The Internet – Engaged but not Enslaved

At last!” you exclaim. “Someone is finally going to tell us if the Internet is good or bad!” Well, sorry to disappoint you, but the Internet is actually amoral. “What?” “What about all the lewdness on there?” That’s true. Pornography is one of the largest industries that uses the Internet. However, the Internet itself is nothing more than a bunch of computers, cables, and some basic communication protocols that have been around for more than a decade. The reason why this is important is because it takes us away from the question, “Is the Internet (Facebook/Twitter/chatting/etc.) good or bad?” to “How should I as a believer use the Internet?”

In view of this, rather than dissecting the merits or demerits of various Internet sites and services, here are some guidelines for Internet use that are healthy spiritually, relationally, and emotionally.

Use it in Purity

Little did Job know that the promise he made to himself (Job 31:1) would one day become the motto for an Internet monitoring service (www.covenanteyes.com) to help protect against the vice of pornography. Pornography is likely the single greatest threat facing Christian young men and women in 2010 – 2011.

Matthew 5:28 makes it clear that lustful observation equates to adultery in the heart. The biochemical reactions in your mind and body are the same for pornography as they are for a real, legitimate relationship with your (future) marriage partner. Nevertheless, the significance of this is that the adultery in the heart means not only the sin against God and all that this means for the believer, but also that the repeated use of pornography with autoeroticism, forms neural pathways that become the basis for habitual sin. Thus, while you may remain chaste physically throughout your youth, you can secretly intoxicate your heart and mind with the forbidden women (Prov 5:3, 20) of the Internet and end up in a far worse situation than another Christian who might have “fallen” and been publicly disciplined for fornication. The devastating impact of a pornography habit should not be underestimated even if the consequences are not immediately apparent.

Moreover, the habitual perusal of this licentiousness also forms a sadly destructive way of life that will have you constantly spinning through an exhausting cycle of sin, shame, repentance, confession, and then sin again and back into shame and so on. Solomon knew the addictive quality of this sin when he warned that the fornicator would “be held fast in the cords of his sin” (Prov 5:23). Your relationship with the Lord will become both a source of relief as you confess and experience forgiveness and also of constant guilt as you struggle with this sin. It will affect your relationship with Him, your ability to worship, to share the gospel, and to speak genuinely about the freedom that salvation brings from sin. Relationships with your closest friends and family will be impacted and you may even have trouble looking at members of the opposite sex without seeing them as mere objects of physical desire. The impact is devastating; if you yield to the wrong master you may well find yourself in this repetitious tormenting cycle – daily, weekly, or monthly.

Do not be a pushover! You can choose which master you will yield yourself to in every moment in the face of each temptation. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness”(Rom 6:16-18 ESV). The lesson is clear: What we yield ourselves to will rule in our heart. Each of us makes a hundred choices every day as to what we will click on and what we won’t. For those who have gone down this road, many will face a difficult journey out of it. For those who have not, “let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1Cor 10:12). A healthy relationship with your Savior, growing in the faith, and building strong, accountable relationships with other believers of the same sex are all strong antidotes against giving the wrong master a foothold in your life.

But purity is about more than just sexual holiness. It extends into other moral domains of Internet use such as integrity and lawfulness. Most of us will have some good ministry on our iPod—but what about the music you have? Did you pay for all the copyrighted songs you have along with the ministry on your portable music device? Hopefully, few Christians have ever stolen any physical property, but for many of us we have to confess that we have been, or are perhaps even presently, thieves of digital property (Eph 4:28). When purity is viewed as one aspect of holiness, the righteous claims of God speak in every part of our lives.

Use it Safely

The words of Proverbs 2:11 are most appropriate: “Discretion shall preserve thee.” Younger teens in particular need to be aware that there are predators on the Internet. This often begins in chat rooms and moves to IM’ing, E-mail, phone, and then into face-to-face meetings. These are skilled and pathological individuals, lending a sympathetic ear to the growing pains of adolescence, often pretending to be the same age or of the opposite sex in order to lure an innocent young person into compromising (and worse) situations. Do not communicate with strangers over the Internet, and, certainly, never arrange to meet an Internet acquaintance without a parent being present. Never give out your personal information (real name, phone number, address, family relationships, photos) to anyone you do not know. Make sure that your privacy settings on social media sites are set correctly and be sure to keep your parents in the loop about your online, as well as offline, relationships.

