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This Year, Let’s Be Better on the Internet

What might happen if Christians became known as those who follow Jesus’ example even in our online interactions?

Think about the last time you typed an angry Facebook comment or fired off a knee-jerk tweet. Would you have written the same if you thought of your audience as your neighbors?

In response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29), Jesus turned the focus back on the questioner’s heart with a story that crossed prevailing racial and religious boundaries. The parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that the demands of the Law are too high to justify ourselves — that’s why Luke points out that the questioner was “desiring to justify himself.”

Another important application, and the one I want to focus on here, is that our “neighbors” include even people we don’t know, and with whom we may vehemently disagree about important things like religion and politics (both of which separated the Samaritan from Jesus’ audience). Is it possible that our “neighbors” include blog commenters and Twitter followers?

As our Creator, Jesus knows us best. Christians have a special responsibility to apply His teachings to our lives, including our digital lives, as consistently as we can. This year — in an age of fake news, Twitter trolls, clickbait and information overload — Christians need to be better on the internet. That means taking seriously this question: How would Jesus treat His neighbors online?

Jesus would not post clickbait

Clickbait means valuing eyeballs for advertisers more highly than the truth. Clickbait “exists to catch readers, not inform them. Jesus wouldn’t post or share clickbait.

In Mark 1, Jesus has gone to the wilderness for solitary prayer, but his disciples come to find Him. “Everyone is looking for you,” they tell Him, because He’s been healing the sick and casting out demons in Capernaum. “Clickbait Jesus” would have said: “That’s right, and you won’t BELIEVE what happens next!” But the real Jesus simply replied: “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for this is why I came” (Mark 1:38). Then He went on to Galilee.

Jesus was once shown “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” and promised that they were His, on one condition: that He reverse His priorities (Matthew 4:1-11). But Jesus didn’t believe the lie that the ends justify the means. He knew that His triumph would come only through suffering and death. So He responded: “Begone, Satan! For it is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve’” (4:10) — even though that service meant pain and sacrifice.

Clickbait and cheap shortcuts are easy, but Jesus had priorities that were more important than maximizing or pleasing His immediate audience. Does your online presence reveal the same about you?

Jesus would tell the truth without alienating people different from Him

Jesus once stopped for a drink at Jacob’s well, in Samaria, on his way from Judea to Galilee. A woman came to draw water and Jesus asked her for a drink. This surprised her; Jesus, clearly a Jew, was putting himself at the humble mercy of a Samaritan’s hospitality and kindness. That’s not how things worked in their world, and she knew it. Startled, she asked Jesus — not knowing who He was — how a Jew could ask a Samaritan for a drink.

Before we look at the next part of the conversation, consider what Jesus had already done. I don’t believe his stopping to rest in Samaria was accidental. He willingly humbled himself to be available to someone different from Him, someone who would have expected Him to avoid or discriminate. By surprising her with His humility, Jesus made her curious and open to a theological conversation that she may not otherwise have been willing to have. There are lessons here for our online behavior: What might we accomplish if we aim for humility and kindness rather than self-defense and escalation?

This conversation would change her life. Through gentle and cryptic responses that invited further dialogue, Jesus eventually got her to a point of vulnerability and self-disclosure. Jesus was able to then turn the conversation to His own identity as Messiah. When the disciples returned, their normal suspicious questioning was quelled, and they learned yet again that Jesus does not work within the sort of religious and ethnic boundaries they were used to.

The result? “Many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:38). Jesus is able to stay two days and speak truth to many more people.

The dynamics of face-to-face conversation are obviously different in many ways than blog comments and Twitter replies, but I believe there is no sphere of our lives that can’t be improved by following Jesus’ example. Jesus was committed to telling the truth in a way that didn’t unnecessarily alienate people who were different from Him.

Jesus would not bear false witness

I’ve seen many Christian brothers and sisters post misleading or false content, often with a goal of shaming or claiming victory over someone else. We should remember that some of Jesus’ harshest words were reserved for those who thought they already had a great relationship with God. We who bear Jesus’ name should be uncomfortably aware that judgment “begin[s] at the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17).

Here’s just one example. In John 8, Jesus tells those who sought to kill Him that they were doing their father’s works. His hearers respond that they have God as their father. But this can’t be, Jesus responds, because “if God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here” (8:42). The truth, He tells them, is that their father is the devil, who “does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him” (8:44). Jesus, however, tells the truth — yet they did not believe Him (8:45-46).

His listeners respond by labeling him with a racial slur: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (8:48). The conversation goes downhill from there, and the crowd tries to stone Jesus before He leaves the temple.

Consider not only this crowd’s words but also its actions. They were so angry with Jesus that they called him a racial slur (as “Samaritan” would have been perceived) and insinuated that he was demon-possessed. Their emotions continued to escalate until they were provoked to violence.

Think carefully about your own interactions with others. Think about your disposition, your heart rate, your implied tone and your word choices. Consider whether your online activity more closely resembles Jesus or this John 8 crowd. Consider that heightened emotion, strong language, sweeping generalizations and angry statements usually obscure the truth more than reveal it.

Conclusion: A call to repentance

I believe many Christians need to repent of the way we speak online. Our words, implied tone and implied actions often have more in common with those who persecuted Jesus than with Jesus. Jesus laid down His life even for those who crucified Him. How much more should we be able to resist the temptation to rise to the occasion in anger when we are baited or frustrated on the internet!

This is advice I write in large part because I need it. I’m quick to type and have used both Twitter and Facebook as weapons to gain advantage over another rather than occasions to build bridges and demonstrate humility.

If the news cycle over the past few months is any indication, we’re in for a very interesting future. What might happen if Christians became known as those who follow Jesus’ example even in our online interactions? This year, let’s be better on the internet. The internet will be a better place for it.

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