If you read something online that is wrong—like offensively, hatefully wrong—should you respond?
I suppose a more relevant question isn’t the hypothetical “if,” but the inevitable “when.” All of us who read blogs and follow social media have come across vicious rants, mean-spirited treaties, and complete misunderstandings that anger us.
I faced this question last week when a friend of mine became the subject of a blog post meant to smear her career and reputation. On the one hand, the claims were so blatantly deceptive, it was laughable. And yet, the more I read and thought about it, the angrier I became.
I stared at the screen as my emotions raged. Inspiration flowed like a river, flooding my mind with insulting tweets. I fantasized about mocking, silencing, and shaming the people working to discredit my friend. I wasn’t just angry. I was outraged.
This is what the Internet can do to us, especially through the escalating back-and-forth on our Facebook and Twitter feeds. A 2013 study found that anger was the emotion most likely to spread through social media. In fact, its influence has a “a ripple effect that could spark irate posts up to three degrees of separation from the original message.”
In a New York Times article, author Teddy Wayne speculated that anger spreads so easily due to its brevity and conviction: “A 700-word Facebook post accounting for all sides of a contentious issue is unlikely to garner as many readers and endorsements as a one-sentence quip blaring heightened feelings.”
Much has been written about Internet outrage. This widespread phenomenon has garnered worthy attention, including among Christians. Less has been written about a different aspect of Internet rage: what it teaches us about the nature of sin.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is harsh with the Corinthian church, which had welcomed immorality into its midst. Warning against the dangers of sin, he writes, “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” This verse is frequently used to justify Christian isolation. Based on this passage, some Christians refuse to keep company with known sinners, for fear that the sin will spread. (In fact, my friend was criticized for just this reason, owing to her friendships with openly gay men.)
There is some wisdom in this interpretation. As Proverbs 13:20 cautions, “The companion of fools will suffer harm.” Sins, in their particularities, have a way of rubbing off. However, sin does not always spread so obviously. Instead, it has a way of adapting to our lives and situations. As Christians respond to the sin in their midst, even with the best of intentions, the sin assumes a new form.
Take my Internet outrage. Though confident my anger was justified, I found myself ready to heap sin upon sin. That’s because humans handle our swelling emotions the way a toddler handles scissors: clumsily, and perilously. Even righteous anger can inspire unrighteous behavior, which is why Proverbs 14:29 advises, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.”
That does not mean silence or inaction are the right responses. As Ecclesiastes 3:7 advises, there is a time for silence, but there is also a time to speak. Still, anger can cloud our discernment and timing, so a godly response requires prayer, patience, and humility. Had I given full vent to my rage, I would have allowed sin to spread like yeast, their slander taking the form of my wrath. That is how sin spreads, and Internet outrage is only one avenue:
A man is caught in adultery, so his church community gossips under the guise of concern.
An acquaintance posts a hateful rant on Facebook, which elicits threats and name-calling from others.
A woman is fired for unethical behavior, while her co-workers delight in the takedown.
A husband behaves selfishly, so his wife quietly nurses self-righteousness.
A wife belittles her husband, so he justifies the images he views online.
A pastor is accused of moral failure, so the church members pick sides and divide.
Sin breeds more sin. Rather than respond redemptively—in love, peace, and self-control—we make new ways for sin to steal, kill, and destroy. Knowing that one form of sin can give birth to another, we would be wise to examine ourselves through our online and offine responses to sin.
Know your weaknesses: How does sin most readily spread in you? No matter the sin in your friend, family, member, or co-worker, what form of sin most often manifests in your own heart? As the above example demonstrates, my own temptation is to cut people down with my words. For you, it might be different.
Know your triggers: In view of your personal weaknesses, which people and situations should you avoid? Not everyone is equally tempted by drugs, sex, greed, or gossip, so draw boundaries based on your particular temptations. If gossip is a struggle, avoid friends who indulge it. If anger is a struggle, unfollow the hate-mongers on your newsfeed. Knowing your triggers is how you can both guard against the spread of sin, while following Jesus’ example of keeping company with sinners. Triggers show you your areas of limitation, and your areas of freedom.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagines a demon, Screwtape, who dispenses advice for ensnaring the human soul. One of Screwtape’s favorite tools is distraction, which he encourages for the growth of self-righteousness:
If the [Christian] knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with the squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much easier. All you then have to do is keep out of his mind the question “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?”
This sort of distraction allows sin to catch on. In our indignation over the sins of others, we ignore and justify our own. It’s why anger spreads like a wildfire online; no one has the self-discipline or self-understanding to put it out. That’s why I can’t help but wonder what the “Christian Internet”—and the broader Christian culture—would look like were we to take Paul’s warning seriously. What if we were personally chastened by the knowledge that sin spreads, through each and every one of us? In the void created by our prudence, might we make more space for love to enter in? I’d like to think so.