves.
Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance and leading to the knowledge of the truth.
2 Timothy 2:22-25