Use it Redemptively

Ephesians 5:16 is the text behind this heading: “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil,” or as the ESV puts it, “Making the best use of the time.” Even respectable use of the Internet can result in many wasted hours. A recent piece of research showed that when 200 students were asked to abstain from all media use for 24 hours, they showed signs of withdrawal, craving, and anxiety. Internet addiction is a real problem – so much so that treatment centers for this are now appearing in some parts of the world. What is going on? With so much information and so much possibility for interaction, the Internet has become a huge time sink. It’s nice to share photos with our friends on Facebook and it is good to keep up with the news to some extent, but let’s get back to basics: how is God working in your life right now? Is your Internet use facilitating that or getting in the way?

Beyond just the profitable use of our time, have you considered how you can use the Internet for God? This generation is tech-savy; you are better equipped to initiate creative ways of bringing the gospel message to the unsaved. Seek the advice and direction of your overseers on this; they will be interested to see how the Internet can be used as a tool to reach people for Christ.

Use it Genuinely

One of the greatest appeals (and risks) of the Internet is that it can be used as a means to express to others an ideal version of our selves. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games and virtual worlds are saturated with millions of individuals who express an idealized version of themselves. Mind you, this is not unique to the Internet. Paul confronted the same issue when some accusers claimed that he was strong in his letters (think virtual identity), but weak and insignificant in person. What was his reply? “What we say by letter when absent, we do when present” (see 2Cor 10:11). There was a definite congruence between his presentation in absentia and his presentation when he was there in body.

“Oh, I don’t struggle with that at all,” you say. Really? Your profile picture on Facebook: did you Photoshop it at all? OK, maybe not—but how much time did you spend choosing the best picture of yourself? In real life we have to work hard to present the best version of self to others, but for those who know us best we might as well not even bother trying. Online, however, is a different story: we can (almost subconsciously) craft a very stylized and idealized version of who we are so that others think more highly of us.

What is at the root of all this? It is just sin. In our pride we want to always put our best face on things. But what has God called us to? He has called us not to put on our ideal self, but “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph 4:24-25 ESV). This genuine living is marked by the absence of falsehood, even when we can pretend to be something, we are not to do so. Rather, we are to allow God to work in us to produce the divine characteristics of righteousness and holiness.

Use it Wisely

In the 1990s and prior, the Internet was more like traditional media where content was created by “them” and given to “us” to read. Now, with what is loosely called Web 2.0 and social media, the power to create Internet content has been given to the masses. In a few minutes, you can create a blog, tweet a group of followers, or update your profile status by adding pictures, videos, and other information. You can become the source, not just the consumer, of content.

We need to be cautious with this. The Internet is the new megaphone for narcissism. You could tweet the endless details of your day, but should anyone really care about that? “Be not wise in thine own eyes” (Prov 3:7) is a good cue for us as we use the Internet. The Biblical principles written to guide our speech are also most relevant to guide our contributions to online discussions, our tweeting, texting, IM’ing, status updates, and whatever other ways we might be posting content to the Internet. Our contributions are to be holy (Eph 5:3-4), gracious (Col 4:6), exempt from evil (Jas 4:11-12), void of slander or hostility (2Cor 12:20). Perhaps an Internet version of Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians might read, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your keyboard, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the web surfers.”

May God give us wisdom in this new world. The Internet is not evil, but it is used for much evil. How can we use it for the glory of God? Can you encourage a distant friend with a message on Facebook? Can you tweet a thought you enjoyed about Christ? Would you text a friend a verse that God has laid on your heart? With wisdom and caution let us be engaged but not enslaved, following the counsel of 2 Peter 3:17-18. “Beware lest ye … fall from your own steadfastness. But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”