The Impact Of The Internet On Spiritual Life

 

Over a trillion emails are sent annually; huge sus of digital data is created annually; and our computers have more and more capacity to store stuff. 1 in 3 of earth's 6 billion are now online. In America alone, 44 million digital photographs are snapped each day. Text messages are into the billions per year. It s tempting to misquote Dan. 12:4 about all this:  many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased . The age of digital communication is one of humanity s biggest paradigm shifts since the invention of printing or perhaps even the wheel. And it has a distinct impact upon us in spiritual terms; despite the illusion we all have that actually, I am not that affected by all this. Even if it's true that we personally aren't, we live in a global village which is, and thus we are affected.

The Nature Of Communication

Online man needs access to a piece of hardware in order to communicate. He becomes a nobody without that piece of plastic and silicon. People say things by email and text which they wouldn t face to face. The perceived anonymity of digital communication means that we tend to assume that what we re writing on that screen isn t really me. The speed and ease of the communication tempts us to overlook the huge emphasis which the Bible places upon direct, inter-personal dialogue:  Debate your cause with your neighbour himself, and disclose not the secret of another (Prov. 25:9). All too often, people have a lot to say by email- but refuse to meet in person to discuss the issues. This sin was so much harder to commit before the net came along! We re far bolder online than we are in person. A woman may express her interest in a man online in a way she d never dream of doing in person. We must remember that how we treat people on the internet is indeed how we are treating them in reality- and how we treat our brethren is how we treat the Lord Jesus, and we will be judged against that standard. Internet communication tends to lead to a yawning gap between our real self, and the shadow self we project there. This dysfunction is not what God intends- for He intends our words to be a true reflection of  us . We are not to relate to others behind masks or avatars, but to be ourselves- just as He is ultimately true in His communication to us in Christ.  The Lord Jesus alone could say, with full meaning,  I am . Who He appeared to be, was who He essentially was. Because Jesus was always showing His essential self- and this is in some ways an exhausting and almost unbearable way to live- He tended to connect easier to the real selves in His hearers. This was what gave that compelling. radical bite to the communications of Jesus. Truly, the more real, the more credible. And for all our internet communication, we must ask whether this is of itself really bringing people to Christ.

It s good, of course, that our communications all being recorded and accessible by others make us more accountable. Ecc. 10:20 was true millennia ago:  Don't criticize the king, even silently, and don't criticize the rich, even in the privacy of your bedroom. A bird might carry the message and tell them what you said . How much more true is that in the internet age, when the clicking of one button can forward our words world-wide! By looking through your own sent items over the years, and certainly by reading through the messages from others you ve received, you learn soon enough that we re not the rational, logical creatures we think we are. That s an illusion. There s something broken in man. It s an observable fact- observable by reading through years of emails from yourself and your contacts- that we say one thing at one time, or to one person, and change our tune later, or in talking with others. And so Ecc 7:21,22 click into place:   Don't pay attention to everything people say- you may hear your servant insulting you, and you know yourself that you have insulted other people many times . This isn t to say  words are unimportant ; rather is it a recognition that we all sin with our tongue [our fingertips, these days],  but the tongue can no man tame . We bless God and curse men. Truly,  these things ought not so to be , but James seems to tacitly recognize, as does Ecclesiastes 7, that this is how it is with humanity. And in this context, James warns that we shouldn t wish to be teachers,  for in many things we offend all by our words (James 3). This is not a resignation to complacency- it s just a recognition of our humanity when it comes to our words. We shall be judged by our words; and so it s by grace alone that we, who each one offends by words, shall be saved. It s so easy to sift through the years of communications, and catch out our brother or sister in this matter.  You said this then, and then that, and now this ... can be applied to us too. As we judge, so we shall be. But the fact our communications are largely through words, and our computer memories are large enough now to store years of such communications...  should lead us to a greater self examination, integrity and accountability. I know a fine brother who deletes his emails after a month, exactly because of this problem of being tempted to remember others words against them. And we need to not be misled by the email world into thinking that we must respond to them all. Some of us would spend our lives doing nothing else than replying to email otherwise.

