Discipleship and digital permanence: Examining the witness of your online footprint
“Each person’s ways are clearly seen by the LORD, and he surveys all his actions.” – Proverbs 5:21 GWB
“God deserves my most honorable conduct.” – Jerry Bridges
In 2019 three photos of a young ‘blackface’ Justin Trudeau hit social media causing an incredible hullabaloo that hounded the prime minister for months. The photos were taken while he was teaching at West Point Gray Academy. The self-proclaimed liberal fighter for racial rights and equality was given a near knock-out blow by hypocrisy. Although these in-house photos were likely never intended to be posted online, someone did post them. As a result, there was indeed a steep price to pay. Trudeau will forever be remembered as prime minister ‘blackface’.
For those of you who follow the rich and famous of American society, consider how texts and other digital damaging posts impacted the outcome of the recent Johnny Depp – Amber Heard defamation trial. In front of millions of viewers their malicious interchange of digital vitriol was laid bare. Their online treatment of each other was utterly shameful. Although Johnny Depp was deemed the victor in the trial, in my view, both ended up losing an incalculable amount of respect.
The Christian community has recently had its own share of believers employing social media for everything from throwing spiteful digital ‘rocks’ of criticism and judgement to engaging in morally corrupt, even criminal, practices. Disciples of Jesus are tempted like everyone else to either weaponize social media or harness its dark side for personal gratification. Indeed, there is much to be repented of.
I routinely read of other beleaguered ministry colleagues whose lack of social media savvy was set aside and they posted some nefarious statement, photo or video. To their astonishment that same ill-advised action later reaped them everything from embarrassment to legal trouble. Had they understood digital permanence – once on the web, always on the web – maybe there would have been a fleeting moment of sober second thought. Maybe not.
“Social media made y’all way too comfortable with disrespecting people and not getting punched in the face for it.” – Mike Tyson,Pro Boxing Champion
There is debate over whether something you post on social media does in fact remain there forever. Social media scrubbing companies, for example, are earning record profits from clients seeking to wipe clean their past contributions to the digital universe. These companies pride themselves on being able to completely sponge away your digital footprint. However, the fact that a growing number of past posts are coming home to roost, so-to-speak, even among the most prudent and discreet of our society, tells a different story. Likely, what is closer to reality in the vast majority of cases is that once a contribution is made to the internet, it stays on the internet.
As disciples, there is a much we can learn here, least of which is don’t post anything you will one day regret! I simply want to pursue one vein of thought. I’m wondering if in addition to our practice of the spiritual disciplines, we exercise the discipline of conducting an on-going personal social media audit? What testimony or witness are my uploads, emails, posts or tweets having? Are they in harmony with Jesus’ teaching: “Do to others as you as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31 NIV)? Do they align with the counsel of Paul: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5 NIV)? Are they mirroring the high standard a disciple is to demonstrate: “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do” (1 Peter 1:15 NIV)?
I never tweet or snap; occasionally I post church visits on Facebook and only upload ministry news and sermons on YouTube. My risk for communication etiquette ‘fails’ on those fronts is fairly marginal. However, I have made ginormous errors of judgement when it comes to sending emails. I once had the intention of sending a venting–fueled email about a person to a colleague only to discover that I actually sent it to the person I was griping about! Yup, I spent the rest of the day making amends. I can’t count the number of emails I have sent that were misinterpreted or ended up painting me as unkind, insensitive or manipulative. I thank God that I have not posted or sent communications that have landed me on the unemployment line or worse, jail.
“Be kind online.” – Sasktel Ad
We live in a time when the social media landmines and snares are literally everywhere. Interestingly, a part of my vocation is helping leaders and churches navigate these danger zones as they carry out the mission of making disciples. The reality is that the vocabulary disciples used even five years ago can elicit a harsh response today. I have even sought the help of Christian social media experts to help craft public communications because each word would be scrutinized. Words matter and placing anything online means the whole world can forever see or read it. It reminds me of the old analogy: Once you squeeze toothpaste out of the tube…it’s out permanently. You can’t get it back in. Like a permanent marker used on a whiteboard leaves an indelible testimony, so to our digital footprint. What then are some helps for disciples seeking to be prudent about their engagement with social media? What is some good counsel around tweeting, sending, posting, uploading, etc.?
To begin with, I am assuming that readers of this article will have a sound sense of what is inappropriate to send out into the digital cosmos. If not, here is a good principle to follow: If you would be ashamed if your mom, spouse, pastor, church, or Jesus read or saw your email, post, etc., hit delete instead of send. Having said that, there are some grey areas that may need some refined discernment about whether to delete or send. As I test my own digital submissions, whatever form them may take, I want to ask myself the following fundamental basic questions:
- reflective of 1 Cor. 13 and Phil. 2:8?
For another level of discernment, consider the following rules of thumb:
- Never make a digital submission when you are emotionally compromised.
- If it’s a weighty matter, let is sit for a day.
- Again, if it’s a weighty matter, have a mature neutral party review it first.
- Ask yourself, Would a face-to-face meeting or phone call potentially have a better outcome? If so, do that instead.
- Think about how your tweet or email may impact the recipient. In light of that, is there something that could be communicated differently?
- Knowing that once you hit send it is a permanent record floating in the digital universe, does that change anything?
- When in doubt about a digital submission, pray for insight (Psalm 139:23-24).
My life experience has taught me that most everything of a highly inappropriate, immoral or illegal nature that is sent, tweeted, snapped or posted will one day come home to ‘roost’ – “Your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23 KJV) warns Scripture. And when it does, like our prime minister, there will be a steep price to pay. I write this to counsel those who are toying with sending something online they know is unequivocally nefarious – don’t hit send, hit delete. And then, seek the help of wise confidants.
“When you look at the dark side, careful you must be. For the dark side looks back.” – Yoda (Star Wars)