Chapter 3

Turning On the Right Filters

Be Truthful. Sometimes we have good intentions but neglect to think things through well enough. Recently, a Facebook friend posted one of those this-is-too-shocking-to-be-true stories. So I checked it out. With a quick Google search I discovered that the story she shared had been circulating in different forms since 1998 and was completely untrue.

The story put someone of a different religion in a negative light. But the incident had never occurred. This well-intentioned woman was spreading a lie. So why did she post it? Perhaps she was misled; perhaps she wanted to believe it. We simply don’t know. But we can say that the story should not have been circulated.

Why do stories like this get wide circulation via social media? One reason may be that we often take to social media to make a point, not to seek or represent the truth. Sadly, truth sometimes takes a backseat to what we want to say.

In John 14:6 Jesus tells His followers that truth is not rooted in ideologies or propositions, but in Himself! “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

When Jesus says that He is the truth, He is not merely saying that His words are true—that what He says is real. By calling himself the truth rather than a truth-teller He is saying that His character reveals the heart of God.

This is the essence of what Jesus said when Pilate asked Him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (john 18:33). Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place. . . . You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (vv. 36–37).

In this exchange Jesus gives us a perfect example of what it means to focus on the deepest truth. He did not concern Himself with pointing out the theological errors of the religious leaders who were clamoring for His death, nor did He complain about His unjust treatment under an oppressive government. Instead, He focused on the fact that His kingdom is other-worldly. His primary concern was His mission of rescuing humanity from their sins. Jesus demonstrated that sometimes facts get in the way of the truth. Many things are true but not everything is of equal importance.

Jesus demonstrated that sometimes facts get in the way of the truth. Many things are true but not everything is of equal importance.

Presenting accurate information is important. But insisting on the truth means much more than just making sure our digital communication contains correct content. It means that we measure our communication against the standard of Jesus Christ. In practical terms, that gives us pause to ask ourselves: Does this comment, post, or tweet reflect the truth and character of Jesus Christ?

Be Wise. I am seldom out of reach electronically. Even asleep I’m only a few feet from my phone and all my social media accounts. Day or night, rain or shine, for better or for worse, social media gives the ability to communicate with the world via a few quick thumb strokes.

It’s all very convenient—perhaps too convenient.

It’s convenient because I’m always available. My kids, spouse, and my friends can reach me no matter where I am. I can share the moments of my life with those I care about—tweet my meal selection while dining at my favorite Greek restaurant, update Facebook while waiting at the doctor’s office, post a photo to Instagram while riding a bus or playing golf.

Sure, photos of dinner, golf, or the doctor’s office are great, but not all moments that can be shared should be shared. We’re so used to our wired world that we can hit send without giving it much thought. Sometimes a moment to think is exactly what we need. Accessibility brings its own unique challenges.

One of the things that can make our use of social media confusing and difficult is the perceived anonymity of online communication. Looking at a screen instead of into the eyes of another person can fool us into thinking that our comments are simply shouted to the digital world. Because social media is treated as a stage instead of a conversation, we may write or post things that we would never say in person. But Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram are not anonymous. They are public forms of mass communication. Those screens are not walls that hide us; they are projectors that display our thoughts, ideas, and opinions to the world.

Those screens are not walls that hide us; they are projectors that display our thoughts, ideas, and opinions to the world.

As followers of Christ the spotlight of scrutiny is on us in a particular fashion. We represent Jesus with our words and actions. With today’s technology, our lives are plainly visible to the watching world. In our connected world, we don’t just show Christ when we deliberately share the gospel with someone. Whether we remember it or not, we are always representing Jesus.

When Jesus first sent out the twelve apostles His final instruction to them was this: “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves” (matthew 10:16 nlt).

Just like the first disciples, we have been sent out into the world to spread God’s message of hope and life. This requires wisdom. Because the world sees our lives and doesn’t just hear our words, it is our responsibility to think twice before hitting send.

Long gone (mostly) are the days of three-page handwritten letters where every sentence was meticulously constructed and every paragraph carefully crafted. With global communication at our fingertips, a poorly timed tweet, an unclear Facebook post, or a thoughtless share can literally change lives, others or our own. Consider these examples:

• In 2013 several teachers in the United States lost their jobs after berating and mocking students on social media.

• A teen in Great Britain attempted suicide after being bullied on social media.

• Several healthcare professionals in Michigan were fired for liking or commenting on inappropriate photos that had been taken of patients and posted on Facebook by one of their co-workers.

Clearly, what we do in cyberspace matters a great deal.

Representing Christ in digital space is a difficult thing to do. What may be common sense, self-evident, funny, or helpful to us, may be frightening, rude, offensive, or confusing to someone else. Wisdom can help us sort out the tension between being shrewd while being harmless as we communicate via social media. “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless” (james 1:26 nlt).

Wisdom can help us sort out the tension between being shrewd while being harmless as we communicate via social media.

Knowledge deals with information; wisdom deals with application. Wisdom isn’t just possessing the correct information. It isn’t merely the state of knowing or understanding facts—that’s knowledge. Wisdom carefully and correctly applies and presents the truth in a way that benefits others.