But positively, the process of putting your feelings into words deepens introspection and increases self-awareness. And self-examination can be no bad thing if it s not confused with navel gazing. But the emphasis upon written words shouldn t lead us into over-interpretation of others words. The sheer mass of words we have to face daily can even lead us into an over-interpretation of God s words. Most believers down the centuries have been illiterate; they simply wouldn t have fallen out over matters of fine interpretation as we tend to. That of course isn t to say that God s words aren t to be taken seriously; I m thinking more of the dangers of an inappropriate, literalistic attitude to words in general, separating them from the bigger picture we need to see.

The Nature Of Relationships

Now, we don t deal with people much face to face- we take money from an ATM, we shop online rather than in a store. And people hardly know how to behave themselves in real life interaction- hence the growth of divorce rates, indeed broken relationships on about every level. There s no doubt that Scripture emphasizes the place of person to person contact- e.g.  If your brother sins against you, go to him and show him his fault. But do it privately, just between yourselves (Mt. 18:15 cp. Prov. 25:9). It s this personal contact which enables the development of love, patience, mutual understanding, forgiveness. The very speed of internet communication militates against the development of true patience. It has been estimated that 80% of communication is non-verbal. When we communicate without seeing, touching, smelling even the other person, we will have the illusion that communication has happened when often it hasn t, or has happened in a dysfunctional, partial sense. My dear friend John Stibbs used to sign off his emails with a quote:  The worse thing about communication is the illusion that it s happened . Living in rural Africa in the 1980s, I used to be amazed at how the Africans would walk huge distances to relay a message face to face, or simply to  extend greetings because someone had asked them to. But that is the right and natural way to communicate. Communication through written words alone leaves many gaps in our understanding of them- and we inevitably fill those gaps, that vacuum created by the lack of physical presence, with our imaginations and fantasy. These unreal images of others only lead to disappointment, anger, and the ultimate breakdown of relationship. You imagine the person is what you want him or her to be; we fall in love, or out of love, with the image of them we ve created in our own mind. Then anger develops as we come to perceive  bits missing , or elements of hypocrisy, in the one we formerly trusted. When we are hurt, our (internet) personas often reappear more strongly to cover the hurt done to our person.

The sheer complexity of human persons means that we cannot ultimately judge them. Through online communication, we see our brother s various personas, sometimes his true, reborn self coming out; and our images of others derive as much from ourselves as from them. It amazes me that we humans succeed in accurately communicating with each other online as much as we do. The more one perceives the complexity of the person and the personas whom we meet, the more apparent it is that we cannot claim to be their judge. And the more evident it is that the judgments which human beings constantly make about each other are so superficial and often inevitably false. Further, if we truly believe that we ourselves are in Christ and  impute His person as being the essence of our real self, then we must likewise impute His righteousness to our brethren. Thus Peter could say that he  imputed Silvanus to be a  faithful brother (1 Pet. 5:12). If only we could consistently live out this truth, then all internet-carried friction between brethren would be a thing of the past.

In one form or another, we can  copy and paste the same message to one person as we do to another. And worse, we can even effectively plagiarize the words or concepts of others and repeat them in our communications to others. It s no longer purely  us in communication. We have allowed the world to squeeze us into its mould, rather than being personally transformed by our relationship with the Lord (Rom. 12:2 J.B. Phillips).The internet moulds people terribly. Very few are naturally good with words and self-presentation. The significance of written words has become such that word-smithing is almost an art form. It s not so much what you say or what you yourself feel that matters- it s all important how you say it. This has bred a culture of camouflaging the most awful feelings and attitudes in nicespeak; and any who don t respond in the nicespeak language are somehow marked down in society s judgment of them.

