“Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19)
When James penned these words 2,000 years ago, there were no computers. In fact, modern printing was still a far way off. Yet, his words provide a required corrective to our online culture.
The Principle Explained
A key feature of our digital era is swift dissemination of information. When I was younger, under three decades ago, one got to know about international events only after 2 or 3 days. And this was via newspapers or the customary network news by 9pm on TV. This has changed. Now, information filters to us in real-time.
We learn about President Trump’s latest remark not from a third party, but by reading it on Twitter. The Independence Day broadcast here in Nigeria used to be on TV. Now, as soon as it’s over, I can read the text on my smartphone. I learn of another police shooting on the streets of America, a corruption scandal in Europe, or of an attack by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria. The digital age has made us quick to hear. And that can (note the highlight) be good.
Along with the instantaneous serving of news, our modern world has birthed a new culture of rage. We are angry about everything. From gun control to racism, from women’s rights to political corruption, several topics fly around demanding our eager response. And diverse groups and movements have emerged to champion or oppose some position or the other. Almost overnight, social justice has moved beyond academic corridors and university lecture rooms to become a trending term online. We want to fight against injustice, oppression, inequality, and every perceived evil, however poorly defined or understood.
In this excitement for change and the freedom to express our views, it is not unusual to find our rage extending beyond social evils into more personal terrain. So someone goes on Twitter to call out an ex-lover. Fans of musical artistes spill out invectives when a new track is unsatisfying. Instagram features all kinds of absurdities, with accompanying cries and outbursts from online followers. A deluge of anger, deep hurts, and concealed pains have now found an outlet. Amidst such outrage, we are apt to forget that ‘the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God’ (James 1:19). Hence the command to be slow to anger.
In order to express our feelings about happenings in our world, we must say (or type) something. Here is where the third aspect of James’s rule becomes relevant. We want to say something, however mindless it is. For some reason, we deem ourselves insignificant unless we have a considerable following on social media. And you can’t maintain a following without content (there goes another term) which your audience finds appealing. This could be text, but preferably images and videos. And the more sensational, the better. The latest gist, the most eye-catching image, the most entertaining clip. Hence, we find shallow posts on Facebook which are riddled with grammatical errors, lack coherence, yet get liked. Some posts are noticeable for their rash pronouncements on some social problem or a still-developing matter.
Others reveal a desire to be applauded as an expert on a subject which the writer has had limited exposure to. How about the glaring images and selfies on Instagram? They reflect the desire to make a statement while lacking adequate substance. In all, a new world emerges which thrives on words and images but cannot nourish and edify. All because we ignore the biblical counsel to be slow to speak (see also Proverbs 10:19; Ecclesiastes 5:2; James 1:26).
The Principle Applied
How can we correct this poor trend in our digital lives?
I believe James would agree with the following:
First, ground yourself in the truth that your value and significance stem from God himself, not from your digital clout. Your online followership or audience is too fickle a thing to base your life upon. You were made for God and can find satisfaction only in him. Hence the many calls for us to seek God (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:14; Jeremiah 29:13; James 4:8). If you have been reconciled to him through faith in Jesus Christ, that’s great. If you are yet to make that shift in the core of your being, please consider his offer (John 6:35, 51; 7: 37-38) and prayerfully make the move. Your relation to (or alienation from) God is what ultimately defines you. Your Instagram profile is not you.
Second, realize that the problem of our world goes deeper than having the wrong person in power, and we can’t resolve it by merely switching who bears the title of ‘President’ or getting a law repealed. As Christians believe (based on the Bible), the misery we all experience stems from the initial rebellion carried out by our first parents (cf. Genesis 3). And the result is a corrupted nature, a broadly dysfunctional society, and a physical universe that is broken in many ways. As Paul wrote, ‘the whole creation has been groaning in the pain of childbirth until now’ (Romans 8:22). Yes, we can realize some changes through activism, but we are wiser working with God to deal with the root problem. Nothing less than a cosmic renewal will do (cf. 1 Peter 1:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1-4). If we really want to improve our world, we must embrace and proclaim the gospel.
This requires humility, for we are all part of the problem. Writing in his classic book Loving God, the late Christian writer Charles Colson observed:
The world is not divided into white hats and lack hats. It is not divided into good people and evil people. Rather, good and evil coexist in every human heart… Man goes to great lengths to avoid his own responsibility. Many blame Satan for every imaginable evil—but Jesus states clearly that sin is in us. Others recoil with horror at the sins of the society around them, smugly satisfied that sinful abominations are not of their doing – not realizing that God holds us responsible for acts of omission as well as acts of commission.Loving God, pp. 102-103)
In other words, no one is exempt. There are no good guys versus villains. And the problem shows itself in careless comments, unkind remarks, selfish posts, self-centred images, as well as the gossip and slander we sometimes promote on social media. Thus, we should tread carefully and scroll wisely on our smartphones. We can use Facebook and Twitter with discernment. While these are platforms on which we can do much good, they offer endless avenues for exhibiting our sinful natures.
Finally, along with the command to love God with our hearts is the directive to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). Before you publish that post, send the tweet, or share the message, take a second and consider if you are adding value to your online neighbour. Is your post edifying? Would that tweet stir up the right emotions in your followers? How about that message you are about sharing on WhatsApp? Is it genuine? Does it fairly represent the situation?
In one of Christ’s parables, a Samaritan found a Jew beaten and stranded on the road to Jericho and hurriedly helped him out (Luke 10:25-37). We have our neighbours across the digital landscape. They inhabit different communities. Some are on Twitter, others live in the family settlements of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. A good number will be found on the million other sites and platforms that dot the terrain. But they all have one thing in common: They are flesh and blood humans standing behind a digital façade, real people with genuine feelings, desires, and minds. Love them, respect them, and serve them, for they are God’s creatures made in his own image.