Slow to Speak: Biblical Wisdom for Social Media

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19–20)

The Bible never explicitly mentions the internet or social media accounts. But that’s not to say the Bible doesn’t speak to these issues. It does. Scripture has much to say about our words and our neighbors, and social media deals with both of these. It is therefore useful to linger for a few moments on some of the ways that Scripture speaks to our usage of social media.

The Role of Technology

       To begin, it’s important to use technology with discernment. Technology itself—the internet, computers, smart phones, and so forth—is neither inherently right nor inherently wrong. Technology can be thought of as neutral in the sense that it can be used for evil or for good. To focus on the positive: Who has not benefited from an online discussion about the Bible, or streamed a helpful sermon, podcast, or video lecture? The tools of technology can be great assets in the Christian life and in the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

       That is not, however, to say that all technologies are neutral. Some are designed to pull us in unbiblical directions. My own view is that the big social media platforms lean this way. Though there are clearly positive possibilities with these platforms—such as the ability to speed the spread important news (and prayer requests!) or keep in touch with loved ones who are far away—these platforms are designed first of all with the interests of the owners of the platforms in mind. They are designed to be immersive and to reward those who look away for the least amount of time. Think, for example, of the “streaks” that some apps build in to reward users for not missing any days. Do these have a Sabbath feature? These platforms release notifications in strategic increments to keep users checking the apps or websites as frequently as possible. These design features are meant to hook the users and keep them coming back for more (even when already we do so more than we would like to).

The Slope of Social Media

       My premise, therefore—one with which I recognize some may disagree—is that much of social media is not “neutral” but is designed in such a way that it tilts the slope away from biblical principles. At the very least, social media can easily exacerbate our tendencies toward self-indulgence.

       Social media highlights our opinions and encourages online debates—typically short, staccato conversations—that don’t favor complexity. Yet social media is a perishable format, in which older conversations expire and commenters know they must strike while the iron’s hot or risk irrelevance. These technologies are not designed to reward patience and nuance.

       Social media platforms also encourage us to show only the most enviable images of our own lives. These can easily breed narcissism, and can also be damaging to those who read or view them. How many of us have felt inadequate by comparing ourselves to others online? And, if we’re honest, how many of us post only select, edited pictures that don’t give the whole story? What is the effect on others of our own, whitewashed photos? Do we think of others when we post, or are we more concerned with how many “likes” and “comments” we receive? Where is the love for neighbor in this approach?

I remain convinced that social media technologies can be used well, but narcissism and pride are real dangers, and must be guarded against at every turn.

Social Media and Quick Speech

       Social media’s encouragement of immediate action fits uneasily with biblical principles for how we speak. Building on Old Testament wisdom literature, the apostle James instructs us to be slow to speak. To state the obvious, this sort of patience is not encouraged or rewarded in social media. Whereas platforms like Twitter tend to reward those who are quick to speak, James instructs us to be quick to listen. Whereas social media encourages us to speak our minds now; Scripture teaches us to listen first, and not to be too eager to speak. To be sure, we can use social media to listen to others, though we must be intentional in so doing, and it’s typically easier to listen more closely to those who are like ourselves. This is one of the recognized dangers of social media: creating our own online fiefdoms that become echo chambers.

       James’s teaching underscores the importance of our words—which also applies to what we write online. Where words are many, transgressions are many, but the wise will restrain their lips (Prov. 10:19). Not only must we be slow to speak, but we must be slow to anger; these seem to be related in James’s logic. It is easy to speak or write in anger, which is why it is so important that we refrain from rash speaking and posting. We also need to be aware of needless controversies, which find fertile soil online (see 1 Tim 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:24).

Social Media and Our Neighbors

       Social media also tends to encourage self-promotion. Yet Scripture warns us not to honor ourselves, but to let others praise us (Prov. 27:2). “Humblebragging” is a term that owes its origin to social media, and has become commonplace enough to warrant an entry into modern dictionaries. You know how it goes, “Honored to be considered as worthy of X by Y.” Even more dissonant is the “complaining” humblebrag. For example, “My hand is incredibly sore today from having to sign so many books!”

       I don’t doubt that there can be places for noting important events and expressing thanks publicly. But how often are these sorts of posts used as means to promote ourselves? Again, social media does not require we use it in this way, but the culture surrounding the use of social media makes it easy to promote ourselves—even in Christian circles.

       Instead, we must think about how our posts (both words and photos) will affect others. James also mentions this, when he speaks of the royal law to love your neighbor as yourself (James 2:8)—a reference to Jesus’s teaching about the second great commandment (see Lev. 19:18). I’m not suggesting that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to how social media must be used, but our primary goal of our use of social media should not be self-promotion. Instead, we should use the platforms as opportunities to encourage others (see Eph. 4:29) and promote the honor of Christ (see 1 Cor. 10:31).

If I’m honest, I’m not sure how often humblebragging succeeds in doing this.

Using Social Media Well

       To be clear, I am not arguing that social media must be avoided at all costs. But I am suggesting that the functionality of the most popular platforms tend to be slanted away from the biblical ethics of how we engage one another and how we use our words. And, as I argued in Every Day Matters, it is quite possible that the distraction of social media is not worth our time. If that’s true, then the wisest course of action is to avoid it. But if social media serves a positive role and allows us to be more fruitful, then it is worth it. Each person must weigh that choice. But we all know what it’s like to be less productive because of online distractions. Even if we’re not distracted, we have to ask whether the investment of time into online forums is worth it. For example, what is the payoff for a well-researched and nuanced post on Facebook arguing about a controversial issue? Will people read it with care and nuance? Or will they scan it and keep scrolling? Will its (perhaps short) shelf-life be worth the effort? It might be. But it might be a better use of your time to point others to published materials on various topics.

       Engaging social media well requires great diligence and wisdom. We must be intentional about our time there, consider how our actions affect others, and use the tools strategically for positive ends. To adapt a famous quote from John Owen: We must be using social media strategically, or social media will be using us.

“In the end, our words are only as good as the Savior they point others to.”

       My own approach to social media is to post sparsely, and to avoid quick takes on hot-button issues. Often, I simply point to content that I have written that people can read elsewhere, which I hope will promote greater biblical knowledge and fidelity. Likewise, I’ve found that social media is a helpful tool for discovering books, articles, and other helpful content I might otherwise have missed. Others will use social media more frequently and in different ways than I do—and many do so wisely and well. Regardless of how one engages the platforms, the biblical ethic applies to all of us, though the application of it will vary from one person’s situation to another’s.

Social Media and Union with Christ

       Finally, how we use social media is not abstracted from our union with Christ. For Christ himself embodied biblical wisdom. He was not quick to anger, and when reviled, he did not revile in return. Instead, he entrusted himself to his Father who judges all things righteously (1 Pet. 2:22–23). To be united to Christ means to be united to him by his word (see John 15:7; Col. 3:16). Our hearts should be so filled with gracious, Christlike words that they overflow from our hearts when we speak—or post (see Matt. 12:34).

       Even more significantly, we must remember that our words are not the source of eternal life—Christ’s words are (John 6:68). In the end, our words are only as good as the Savior they point others to. Why not use social media to point as many to Christ as possible? Who knows? Maybe our imperfect, online words will somehow yield a response that mirrors that of the Samaritans in Gospel of John:

       Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” (John 4:39–42)

This Savior of the world can use all things, including the words of his people on the worldwide web, to draw all people to himself (see John 12:32).

Let us therefore endeavor to use the gifts of technology for building others up and for pointing them to Christ. That’s a wise move.

Dr. Brandon D. Crowe

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