Whilst on the one hand, the internet generation live vicarious lives, living out others lives and experiences as if they are living them, on the other, people are left devoid of themselves. We become faceless, Facebook notwithstanding. The importance of real personality, and of persons, becomes diminished. They feel inadequate, and the information overload they suffer often leaves them perplexed and unsure of their own judgment. They retreat into self-absorption. You need only hear the relative silence in the huge Chinese internet cafes, where 1000 people sit glued to their screens, lost in themselves, easy prey to pickpockets, oblivious to anything else, as if they re gambling their lives away in some clock-less casino. All this of course is quite the opposite of the Biblical picture- of active ecclesial and personal family life, outgoing caring for others, active self-sacrifice for the Lord s cause rather than navel gazing and imitating others style. This is why I m no fan of the  out of church Christian movement. Christianity is meant to be lived in a community. Indeed, God has created salvation in a community, in the body of Christ.  Work out your [plural] salvation... for it is God who is working in your midst [as a body] (Phil. 2:12,13). Virtual relationships may play a part, but I don t believe they re a real substitute for the Christianity Jesus intended. The internet age has led to children no longer knowing how to entertain themselves without some kind of black box. And if basic creativity is stifled in youth, where does this leave them as adults? They will be prone to being entertained, to follow the initiatives and leadership of others- which is very often lacking in spiritual basis. Real creativity and originality, it seems to me, are squashed by the internet.

Being Ourselves

The challenge to us all is to be truly ourselves, so that we can bond as we are intended to with our brethren. The internet must be used very carefully in this process. Humans so desperately thirst for this real contact, this real authentic fellowship; but they don t let themselves receive it because they too aren t transparent. Paradoxically, we often shy away from transparency in the interests of safeguarding harmony. How many marriages have run into the problem of not talking about something because the subject always causes friction and argument! And how many ecclesias have refused to allow open minded discussion in the interests of unity& This harmony and unity is a fake. It s as superficial as a couple having sex before they are married, or a marriage in which the real issues are never addressed, the trading of chit chat on Facebook& it s the too easy road, which avoids the difficult encounter of persons which there must be to make any relationship authentic. But the real transparency is brave and unafraid, not for ever calculating what to reveal or not reveal. There will never be the authentic fellowship which God intends unless we can rise up to this transparency, with all the initial awkwardness of seeing both ourselves and our brethren standing naked, as it were, before each other.

The Son of God spoke of how He  knew the Father and was  being known by the Father using continuous tenses; He was growing to know the Father, as the Father was growing to know the Son. And so it is within our far more human relationships; fellowship is not something static, a dry theoretical state that exists because we profess allegiance to the same theological tenets. It is a meeting of persons, a coming together in the unity of Christ our Lord. The fellowship we are intended to share in Christ is not merely a sharing of ideas; we are not to view people as simply a screen name who claims to believe various ideas; but rather as real, live persons. To be interested in people as persons rather than as holders of ideas, bearers of labels etc., means a complete revolution in the thinking of many modern people. Our Lord surely viewed the mob crying for His blood not as a mob but as people; those who listened to Him likewise were not just an impersonal crowd, or class of pupils, but a collection of persons. His teaching of them was therefore not so much lecturing, zapping text messages to them, as a personal dialogue. And immediately one reflects uncomfortably how our beloved community has focused so much on lecturing and platform speaking, mere words; and how we have chosen to combat incorrect word usage, rather than first seeking to understand why a person holds that false view.

Whenever we try to be righteous, we often alienate ordinary, sinful people. Yet why, then, did Jesus connect with them by being righteous? Surely because it was somehow so evident that He was no acting out a persona; He was being absolutely Himself, not acting out a part, with no hidden agendas. This was the beauty of His character; just as nature is beautiful because it simply is what it is. So self-evidently, who He was within, was who He showed Himself to be. The more we are  ourselves , the more likely it is that we will connect with our contacts. People who only live out their personas create an impersonal atmosphere around them, whereas the person who lives and shows their real self encourages those around him or her to also feel themselves to be persons. I would go even further and suggest that the more we live as who we are, God Himself will become more personal to us.

Information Overload

The amount of information now available is colossal- web sites are in the billions. And the amount of information we receive from our worldwide contacts is also vast, too much for us to realistically process. It all leads us away from the personal, daily Bible study and meditation which have been the groundrock of every true Christian community. This access to so much information also tends towards judgmentalism, and endless interest in the lives of others rather than seeking to meaningfully care for others and glorify God in our own personalities. The fast moving nature of the web means that we re so easily caught up in gossip- for so much of the information we receive is effectively little more than gossip about people rather than about God and His Son. Like food,  we need to "decrease quantity, increase quality .

