Within hours the narrative had been set on social media: A group of Catholic school boys from Kentucky harassed an elderly Native American man at a pro-life rally in Washington, D.C. On Twitter the condemnations piled up, as did the condemnations of those who didn’t pile on fast enough. Soon came the inevitable doxing and death threats.
A day past and then, just as quickly as it had congealed, the narrative was remolded. The line between victim and bully became blurred, and new villains (i.e., the Black Hebrew Israelites) were added to the mix. Many who rushed to judgment rushed to apologize. But many others found ways to barricade themselves behind the original storyline.
And then—because this is a thing that happens in 2019—the president entered the fray.
Had this incident occurred three weeks ago I likely would have been caught on the “condemn first, apologize later” side. But I managed to avoid this mess, not because of virtue but because of a vow. I made a vow to God that in 2019 I would make an effort to tame my tongue (James 3:7-8)—especially on social media.
It’s a change that is long overdue. In 2007 I joined Facebook in January and Twitter in March. Over the next decade I observed social media become a space for both connection and isolation. I watched as these platforms gave us an opportunity for self-expression and made us afraid to say what we truly believe. I can’t say I was surprised by anything that occurred. I had read enough Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman to know social media weren’t neutral tools.
But knowing didn’t stop me from engaging in sinful behavior. I knew I’d have to give account for every careless word I published on social media (Matt. 12:36-37). And yet I persisted. Perhaps it’s because I’m a slow learner that it took me more than a decade to conform what I believe Scripture requires with how I use social media.
In the hopes of helping others learn from my example, I want to share the five Bible verses that convicted my heart and prompted me to change.
#1 — Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding (Prov. 17:27).
In the offline world I’m rather taciturn and reserved. Yet on social media I’ve been garrulous and rather uninhibited. According to my Twitter stats, I’ve tweeted an average of 3.7 times a day, every day, since the day I joined 12 years ago. If you strung all those characters together it would roughly equal a 750-page book.
Had I restrained my words on social media I might have missed a few opportunities to display wit or even wisdom. But I also might have used that time for more productive tasks, such as reading God’s Word, that would have helped me become a man of understanding. While I can’t get back the time I lost, I hope to use my time more fruitfully in the future.
#2 — Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin (Prov. 13:3).
Every month we hear about someone whose life “comes to ruin” because of a comment they made on social media. A rude, offensive, or sarcastic comment made online gets “signal-boosted” and results in someone losing his or her livelihood. That nearly happened to me from an unexpected source.
In 2016 the president of a think tank I work for (who also happens to be a Catholic priest) was asked to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. During the meeting Barbara Boxer, the former senator from California, brought up a comment about Pope Francis I had made on Twitter.
The tweet was neither clever nor inflammatory. Yet Sen. Boxer made it seem nefarious, and gave the impression that I might have an anti-Catholic prejudice. Fortunately, because my colleagues knew me and understood the context of the tweet, nothing more was said about the incident.
But how had she found the tweet from two years prior? It later dawned on me that someone on the senator’s staff must have been searching through the personal social media feeds of the think tank’s personnel, looking for controversial comments. Someone working for the government was paid to read my tweets and look for comments that would embarrass my organization.
For years I had done the digital equivalent of “opening wide my lips” and given my enemies a way to bring about my ruin.
#3 — Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money (1 Tim. 3:3-4).
My social media habits began to change in early 2017 when my church plant selected me to be an elder. At the time the launch team didn’t know me all that well. I suspect they chose me because they assumed that since I was part of the original church-planting team, I had the necessary character qualifications.
But what if they had judged me solely on my social media postings and interactions? Would they still think I was sober-minded, respectable, and above reproach? Would they find I was hospitable on Facebook and not quarrelsome on Twitter?
I had never before considered myself two-faced or hypocritical. Yet I was trying to show them the side of who I thought I really was while displaying a different persona online. I would nearly blush with shame when someone from my church said, “I started following you on Twitter.” It made me fear that they would see the “real me.”
#4 — Judge not, that you be not judged (Matt. 7:1).
Social media have given us a worldwide platform for expressing unrighteous judgments. We’re even incentivized to express an opinion before we have all the relevant facts and information. As Kevin DeYoung says about this verse:
It’s the one verse that everyone in our world knows, it seems. It’s abused, and we get that. Jesus isn’t saying that you have to turn off your brain—that you can’t be a critical thinker or ever make evaluations of people or of situations. What he’s saying is that the measure you use for others will be the measure used on you. If you jump to conclusions, form your opinions of people based on your first interaction, and reach conclusions without all the information, you can expect people to do the same to you.
We are also frequently punished for failing to quickly condemn. As DeYoung adds:
This is a huge challenge in our day of social media and trial by Twitter. The pattern is predictable. It happens all the time, and it’s always sad and difficult. Some serious allegation is made against some person of notoriety or infamy—maybe a pastor, a doctor, a politician, a black man, or a police officer. Sometimes the charge seems credible; other times it seems like speculation and gossip. Either way, across the spectrum, trial by Twitter will ensue, and people demand that others take a side and jump into the fray. If you don’t, you’re likely to be accused yourself: “Why don’t you say something? How can you be silent now, in the midst of all these allegations? Shame on you!” If you don’t participate, you’re accused of not believing the victims or of not caring about justice.
#5 — So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (Jas. 4:17).
Like you, I’ve read articles like this before. I would nod along and agree that was how I should comport myself online. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do, I just didn’t commit to doing the “right thing.” This is the verse that prompted a desire to change.
So now I’m trying. I may slip. I may forget my vow and return to dishing out sinful speech on social media. When that happens someone will point to this confession, and I’ll look foolish.
But because I truly want to obey God’s Word, I’ll take that risk. And because I want to become more like Jesus I’ll continue to strive to become the right kind of fool (1 Cor. 4:10).