Stop me if you’ve already heard this one.
You hammer out a timely social media post about a controversial current event or significant social issue or polarizing political leader. You press enter, sit back, crack your knuckles and wait for the fireworks to begin. The friends on your side (who you already know agree with you) predictably “like” or “love” your post. Cue a smug smile.
Your neighbor who watches the wrong news channel or voted for the wrong candidate or goes to the wrong church predictably starts an argument in the comments, leaning heavily into the caps lock key and several exclamation points. But you’ve done your research (two or three Google or YouTube searches) and you fire back. The fight rages on.
Sound familiar? If my tone and tenor above is too harsh, rest assured. You aren’t alone. There is a potent allure to social media that will transform even the most agreeable among us into rampant keyboard combatants, viciously defending “my side” from the enemy. It’s certainly strange when these online personas emerge in people who, by all accounts, are generally friendly in their real-world interactions.
That’s really where the trouble comes in. For some reason, we have separated our online interactions from our real-world ones. We’ve tailored some sort of barrier where accountability between our online personas and our actual selves does not (or need not) interact. It’s a kind of digital dualism.
I want to gesture at the philosophical and theological definition of mind-body dualism; that is, the mind (soul, spirit) and body are separate things. Jesus seems to hint at this dynamic in Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
We know from our own experience that, though substantively separate, our souls and our bodies are intimately interconnected. Think of a person who has lost a loved one and is grieving. Grief itself is not a physical condition, nor does it originate from physical stimuli. But science has shown that there are neurological processes occurring and hormones being released by the brain when a person suffers a loss that causes physical reactions. Is grief a condition of the soul or the body? Well, the answer is: it’s both.
Here’s my point. Our presence online matters. It matters because it’s interconnected to our physical selves and has real-world repercussions. Research has revealed that the time we spend on social media and how we spend it has ramifications on our mental and emotional health. If we deny this in ourselves and simply act however we please online, we may not recognize the negative effects even as they start to deform us.
This has been especially true in the United States as our culture has grown more and more polarized over the past few years. There is no shortage of shock headline websites, online talking heads and social media influencers spouting rhetoric for this or that cause or perspective. It’s so easy to simply click “share” on these articles and videos where people are speaking in disrespectful or downright hateful ways about issues we oppose. If somebody were to ask us if we felt we should talk like that, we can easily say, “I didn’t’ say it like that; I just shared it.”
In James 1:8, the author warns Christ followers against being “double-minded” and “unstable” with respect to asking for and practicing wisdom. This same principle can be applied to our online activities and behaviors as well. If we wish to be wise and honor God in the way that we live our lives, we must recognize that our social media presence is also a reflection of our character and witness.
One foundational way to check and make sure your online interactions are graceful and not graceless is to practice restraint in your posts. Proverbs 10:19 instructs, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” The speed of social media these days is measured in seconds as “hot takes” and “reaction videos” run rampant on any and all news items. There is great wisdom and power in pausing before replying, in letting our thoughts ruminate in the Holy Spirit before typing them onto a page. The more consideration you give to a social media post, the less likely you are to accidentally walk the path of the fool.
If you already have this figured out, I commend you. We need more Christians online with such a witness! If you’re like me, and you still struggle with having a positive online presence at times, let me encourage you to slow down and take every social media post captive for Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Also, let me offer some helpful questions you can use to “test every spirit” of your social media interactions:
- Are you consistent in who you are, both online and offline?
- Do you share things online that are mean-spirited and divisive, or is the way you communicate salted with grace and love?
- Do you show the same level of respect for people you disagree with online that you would out in the real world?
- And would you really say some of the things you type online to someone else in a disagreement?
Rev. Chris McFadden is senior pastor at Lakin Wesleyan Church in Lakin, Kansas.