And of course the point must be made that the internet leads to a huge wasting of time if misused.  Our time isn t really ours. It s God s gift to us. My  throw away your TV- it s the world s greatest timewaster is a campaign that now needs extending to profligate use of the internet. If the aim of our lives is spiritual mindedness, how does endless online self-absorption and clicking on irrelevant timewasting really help towards that? Information isn t wisdom. Wisdom is applied knowledge, and that s something Google doesn t come up with.

The emphasis on information, in the form of words, is so disproportionate that it leads to an overly abstract approach to life. We are wired to attach meaning to events; but when  events are just words on a screen, we won t attach meaning to them as we are intended to. And real response, concrete life decisions in response to events, become muted. At best we may respond to a need by clicking on a PayPal account and sending some funds somewhere. This isn t to be despised, but the life of love is so far more than that. It s about interaction. All the references to the Lord Jesus  coming down from Heaven I believe can be read on the level of describing how at age 30 He  came down from His spiritual aloneness with the Father, and went out into the world of humanity, declaring God s salvation openly to them. And we too are to  come down , to  come out to others; the word is to be made flesh in us as it was in Him. The information revolution can lead us too easily to assume that all we have to do to preach is write a website. But it s encounter with persons, with the word made flesh rather than just the word, which often leads to real conversion. When people are faced with more information than they can process, they become unable to make decisions or take action.- there s  a chronic lack of real action in modern society. There s more and more talk about the cases of need we hear about- but where s the action?

The inertia of indecision is a huge problem. Your own example of making clear choices, doing what is right before God rather than what is wise and smart in human eyes, will reveal a sense of clarity about you which will become inspirational to your online brethren. Yours will not be one of those many lives that is paralyzed by constantly postponing the choices, by indecision, like Israel on Carmel, hopping backwards and forwards between two opinions (1 Kings 18:21), between your persona and your true person, which is Christ in you. Ultimately, the choice is not one between abstract principles, differing blocks of text on a screen; it is between Christ as a person, and all the other things which would lead us away from Him. The essential choice is always between  Christ in you and& her mother, your instincts, their self-perception imposed upon you, your self-interest. And in those choices there is no third road; we are hard up against a T-junction, hour after hour. We chose either life or death (Dt. 30:19); we cannot serve two masters (Mt. 6:24). Insofar as you at least live a life that reflects this recognition, you will be a challenge to those around you.

An over full computer will give you error messages, run slower, take longer to process information, and eventually crash. Our minds are similar. Information overload leads to making mistakes, letting things slip through the cracks, sluggishness, losing true creativity, and even breakdown. Perhaps this is one reason why although like Corinth we may have 10,000 instructors in Christ, replete with their internet-garnered knowledge, we have  not many fathers . Or so it seems. Few truly decisive, creative, active leaders of men and women. None of us [even women!] are really very good multitaskers when it comes to communication. That s why in many countries it s illegal to talk on a cell phone whilst driving. But talking to a human passenger doesn t harm your driving so much. Invisible communication demands a lot from us- more than we think. We re mentally exhausting ourselves with all these relationships and communications.  My son, give me thine heart, and let thine eyes observe my ways (Prov. 23:26) was the verse my Bible dropped open to when, over 25 years ago now, I dried myself off after my baptism, opened my Bible and asked God to give me a verse to guide me. The internet steals our mind, too easily. We don t need most of the information it fills us with.

There s an old Christadelphian phrase that one rarely hears these days:  Our corner of the master s vineyard . I like it. Whilst avoiding selfish parochialism at one extreme, we have to realize our limitations. The internet may be the world-wide web, but we aren t world-wide, 24/7 masters of reality around the globe. We live in one location, and perhaps it is there that we have been called to be the light of our world. We aren t called to be judge and jury on what goes on elsewhere.

