Have you ever regretted posting something online? If so, you are not the only one. Whether the regrettable comment was posted on Facebook, Twitter, or Google-Talk, the result is almost always the same: disaster.
Suppose for a moment that you’re on Facebook, and you see a comment from someone else that’s a cleverly written swipe at unbelievers. You get a small jolt of delight in reading it, and so you re-post it onto your page. It isn’t long before other Christians start “liking” and “sharing” what is now your post.
But then, it happens: an unbelieving friend makes an angry reply to your post. To make matters worse, a Christian friend quickly replies to your unbelieving friend with a comment that is so caustic and unloving, you could only hang your head in shame. Surely, your unbelieving friend is now far more repulsed by Christians than they had been just two minutes earlier.
Granted, you may very well have had good motives for posting the comment. After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God”? Perhaps you thought that posting an in-your-face comment on your Facebook page could be just the thing that the Lord uses to convert your unbelieving Facebook friends. But that was not at all what happened.
If you are a Christian and you have an online presence, the odds are good that something like it has either happened to you or to someone you know. Moments like this remind us that in the age of the I-Phone, Christians are in uncharted territory. Some believers find these forums to be a place where they can openly vent and express their views without fear of retaliation. After all, they are in the privacy of their own homes and so they conclude that they don’t have to worry about someone shouting back at them. But they quickly find out how mistaken they are: the online replies come flowing back, and they are almost never happy. Additionally, the number of people who were hurt or angered by a post or a flippant comment but held their keyboards in check will never be known. Whatever the number, the damage is done.
There are other consequences as well. One’s online conduct could easily lead to their being “unfriended,” and thus losing the unbelievers’ respect, and hence the ability to communicate with them in the future. Worse still, the preconceived notions that unbelievers have about Christians will be further enforced and entrenched. What then? And more importantly, could this have been prevented?
Online vs. Personal Interaction
Here is the problem: online conversation handicaps communication far more than it liberates it. For instance, facial expressions and vocal inflections directly influence how we communicate with others. They help us to see how others react to our comments, and how we should best interact with them. Crucial elements like these are absent in online communication. The end result is that comments are very easily taken the wrong way, which can result in hurt feelings and misunderstandings. This leads to your having far less of an opportunity to build a rapport with the people you are trying to reach, and for them to build trust with you. Therefore, Christians need to be extremely wary of what they say on the Internet.
Just for clarification’s sake, this is not to say that social networking sites should be avoided entirely; much good can come from them, if properly utilized. Nor does any of this suggest that Christians are the only ones who are guilty of online misbehavior. However, believers are called to a higher standard of conduct, and this includes what we do online.
Principles for Online Communication
So what is a Christian to do with Facebook and Twitter? What follows are three propositions to help you to be more biblical in your online communication skills.
First, realize that online comments are speech. That is to say, just because you don’t say them audibly, the words you post online nonetheless reflect what’s in your heart. As Christ said, “[O]ut of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:34). The core issue in our speech is the heart. This means that the words we use, whether written or spoken, are a reflection of its status. Therefore, when Christ goes on to say that “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Mt. 12:36), this will include the words that we have put online. The biblical injunctions against gossip, slander, and otherwise angry words are just as sinful when posted online as when they are spoken from our lips.
Second, this means that biblical guidelines about speech are applicable to online comments. So we need to take great care when we are “chatting” with someone at our preferred Internet locale, letting our “speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6), and letting “no corrupt talk come out of our mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion” (Eph. 4:29).
Third, exercise great caution in your online conduct. Once you hit “Return,” your comment is broadcast for the whole world to see, and you cannot take it back. So if someone posts a comment that makes you angry, you do not have to respond immediately, or even at all. As someone else has said, just because you have a platform to speak, that doesn’t mean you always need to use it.
Or suppose that you find yourself in a heated online discussion. Depending upon the situation and your relationship with the individual, it may be prudent to take the discussion offline, and write to them privately. Or better yet, speak to them in person. Remember that you don’t necessarily know the motives of the people you are talking to online, and you certainly cannot see their reactions to your comments.
So when in doubt, speak in person directly, graciously, winsomely, and lovingly. And whether you’re conversing online or in person, always remember James’ admonition to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:21).
An additional word of caution: be extremely careful about the pictures and videos you post online. Not only do they reflect upon you, but also upon your family, your church, and your Savior.
As with all things, the Internet was providentially given to us as a means to glorify God. Let us then use it toward that end, remembering that our words are speech, and when they are in cyberspace, they spread like wildfire.