Greetings, Christian Friend! I’m writing today to offer some advice. I hope you won’t mind.
It’s not hard to conclude that the comment sections on the interwebs are almost certain proof of human depravity. For some reason they consistently bring out the absolute worst in people (possibly for some of the reasons listed here). Be that as it may, the really alarming thing is that the average Christian doesn’t appear to be doing all that much better, and very often the whole “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” thing appears to have become inverted, and in the process we present ourselves as both dumb and harmful.
This must not be! We each in Christ have a responsibility—not only to image him in holiness in all our conduct (whether online or offline), but to faithfully voice the Christian perspective in the public sphere. We must commit to being media savvy and media wise, and to do this we’re going to have to keep two Bible verses taped to the top of our computer monitors/phones/tablets or whatever—Psalm 34:13 says, “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit” and Ephesians 4:15 says that “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.”
“Keep your tongue from evil”—or, maybe, keep your keyboard from evil and your comments from deceit. As Christians we live under the mandate to ensure that all our words are edifying, and that we do not permit ourselves to drift into deceit. The keyboard, however, has become a kind of filter through which much of our Christianity can be easily edited out—such as our restraint, our courtesy, our kindness, our care for others, our sense of propriety, and our sense of profanity. Somehow, we give permission to the typed that we would never give to our relationships with real, live people. We must remember in all our discourse to keep our keyboards from evil.
“Speaking the truth in love”—it is indeed imperative that we speak the truth, but when we Christians come out swinging to win, eager to blast our opponents with a salvo of well-prepared Scripture references and carefully copy-and-pasted arguments, we’ve got to pause and ask if we aren’t just winning the battle but losing the war. If our truth fails to be wedded to love, then it will likely be a cold and unappreciated truth. Speaking the truth also presumes that we know the truth sufficiently well to present it. There’s really no excuse for uneducated, domineering, belligerent diatribes.
What else can we do? Well, with these two scriptures in mind, I’ve got two big suggestions and four practical ones for managing our online discourse.
Big Suggestion #1—Pray Before, During, and After Commenting. When was the last time you asked God Almighty for permission to post before hitting enter or clicking send on a comment? On those occasions when you did pray, did you wait for His response, or seek His clarity or peace before proceeding? James teaches us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (1:19)—prayer is the surest and most certain means of slowing down our anger and hastening our listening. Then, while you type your comment, pray. Pray for what you are writing. Pray for wisdom and clarity. Pray for the person you are responding to. Pray for understanding of the situation. Then, having been given divine permission to comment, pray after the comment is posted for how it is received, how it might contribute to the discussion, and so forth.
Big Suggestion #2—Be Authentic. This sounds simple enough, but once again, if the keyboard gives a kind of filtered permission to leave courtesy at the door—and if this affects not just Christians but everyone—then it is all the more pressing to have authentic Christian voices speaking and commenting online. The simplest way to do this is to ensure that your online life is indistinguishable from your offline life. What you say, comment, or participate in online, ought to be things you would say, comment, or participate in in real life. If a friend had a conversation with you over coffee, and later read your internet history, the two “voices” ought to be in perfect concord. Most people are pretty good at smelling fakes. We do no service to the Christian cause online when we fail to be ourselves.
Those are the two big suggestions—here are my four practical suggestions, which deal more with specific attitudes and practices during online discussions.
Practical Suggestion #1—Deal With One Point at a Time. This can be really hard, but often a given commentator online will kitchen sink his or her way through an argument, bringing in every possible angle in a single comment. The wise commentor will attempt to deal with a single point at a time, and will refuse to move on until you’ve achieved some clarity about that one point. From there, you can always go on to the next point.
Practical Suggestion #2—Always Separate the Point from the Person. This is another area of enormous struggle. People in discourse have a bad habit of overidentifying themselves with their position—criticize the position, and the person takes it personally. You need to make sure that you are clearly addressing the position and not the person. When we do attack the person, this is called an ad hominem—it means that rather than dealing with the person’s point I’ve attacked the individual’s character or credentials. We must never do this, and we must speak out in defense of others when it is done to them.
Practical Suggestion #3—Choose Wisely Where You Comment. Jesus tells us not to throw our pearls before swine—the pigs won’t appreciate them, after all. In the same way, some threads simply aren’t worth your time and ought to be avoided. If you’re praying before you comment, you ought to have a sense of which places you have a responsibility to wade in, and which ought to be avoided. Naturally, there are places where you feel a Christian voice is necessary, and speaking up will invite hostility. Pray well before you step into such a situation!
Practical Suggestion #4—Admit When You’re Wrong. This ought to be obvious but isn’t. When you are indeed wrong, admit it. When the person you’re engaged with makes a valid point, admit it. We Christians are not out to “win,” and we’re not really engaged in a battle against the “others.” Instead, we’ve got to see ourselves as attempting in all our thought to get on God’s side. After all, He’s the only entity in the universe with a legitimate corner on the Truth. When our online opponents make a point that is true, that’s no threat to us—they’re helping to draw us closer to our own knowledge and apprehension of God’s truth. So admit it. Give in. Admit when you’ve made a mistake, or gone too far, or said something hurtful. Apologize and seek to move on. It will help your authenticity remarkably.
This was a very brief set of suggestions, and I’m sure there’s lots more to be said about faithful online discourse. But it is, at least, a start. And if you do only one of these things, would you please pray before you comment or post? It could would change the whole landscape of our Christian presence online.