Click Click, Quick

The very speed of internet communication means that we can be simultaneously in touch with information coming in from around the world. We may assume we can cope with this; but we are not God, and inadvertently, the internet tempts us to play God, rather than seek to manifest Him in our limited flesh. The internet lulls us into the assumption that what we read on that screen is true. But only  the simple believe every word (Prov. 14:15). The speed of information and communication can easily lead to things assuming distorted importance in our minds- e.g. getting terribly worked up about a supposed outbreak of false teaching or immorality on the other side of the planet. Of course we have to find a balance between genuine concern for others world-wide, and a recognition that we shall only ever get part of the story up on our screens. The speed of communication leads to the unnaturally quick development of relationships in the wider sense- I don t only refer to romance. And like small children, best friends one moment and sworn enemies the next, such relationships often don t last. The stable, life-long friendships which should characterize our being in the body of Christ are in sadly short supply amongst us. E-mail relationships happen at our convenience. We check e-mail when we want and reply when we want. But real life relationships aren t like that. As a Christian, we don t just  drop people. We are to  be there for them just as God is for us.

 I want it, and I want it now is the credo of our age. The high speed nature of internet life grates against the Biblical concept of delayed gratification. And when it comes to seeking to understand the Bible, the temptation is to search the net for others views- whereas it is the honour of [future] kings to search out such matters, through daily Bible study and prayerful reflection (Prov. 25:2). We are now bombarded by written words. "The typical business manager is said to read one million words per week. That's the equivalent of one and a half full-length novels per day . [Source: http://www.gdrc.org/icts/i-overload/infoload.html ]. Inevitably, we end up skim reading. But we can let this rub off upon our reading of God s word- where we re reading Divine words, God s love letter to us, and every word of God needs to be given its full weight. Because words have become devalued, we are no longer sensitive to all the details; and we will miss so much of God s communication to us if this is how we approach His word.

The speed of everything, coupled with the information overload, can lead to impaired judgement based upon overconfidence. It also fills our mind, and gives us the illusion that all must be achieved so quickly. And maybe that accounts for the rudeness and abruptness which characterizes the internet generation. I don t wish to sound like my dear mother- but really, people have become so rude and abrupt nowadays. Our generation seeks instant everything; instant wealth, success, fulfilling personal relationships, instant gratification. And they get miffed when they don t get it. All this reflects a total lack of character. For those who are aware of their real selves, the man Christ Jesus within them, there is the strength to realize that nothing comes instantly; the real self is the product of slow, certain development.

The Potential

Moses used his bronze age technology to make a brazen serpent to communicate God s salvation to a whole people. But later, it was turned into an idol (2 Kings 18:4). There s huge potential in the internet for preaching, and for binding together the body of Christ world-wide as never before in history. Cindy and I find ourselves praying in our nightly prayers for those we ve met only online; and that can be no bad thing. Thousands of people view our material online daily; many respond and request literature. But so few of those contacts are converted into baptisms- because as a community we fail miserably in the person-to-person stuff. The internet can and does shape peoples beliefs and worldviews; and we can use that positively in our witness. But unless we ourselves are founded on the rock of personal, daily Bible reading, we shall be lead astray by the billion confused voices shouting at us from the search results on Google. Perhaps Paul s use of letter writing was perhaps analogous to our use of the net. He says time and again that he s writing a letter, but he sees it as a poor substitute for the face to face contact he would prefer (Rom. 15:14-33; 1 Cor. 4:14-21; Gal. 4:12-20; 1 Thess. 2:17-3:13). John hints the same (2 Jn. 12; 3 Jn. 14).

There is a spirit of adventure within us, yet we tend to want to live it out vicariously, through identifying with some character in a movie or on a blog; rather than ourselves going outside our comfort zones and being the person God intended us to be in His service. The most timid office clerk will disclose under psychoanalysis that he has dreams which reflect a passion for adventure. But the internet kids us we can  virtually go outside our comfort zones by just sitting before a screen. Yet we can, we really can, get up from the computer and live a life which is ourselves, fearless of what others think, living the gripping life of true spiritual adventure, taking ourselves where we have never been before, even if it takes us to the cross- which is the ultimate end of the truly Christ-following life. For freedom did Christ set us free (Gal. 5:1 RV). The new person, the essential you and me, is characterized by sudden, creative welling up to the Father s glory.  I am& the life (Jn. 11:25). This welling up of new life is a characteristic of true conversion. This is why the elderly, the infirm, the chronically shy, experience the flowering of the person, the sense of new life even in the face of the outward man perishing daily; because their inward man, their real self, is being so strongly infused with power (2 Cor. 4:16). This explains why the graph of spiritual growth in any person is not a smooth upward curve; it is a very jagged line. Our true person asserts itself in those moments of totally free choice to serve our Lord. But we so easily allow our lives to slip back into the automatisms which define our internet personas.

