by Patricia G. Duckworth, Associate Executive Minister, ABC-Northwest

If you've read any popular, secular magazines of late, you may have noticed an increase in the number of pieces related to electronic etiquette.  Perhaps it is because school will be starting soon, or perhaps it is because so many more people of all ages have electronic devices.  The Pew Internet Project reported that 46% of US adults own a smartphone (able to send and receive email, etc.) and 71% of adults between 25 and 34 own them. The website related to the popular magazine Real Simple declared the second week of this past January as “Be Nice on the Internet Week.” A lot of the ideas suggested were good (and I’d like to pass a few of them along), and the purpose was to introduce, or reintroduce, a modicum of civility back into the world of electronic communication.  However, one thing that was missing from their discussions is the fact that people are more than mind/emotions and bodies. So I'd invite you to take a moment to reflect on some understandings and values we as followers of Jesus add to this important discussion, elements we should be personally practicing and teaching, that reflect Christ-centered values and living.

Though we can’t turn to passages in Scripture that say what the Lord thinks specifically about the internet, smart phones, emails, and the cloud, there are clear guidelines about how we are to treat one another. (When Revelation 1:7 says Jesus will return in the clouds, it does not mean the internet cloud :-).  Since our electronic communication is in reality another form of behavior, guidelines for how Christians are called to treat others apply here also.

Heart Matters First

The various electronic communications we have at our disposal are astonishing. They can make life much more convenient (can you pick me up before you go home?) and safer (911 calls from almost anywhere). But as in most things, just because we have them doesn’t mean we should always use them in every situation. As people who seek to imitate Christ, how and when should we use these tools?  We need to ask ourselves if the way we use them reflects our spiritual values and “Christ in us”(Col 1:27). Does our use of them mirror a Christ-like heart that remembers the receiver of our communication is someone Jesus loves and has died for? Before we look at specific suggestions for when and how to use emails, texts and the like, let me offer three basic attitudes we need to develop in conjunction with our use of email, texts and their cyber-cousins:

1) People are created in God's image and have a spiritual dimension to them. Perhaps that goes without saying. But it is critically important to remember this in regards to this kind of communication. Because we do not actually “see” someone, we need to make an extra effort to remember there is a real person at the end of the “send” button; he or she is so important to Christ that he died for him or her. We want to reflect Christ’s love in our messages and not killing someone with our “e-words.”

2) As spiritual creatures, we are meant to be in relationship with God and with each other.  One of the profound messages of the Cross is that God desires fellowship and communication with us and makes a way for it even in our brokenness. As God’s children, our communication in all forms needs to foster positive relationships, not destroy them. I John 4:20-21 reminds us that we cannot love God and hate our brothers and sisters without showing ourselves to be liars.

3) Therefore, all communication cannot help but have some spiritual dimension to it. When we communicate (talk/listen, write/read, interact), more than our minds or even emotions is involved.  Something can take place on a spiritual level of being as well. Our words can build up or tear down. We ignore that fact to our detriment. In addition, a summary reading of Proverbs indicates that 'the tongue' has power, and we are admonished to be careful in using it. Proverbs 12:18 says, “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”  We overlook something vital if we allow “words” in this context to mean merely words spoken in real time to someone’s face (or ear).  “Words” really connotes human communication in all its forms. Another book that contains more than a passing word about our communication is the Book of James.  James 3:6-12 says that the tongue is “a fire...set[ting] the whole course of one‘s life on fire” (NIV). There probably isn’t one of us who hasn’t said something we wish for all the world we could take back. The characteristics inherent in electronic communications makes this absolutely so, as we will see.

Though not an exhaustive list, several other passages that also make these points are these:

·       Proverbs 10:11 – The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.

·       Proverbs 11:11 – Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed.

·       Proverbs 15:4 – The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.

·       Proverbs 15:28 – The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil. 

·       Proverbs 16:24 – Pleasant words are a honeycomb, Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

·       Proverbs 17:27 –The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.

·       Proverbs 21:23 – Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.

·       Proverbs 29:20 – Do you see someone who speaks in haste?  There is more hope for a fool than for them.

Being mindful of our spoken and written communication is important because in it we have the ability to bless or to curse, to build up or tear down.

Several years ago, I was fortunate to visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.  Many of the exhibits were fascinating but one that has stuck with me was called “The Whispering Gallery.” Walking through these strange and oddly built halls, one actually hears and sees many of the brutally unkind things said about the Lincolns, especially from his early months as President. The walls contain cruel caricatures and barbed political cartoons from the newspapers of the day (their 'internet') while the speakers play other equally mean things being read aloud. These writings and pictures attacked Lincoln on everything from his looks, to his intellect, to family, and heritage; somewhere in there the disagreements about politics were thrown in. It was a very disconcerting experience. It was not until after his assassination, however, that we get a hint of what hurt these words might have had. An examination of Lincoln’s wallet revealed a neatly folded but obviously frequently read newspaper article written during this period that made some complimentary comments about him as person and politician. It seems even those of us who are thought of as the most powerful in position or character are not immune to written attacks and find much needed comfort and healing that kind, honest words can bring. I have always wondered how the writer must have felt to know that Lincoln carried and read his support with him until his death.

As imitators of Christ (Eph. 5:1), we need to cultivate Christ’s heart attitude about others as we communicate with them in every form.  The purpose of this article is to continue to encourage us to create together an environment of ethical faith in our congregations so we might be people who do indeed reflect the love of Jesus in such a way that others are drawn to him.

Parts 2 & 3 will discuss the nature of electronic communications and then give some best practices and boundaries to follow for its use.

Read Part 2     Read Part 3

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A thorough discussion of this heart-attitude and other ethical issues for pastors and lay leaders will take place as a part of the up-coming ethics conference at Newport Hills Community Church, Bellevue, Washington, on August 24-25.  More information and a registration form are available at abcnw.org/ministry-ethics-conference/