“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” [James 3:1]
I am an avid reader. Over the years, I have noticed that the more I read books, blogs and other works of literature, the more I learn that a single work of art can communicate lessons that even the author of that work could never have thought of, let alone intend to teach. I am even tempted to be bold enough to assert that all art is essentially abstract art. Just because its human creator decides it should mean one thing, doesn’t mean it will mean that same thing to all who encounter it. I am slowly being persuaded that artists are to their artworks what parents are to their children – mere stewards of a greater work of God. But this is seen even more clearly in works of literature, at least to me.
While reading a book, I have not just been able to get what the author is saying, but also why he says what he says the way he says it. Whenever a friend of mine approaches me with a quotation from a book he’s been reading, I always find myself suddenly becoming acutely aware that I need to know the context of that quotation. Not just the literary context, but also the greater “target audience of the author” context. For example, I will not listen to a message being preached by a pastor to his congregation in the same way I would listen to the same message being preached by the same pastor in a conference full of pastors. The message and the words used to communicate it may be the same, but the intended audience presents an informing paradigm regarding how I should receive and treat what I am hearing
For the sake of clarity, let me use a (hopefully) simpler everyday illustration. A father is talking to his son who is in his early teens. The son asks the father if it is okay for him to take alcohol. The father responds with a vehement, “of course it is not! I will discipline you thoroughly if I ever find you taking alcohol.” In such a scenario, the father does not even press the issue further. He does not ask the son why he wants to take alcohol. It is not necessary. He simply forbids it. And you and I both know why.
Flash forward a few years. The son is now in his early twenties and in college. He asks his father if it is okay for him to take alcohol. But the father responds as he did ten years back, “of course it is not! I will discipline you thoroughly if I ever find you taking alcohol.” Suddenly, that answer doesn’t seem appropriate. An outsider listening in may be tempted to intervene with reasons such as, “why not? Isn’t he old enough to make that decision for himself?”
I hope it’s getting clearer now, we have the same father, the same son, the same question and the same answer. However, what we would have understandably let pass ten years ago is now a point of concern. Ten years ago, the father was simply exercising his love for his son by forbidding what would cause him harm. He knew that the son was not old enough to understand exactly why it was wrong for him to take alcohol. But he also knew that his authority over his son was enough to cause the son to trust his father’s judgement and rest in his choice to forbid alcohol for him.
Ten years down the line, the son is now an adult. The same command is not received or perceived in the same light. It is assumed that the son is old enough to make such an informed independent decision. Therefore, not only is the father’s response to the son strange, but the question coming from the son (at his age) is also strange. A person, say the mother, witnessing this same exchange on both occasions will not have the same thoughts about what is happening. In the first instance, the mother would be proud of her husband, for exercising his authority in disciplining their child and raising him uprightly. In the second instance, the mother would be worried for her husband. Her worries may range across a whole spectrum of paradigms, from sociological to theological concerns.
Yet, strange as it may sound, the only thing that has changed is the context. But that is not quite true, because that single change has actually changed everything else. Age is not just a number.
I know I have taken such a long and round-about way to belabor a point that may seem obvious to many. But it has actually not been that obvious to me for a while, especially when it came to things that I would post (and sometimes still do today) on Facebook and other social media. The internet has greatly changed the way we perceive inter-relational communication. When I post my thoughts regarding a particular subject or issue, it is important that I be aware of the possible contextual implications. I am not simply speaking in front of a same-age group of people. I am not speaking in front of a same-gender group of people. I am not even speaking in front of a same-point-of-growth group of people. My audience is a whole spectrum of people, toddler to the elderly, the vilest sinner to the most puritan saint.
There are people who will naively take my opinion for absolute truth. There are those who will simply deem it as one point of view among many which are equally valid and enforceable. There are those who may be immature in their spiritual walk, and my words may stumble them, putting an obstacle in their path. Then there are those who are simply out to attack (or applaud) whatever is posted, usually because of the person posting it rather than the message being posted. What am I getting at with this? Simply this, that the advent of the internet has brought with it greater stewardship challenges for public communicators. On the internet (social media), I am no longer just a youth pastor preaching a message for a group of teens. No, on the internet, I am a steward of God’s words of life to the world, and I can either use them to bless or to condemn.
With this heightened awareness, I have made a deliberate decision to be more careful about what I post online. I will not simply post a difficult truth without any concern for those who may be condemned by it. Neither will I simply gravitate to diluting everything for the fear of offending some people. I am not in any way saying that it is possible to cater for all the needs and concerns of my audience. That would be impossible,and I’d be forced to be dumb.
“We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” [James 3:2]
But what I am saying is that this consciousness has made me more careful, more deliberate and more purposeful in what I post online – especially being a Christian. We shall all give an account for every idle word written (Matthew 12:36) The need to exercise biblical discernment in public has never been so high as in this age of social media. It is my hope and prayer that we will all become faithful stewards of the treasures of truth that God has so graciously deposited in us. May they be sowed with wisdom, to bear fruit. I say this knowing just how difficult a task it is, especially when I know that simply burying the treasure is not an option for the true child of God.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” [James 3:13]
In His service and for His glory,