We aren t professionals, committee members, in this drive for spirituality. We are amateurs at heart, children, wide eyed with wonder at what we are being shown, ever moving on to some fresh endeavour. Our spiritual life need never become a mere routine, a burden, a duty to be performed, a habit. For  [in the heart] where the spirit of the Lord [Jesus] is, there the heart is free (2 Cor. 3:17); we were brought out from the pointless, repetitive bondage of Egypt [of which the internet life has so much of] by the blood of Christ. What this means is not that red liquid somehow did something for us; His example of death, how He was there, inspires us to break out from the vain way of life we received by tradition from our fathers (1 Pet. 1:18). We, as true believers in the representative nature of His sacrifice, are thereby empowered to break out of the routine of our lives. Life becomes valuable; we number our days with wisdom (Ps. 90:12), rather than wasting our hours online.

Playing On The Discontent

The internet is creating a new kind of person. And he s not a happy chappy. But he s a searching guy, a roving, wandering woman. Our modern civilization with its addiction to money and power has left so much unaddressed; and we know it, now as never before. Our need for beauty, for poetry, for art, for mystery and dreams, to find love, the meaning of life, for personal contact with God. The rush of internet existence has left each of us with the niggling conscience that this is the sort of life we want to have, indeed, that we ought to follow. But not only do we not follow our conscience; we don t know where to find something, some philosophy, some religion, which somehow synthesizes all these needs together. People today- young people especially- are so often asking the ultimate questions, looking for the right things, but in the wrong places. The metanarrative of modern art, in all its forms from movies to songs to novels, records the distraughtness of humanity, our malaise, the hidden longing for deliverance and redemption which there is not far beneath the surface of us all. As Brother Tim Dickinson put it recently at a Latvian Bible School:  Even art is turning in upon itself . But with all due respect to the forms in which this is expressed- the fineness of the art, power of the wordsmithing, the screenplay... modern men and women are groping like the blind in search of a wall of support, desperate for some familiar guide towards the true path. The self-introspection of internet blogs, humanity's increasing preoccupation with itself, is the result of a failure to find that path. They rage in vain against the machine, a society which has lost its spiritual roots. And I believe, indeed I know from experience of enough conversions, that we do really have what people are seeking.

More Real, More Credible

People are unhappy with the internet age. In Europe, they ll pay any money to buy and restore a 19th century Post Office, the classic remnant of the snail-mail era; and the less wealthy often decorate their homes with the timber beams of a previous age. Metal and plastic aren t, in the end, what people are comfortable with. People are seeking reality- concrete, objective, touchable, reality. Real relationships, and not virtual ones. In Christ, and in His body on earth, they can find this. I wonder if this is why the abiding sacraments of baptism and the breaking of bread have been given to us- here, at long last in our all too abstract lives, is something real and actual. We get physically wet to symbolize our connection with the Lord s death and resurrection. And the bread and wine make it come real once again, week by week. The  realness about  the Truth of Christ is actually exactly what the internet generation needs.

We are to be real. The more real, the more credible. We re not to act, to hide behind words we tap. We now in our personalities reflect and manifest the one glory of the Father, and our blessed Hope is glory in the future, to be glorified, to be persons (note that- to be persons!) who reflect and  are that glory in a more intimate and complete sense than we are now, marred as we are by our human dysfunction, sin, and weakness of will against temptation. We now reflect that glory as in a dirty bronze mirror. The outline of God s glory in the face of Jesus is only dimly reflected in us. But we are being changed, from glory to glory, the focus getting clearer all the time, until that great day when we meet Him and see Him face to face, with all that shall imply and result in. The essence of who we are now in our spiritual man, how we reflect it, in our own unique way, is how we shall always be.