Ours is an age of algorithmic flattery. Internet algorithms tell us pleasant lies we want to hear because clever people want what we have. They want our money, our attention, our vote. Whether for profit, praise, or power, some of the most brilliant minds on earth are employed to flatter us.
Algorithms care nothing about the truth. They’re designed to capture our attention for the maximum time to exert the maximum influence over our decisions. They bring to our screens the most reliable attention-grabbers: things that make us feel angry, afraid, aroused, or adored. Algorithmic flattery insulates us with the soft cushions of positive affirmation and confirms what we always suspected: We deserve better. We’re smarter than God.
Algorithmic flattery insulates us with the soft cushions of positive affirmation and confirms what we always suspected: we deserve better.
The Bible brings us back down to earth. Whereas the algorithm makes us feel better with its lies, God’s Word tells us the truth and sets us on the path to genuine, lasting fulfillment. Confronted with the reality of my idolatry and sin before God, I’m ready to receive and rejoice in the good news that, in Christ, I’m fully known yet freely loved, an adopted son of my heavenly Father—eternally justified, fully forgiven, forever in his family, and yet currently engaged in a brutal sanctifying process that ends in glory.
So how do we order our lives for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good in an age of algorithmic flattery? Here are seven considerations.
1. Resolve to be wise.
While preaching through the book of Ecclesiastes, I offered our church family a working definition of wisdom: wisdom is the skillful discernment and application of truth for the glory of God and the good of others.
We’re not born with discernment; it’s a developed skill. To avoid being misled “by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes,” we must grow up spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually (Eph. 4:14–15). The longer we follow Jesus, the wiser we’ll be.
2. Appeal to Scripture as the arbiter of truth.
We evangelicals confess sola scriptura. Scripture alone is our final authority and standard of truth. But biblical illiteracy is notoriously high among us, leaving us ill-equipped for the challenges that await us in “the misinformation age.”
When we compare our weekly screen time with our weekly Scripture time, is it obvious we believe in the final authority of Scripture alone? As Patrick Miller notes, for many church members today, “their mentor is an algorithm.” We’re assaulted with deceptive, flattering messages packaged in some form of the question “Did God actually say?” (Gen. 3:1). The first step in resisting the allure of algorithmic flattery is to know what God actually said.
3. Sharpen skills to navigate the internet.
“Do not be deceived” is a command, not a suggestion (1 Cor. 6:9; 15:33; Gal. 6:7; James 1:16). It’s not godly to be gullible, nor noble to be naive. In fact, being deceived can be a sin. The believer is duty bound to cultivate and calibrate an internal lie detector.
Effective discipleship must now include a level of digital literacy, training Christ-followers in critical thinking, lateral reading, triangulating truth, identifying logical fallacies, fact-checking, and generally avoiding online misinformation and disinformation. In the age of algorithms, doing a search isn’t the same as doing research.
The voices on our digital platforms persuade us to favor pundits who confirm our bias. But the wise will carefully weigh the evidence, understanding that “the one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17).
4. Thank God for the internet.
My mechanic said I could make an appointment three weeks out for him to diagnose and repair my GMC Sierra. I made the appointment, went home, found a YouTube video that taught me how to fix it, fixed it, and canceled the appointment. Thank God for the internet.
Like all technology, the internet can be a conduit of God’s grace. You’ve likely found this article on the internet, perhaps via an algorithm. Because the internet gives access to many things that are true, honorable, and Christ-exalting, it can serve as a helpful tool for the Great Commission.
5. Challenge conspiracy theories.
Both the Old and New Testaments begin with a conspiracy theory designed to disinform, divide, and destroy. In Genesis, the serpent accuses God of conspiring to deprive the man and woman of their greatest good (Gen. 3:1). In Matthew, the Sanhedrin accuses the disciples of conspiring to steal a corpse and start a self-serving movement (Matt. 28:13).
Today’s skeptics often adopt some form of these conspiracy theories to deny the resurrection and explain the rise of Christianity. When professing Christians become widely known for their gullibility, captured by conspiracy theories, we feed those false narratives and damage the church’s credibility.
6. View politics as a minefield of pleasant lies.
Sometimes minefields need to be crossed and sometimes they need to be avoided—wisdom knows the difference. Christians should be salt and light in the public square, but political engagement in the age of misinformation calls for extraordinary vigilance.
The first casualty of political partisanship is truth. It’s in our nature to uncritically receive evidence that supports our political positions—and suppress evidence that refutes them. With so much at stake, we may even be tempted to believe that a righteous end justifies unrighteous means.
Partisan politics can open our eyes to the double standards of our opponent while blinding us to our own. Algorithmic flattery fuels polarization, widens the cultural divide, and disturbs the peace of the church.
7. Practice humility in applying truth.
The world doesn’t need more Bible-quoting, critical-thinking, algorithm-analyzing, fact-checking jerks. Even if we become proficient in discerning truth, we err if we don’t skillfully apply it to our own lives. Jesus told his disciples, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Serpent-wisdom minus dove-innocence equals hypocritical sheep.
Serpent-wisdom minus dove-innocence equals hypocritical sheep.
Doves don’t have to be the smartest bird in the room. They aren’t given to hot takes and hasty conclusions. They have enough self-awareness to know when they’re in over their heads—and when to fly away from a profitless controversy. They don’t feel the need to be an expert on everything, correct everyone’s error, or contribute to our national ignorance pooled on social media. Before they refute someone’s argument, they work to understand it.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit and practicing “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control,” doves earn a reputation for “reasonableness,” being equitable, impartial, and fair-minded (Gal. 5:22–23; Phil. 4:5). Such a life stands in compelling contrast to a world of algorithmic flattery.