The next time we are tempted to fire off a quick post or tweet, let’s take a moment and ask ourselves a few questions: Is it possible I’m not seeing the situation clearly? Is this post or tweet an emotional response? Is this information accurate and easily understood? Do I have the right to say what I am about to say? The answers to these questions will help determine the wisdom of hitting send.

Be Gentle. Disagreements are not new. What seems new is the hostility, immediacy, and public way our disagreements take place.

Social media has given everyone a voice in the social, political, cultural, and theological conversations of the day. In the not-so-distant past it took a team of engineers, lots of money, and rooms full of expensive equipment to enter the world of mass communication. Today all it takes is a smartphone and Twitter account.

A pastor uses Twitter to communicate with his congregation. Recently he began a series dealing with difficult and controversial questions that face the church, and he sent out the following tweet to promote an upcoming teaching: “Prince of Peace or God of war? Come find out.” In response, one of his congregation tweeted back: “READ YOUR BIBLE!”

This is an example of the good and not-so-good of social media. The pastor was trying to spark interest in Sunday’s sermon. Was the response appropriate?

First, there is the usage of ALL CAPS. Generally all caps are used when there is strong emotion, usually anger. Then there is the question of what it actually meant. We aren’t sure. Was he mad at the pastor for starting the conversation? Did he not want the topic discussed in church? Was he choosing a side? If so, which side? Was he in favor of the Prince of Peace title for Christ, or for the mighty warrior description? Both are scriptural concepts, but it seemed like he didn’t like something about one or both of them. And he seemed to accuse his pastor of not knowing the Bible. 

Technology offers us opportunity to speak our minds.

Technology offers us opportunity to speak our minds. We can publicly encourage justice, address misinformation, warn wrongdoers, champion causes, declare truth, celebrate goodness, and expose evil. But our zeal for justice and truth can sometimes come across as combative rather than redemptive. And when it does, we cross the line that separates helping from hurting.

In his first letter, the apostle Peter writes to a group of Christians experiencing suffering (1 peter 2). Injustice was rampant, and false teachers were in the church. The government was hostile to the gospel, enemies were spreading lies about them, and they were suffering.

From the middle of this suffering Peter echoes Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He tells God’s people:

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult.
On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 peter 3:9)

He goes on:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 peter 3:15)

Most of us aren’t facing the kind of opposition that these early Christians were. Yet these verses give us effective instructions for how to approach our world in ways that make a positive difference.

Notice that Peter does not tell his readers to endure hardship in silence. He assumes that they will respond when questioned and that they will answer truthfully, even if it costs them something. But he also urges them to respond in a way that is reasonable and brings honor to Christ.

It’s easy to see how Peter’s advice can pertain to our social media use. Many tweets and posts are correct in content but incorrect in heart. They are mean, not gentle. They are degrading and dehumanizing. It’s not enough to offer an answer that is merely correct, logical, or theologically orthodox. We need to share the truth in love.

Our online communication isn’t just about spreading information, even if it’s the right information. We are not called simply to speak about forgiveness, justice, and love as propositions but to practice them. That means posting with gentleness and respect.

We might paraphrase the apostle’s instructions in 1 Peter 3 this way:

When you face insult and ridicule online, respond with a heart that is bent toward and submitted to Christ. Respond to challenges and questions in a way that demonstrates the hope you have in Jesus. Be gentle with others because Christ has been gentle with you. Be gracious to others because you are in need of His grace yourself.

Be Loving. Obviously we can’t know the specific content Jesus would or would not tweet, post, or share. We can’t answer the question of what political party He would support (although a strong case can be made that He would avoid political affiliations altogether). Nor do we know where He would shop, what He would drive, or if He would enjoy sports.

But we can be sure that He would not berate or bully people who don’t agree with Him—even when communicating hard truth. After all, He is Love (cf. 1 john 4:8). He wouldn’t spread half-truths or misinformation. He is Truth. Jesus would never be unwise or unkind in His communication, and He would know precisely when to remain silent. He didn’t come to condemn the world but to save it (john 3:16–17).

The Bible shows us how Jesus conducted Himself when He walked this earth. It is through Scripture that we learn of God’s desire for His people—to love Him and each other (mark 12:29–30). Love means treating one another with gentleness and respect, not because it’s the nice thing to do, but because when we love each other we are loving Him too.

When we love others we show them the heart of God.

When we love others we show them the heart of God. Jesus told His followers that there were two laws that summed up all the rest of the laws. The first was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And the second was to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves (matthew 22:37–39). This instruction rests on two key ideas. First, most of us actually love and care for ourselves. Second, it assumes that if a person will dedicate themselves to loving God and loving their neighbor they will not need layers of rules and regulations to manage their behavior.

Love is the clearest expression of God’s character (1 john 4:8, 16). When Jesus gave His followers the new command of love, He was not adding one more rule to the long list of Old Testament laws. He was asking us to express the heart of God to others (john 13:34–35).