Friday, January 11, 2013

The Virtual Veil

A friend of mine recently announced that he was deleting his Facebook account. Among the reasons he cited was a desire to avoid continual arguments (often with complete strangers). I commend him for his wise and mature decision. If you participate in Facebook and similar forms of social media, you have most likely been engaged in several heated debates, and many may have turned rather ugly. The protection provided by the virtual world allows us to act very differently online than we ever would in person. The country music artist, Brad Paisley, sings a song titled "Online" that pokes fun at the ridiculous false identities people often attempt to live out on the internet. The song is intended to be comical, but its accuracy makes it more scary than humorous.

I joined Facebook almost entirely for the purpose of participating in faith related groups. It is simply the easiest way in our modern age to quickly communicate with like-minded believers and to participate in discussions with people from around the world in an effort to mutually grow. Yet, if you have participated in these groups, you know that quarreling is nearly as commonplace (if not more so at times) than the edifying growth we seek. This is undoubtedly due to the effects of the virtual realm, which shields us from direct confrontation. 

I am confident that when believers debate online, most do not initially intend to stir up a heated fight. On the contrary, the goal is to defend the truth and to help others who disagree come to a realization of it. Almost inevitably, however, the debates evolve into accusations, name calling and other petty insults. Many are even accused of not being believers for stating their disagreement, and I know people who have left groups altogether because of how they were treated.

If you are reading this article, there is a good chance that you have written things online that you came to later regret. I am certainly no exception. In order to combat the virtual veil, we must keep Scripture close to heart and commit to acting no differently online than we would face to face. 

Speaking to Timothy, Paul advised, "Now stupid and crude questionings refuse, being aware that they are generating fightings. Now a salve of the Lord must not be fighting, but be gentle toward all, apt to teach, bearing with evil, with meekness training those who are antagonizing" (2 Tim. 2:23-24). Likewise, Paul told the Romans to pursue "that which makes for peace and that which is for the edification of one another" (Rom. 14:19) and "to no one render evil for evil" (Rom. 12:17). 

Several passages, in addition to those of Paul's letters, reinforce the great importance of avoiding quarrel and taming our tongues. Proverbs 29:22 states, "An angry man stirs up strife, and a furious man abounds in transgression." Writing to the Jews, James reminded that "the wisdom from above is first, indeed, pure, thereupon peaceable, lenient, compliant, bulging with mercy and good fruits, undiscriminating, unfeigned" (James 3:17).

Make no mistake that our written words are every bit as powerful as our spoken words. Granted, written words do not carry inflection of the voice and other elements that may intensify their spoken delivery, but the affects on the recipient are every bit as significant. In fact, on several occasions I've found out after speaking with people that I interpreted their written words more harshly than they intended. 

Ideally, we would be able to speak with one another in person at all times; but since this is unfortunately not possible, we are left with learning to appropriately deal with one another in less personal forms. How, then, can we accomplish this important goal?

For starters, we can commit to not repaying evil with evil. If someone online calls us a name, we should not repay him by calling him a name also. Rather, we should be patient and gentle, refusing to involve ourselves in an argument that will be fruitless. We would do well to follow Paul's advice to completely avoid stupid questions, knowing they only lead to harm. In reality, we have no need to defend ourselves against personal attacks. Our defense should always center around God alone! This is why Paul told the Corinthians that it was "the least trifle" that he may be examined by men.

Second, we must understand that, contrary to popular belief, defense of the truth does not require an aggressive approach. It does require aggressiveness in terms of conviction, but not in terms of antagonism. Paul advises us to be bold, but meek; strong, but gentle. We must recognize that each and every person is not the way they are - misled or not - out of choice. They are in exactly the place God wants them to be at that particular time and according to His purpose. Others are not "stupid" because they don't understand certain truths. They are merely ignorant at the time by God's design. 

After spending enough time in discussion forums, it is apparent that many people have come to actually love debate. They ignite a fight with an antagonistic comment and attempt to beat their opponent at all costs. This mindset is most often rooted in pride and a desire to prove their knowledge, not a pure desire to uphold the truth. For such people, toning down the harsh rhetoric is all but easy. The love of debate is intoxicating and online discussion forums are like a drug of which they yearn to get their daily dose. Do you think these people would act anywhere near the way they do online if they were to debate with others in person?

If you struggle with acting differently on the internet than you would in person, commit to altering your approach. Be gentle, patient and kind toward others, and ask yourself if what you are about to write is something you would say to the person while looking him or her in the eye. Refuse to respond to foolish questions and antagonizing comments, knowing your response will only lead to an argument from which neither party will benefit. Remember that those who disagree with us at times are not our enemies, but our brothers and sisters in Christ. If after attempting to alter your habits you are unsuccessful, consider deleting your online account. It is better to remove the temptation to argue than to fight a losing battle. For, a servant of the Lord must not be fighting, but be gentle toward all, bearing with evil those who are antagonizing.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

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