Over the past 2+ years I’ve followed more social media than perhaps all the other years combined, at least since the technology has reached its apex over the last decade. One thing that troubles me is my own tendency to be careless with words, which is of course the nature of the medium we are using. Because it occurs in a digital realm vs. that of the physical and analog, we are perhaps more prone to carelessness with how we speak and interact than we would be with those in person. In fact, I would argue that if (or better when) digital interactions supersede and replace physical interactions the tendency will be to speak and interact with one another physically how we do digitally and that is not a good development. We may be at or just beyond the inflection point for this now and are trending down that track like a speeding train.
Prior to the rise of social media’s popularity and influence, it was common to refer to those who lacked decency or courtesy on message boards and web page comment sections as those who were hiding behind a keyboard, usually in their mother’s basement. Those who lacked the inability to interact in a courteous manner were somewhat of an anomaly, but that is far from the case now. The norm is to profane, insult, or otherwise use a derogatory tone in order to put down one another, particularly with a differing view and elevate our own selves. Professing Christians are not excluded from this – far from it. In other words, society as a whole is degenerating in how people interact with one another and this corresponds with the rise of “social media”, proving it to be a rather ironic name.
In Matthew chapter 12 Jesus is in the midst of a dialogue with the scribes and Pharisees, a passage that includes the oft-troubling blasphemy of the Holy Spirit passage no less. Here, in verse 33 Jesus makes His familiar reference that a tree is known by its fruit and follows up with, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (This little phrase is worthy of its own meditation)
While His rebuke is directed at His opponents, are the words no less truly applied to us today?
It is a general theological maxim that we speak with our mouths from the overflow of our hearts. In other words, what is on the inside of us embedded in our hearts will eventually come out of us through the words that we speak, i.e., our interactions with others. Continuing with His rebuke, our Lord reaches His culmination with the shocking, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12:36-37
Do these sobering words equally apply to us today, as did the theological maxim that we identified earlier?
Again, we note that the audience in context are the scribes and Pharisees, but the connection being made is not with them directly, rather it is being made with the general maxim from earlier. This is clear from the statement, “people will give account” taking it from the specific application of scribes and Pharisees and extending it to all people. The warning is for all of us, that we will give an account, in other words be responsible on judgment day, for every careless word spoken.
But what are these careless words?
The word used here by our Lord, argos, translated as careless, literally means lazy, useless, or idle. In its limited New Testament use it also refers to idly standing around. Could there be a better word chosen to reflect our online interactions? Whether it be a careless one-liner for a laugh or a disrespectful retort to a fellow image-bearer, social media is nothing if not filled and overflowing with lazy, useless, idle words. Long gone are the days of long, thoughtful physical interactions with discussions over topics of importance. Replacing this are character limits which hinder the brain’s ability to communicate a full thought, in essence forcing lazy, useless words and our own sinful tendency to speak with indecency and disrespect.
Is social media all bad? That’s debatable. But what is not up for debate is how we interact with each other with careless and more often disrespectful words for which we will be held accountable.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.James 3:5-12