There are many benefits to the internet—it provides a platform for lightning-quick communication, opportunities for commerce, and sharing a wealth of information that previous generations only dreamed possible. Many theologians, for example, have greatly benefited from unbound access to all sorts of books and essays which are now available on the web. I have been able to access scores of ancient books that in years past would have required me to travel the world at great expense. Now, with a few strokes of the keyboard and clicks of my mouse, I can download numerous rare books and read them on my computer or tablet. But access to beneficial resources is a two-way street—the ease with which we can now use many good things equally applies to evil things.
In days gone by, in order for someone to access pornography, for example, he had to be willing physically to go to a store. He had to walk in, select the magazine, walk up to the counter, look the clerk in the face, and pay for it. The unwillingness and shame to hurdle the various moral and social obstacles kept some people from accessing evil. In short, temptation and opportunity did not meet. With the internet, however, temptation and opportunity have few impediments. Rather than go to a store, all a person has to do is enter a few words into a search engine and click the mouse, and he can encounter all sorts of wicked images and ideas. Such unfettered access to evil causes troubles even within the church. The recent Poway Synagogue Shooting where a young man killed one and injured three highlights this fact, as he was a member of a Reformed and Presbyterian church.How often do comment threads on Facebook, news articles, or Twitter feeds circle the drain of immorality as Christians engage in gossip, slander, and anger-filled rants?
The young man who attacked the synagogue did not learn his wicked ideology from his friends, family, church, or books. Rather, in his now-deleted manifesto, he explained that he learned his degenerate dogma from on-line chat groups over a period of two years. What is mind-boggling is a person would turn away from the people that are around him, with whom he shares meals, speaks with on a daily basis, those with whom he worships, and turn to a computer screen to imbibe from an evil message which he took into the depths of his soul. We can all shudder in disbelief and disapprove of the shooter’s actions, and rightly so. But the truth of the matter is that many others access evil on a regular basis through the internet in a similar fashion. If the statistics are accurate, every second 30,000 people are consuming pornography on-line and nearly 35 percent of all internet downloads are related to pornography. The sad fact is that many Christians are a part of these statistics. Internet evil, however, comes in many other forms. How often do comment threads on Facebook, news articles, or Twitter feeds circle the drain of immorality as Christians engage in gossip, slander, and anger-filled rants? The question we must ask ourselves is, “What are we supposed to do given our unrestricted access to evil?” There are three important tools at our disposal we need to employ in our use of the internet.
First, some people take extreme measures and completely disconnect their lives from the internet. While this may be a necessary step, at the same time we have to ask a more fundamental question. Namely, what have we done to change the motivations and desires of our hearts? You can remove opportunity, but what if the temptations and sinful desires still lie restless in our hearts? Recall Christ’s words when he addressed the question of what defiles a person’s heart: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20–23). You can completely disconnect from the internet and still engage in sinful conduct by lusting and coveting after things. The internet often only gives opportunity to desires already present in the heart. The only way to change your desires is to change your diet. That is, feeding on Christ through word, sacrament, and prayer can change the desires of our hearts. As Paul writes: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:14). If you continually feed upon Christ and cry out to him in prayer that he would change the yearnings of your heart, then when temptation encounters opportunity, you will pass by without a second thought because you will only have a desire to please Christ.The internet often only gives opportunity to desires already present in the heart.
Second, we must use the internet cautiously and deliberately. I think we often all too willingly click on questionable links that lead us to sinful internet content. Even reputable news sites can have links to salacious stories and images. Curiosity gets the better of us and we wander into the sin-darkened corners of the digital world to our detriment. We live during a time when websites purvey violence, sex, hatred, and death as commodities—ideas to increase web traffic and revenue. Such things can easily get our attention and we might click on the links out of a genuine interest to learn about the world around us or perhaps to satisfy our sinful voyeuristic appetites. We should realize, however, that not all links are worthy of our attention. While a story might seem interesting, must we click on it? Perhaps the better part of wisdom is to ignore fantastic headlines and be more disciplined in our reading. Moreover, we should heed Paul’s advice to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Do we pursue that which edifies or that which tears down?God has created us as embodied creatures, which means that whenever we disengage from contact with others we begin to erode our God-created flesh-and-blood existence.
Third, and finally, the church community is often a vital missing component in our use of the internet. Internet addiction actually erodes our connections to the real world. The Poway synagogue shooter immersed himself in online chat groups and failed to connect to the people around him—his family, school, and church. He withdrew into a twisted world of sinful disembodied ideology mediated to him through the internet. If we find ourselves staring for hours into the bright light of our computer screens and failing to connect to the flesh-and-blood people in our lives, we must stop, disconnect, and re-engage the real world. God has created us as embodied creatures, which means that whenever we disengage from contact with others we begin to erode our God-created flesh-and-blood existence. The author to the Hebrews highlighted the importance of regularly gathering together for worship with God’s people. But in particular, note two of the reasons why he exhorted his recipients regularly to meet: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24–25). When we gather together as the people of God, we should encourage one another to greater holiness and love. As a community, we can discuss the things we encounter on the internet and share the ideas that we learn. Others can provide feedback regarding whether these beliefs are godly or wicked. Older members of the church can teach us wisdom. Our pastors and elders can help us discern when certain concepts might have false doctrine and ideologies buried deep within. In other words, God created us for community—we are part of the body of Christ— thus we need to ensure we are connected to it. No person is an island—we are all members of the body of Christ and thus need his body to live and thrive.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once made an astute observation regarding the necessity of the church: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.” In this case, Bonhoeffer’s warnings about solitude with- out community bear significant relevance for the internet and our unfettered access to evil. We must pursue holiness and piety in order to reform and change our desires, but we can never do so apart from the church and means of grace.