I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a good friend of mine. She told me about meeting a mutual acquaintance of ours who has a rather large following online. This guy is a professed follower of Christ, but his online engagement is, shall we say, very caustic, negative, and sometimes vulgar.
What struck me is what my friend said about this guy we both know: “He is such a really nice guy in person.”
Her words struck me because they resonated with my own experience with this gentleman. His online persona didn’t match the face-to-face reality. I didn’t know what to make of this. Who is the real person, the one on Facebook or the one standing in front of me?
I think it’s a little of both, really. There is a tendency to be more human, less caustic when you are actually in the presence of the person or persons you’d love to eviscerate. The screen and the keyboard give us a kind of emotional distance, a bravery we often don’t possess when actually talking to people over lunch. When you are present, you can gauge reactions, disappointment, elation, anger, and sadness. Digital correspondence takes this away.
At the same time, the words we type into our status on Facebook, into the subject line of an email, into the text bubble on our iPhones—this also reflects who we really are. To spew vitriol is to let loose thoughts that emanate from somewhere inside of us. Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). It might be said that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth tweets or posts or texts. Hateful, snarky, belligerent words, even words typed into a keyboard and posted on a screen—these are words that come from sinful hearts and sinful minds. We will be held accountable by Christ for the words we say online.
And yet . . . there is a temptation to create for ourselves an alternate reality. Social networks provide opportunity to be in theory what we are not in person.
A struggling father can play a successful one online. All it takes is a few humble brag tweets about what I’m doing with my kids that day, complete with staged selfies on Instagram.
A timid, fearful person can play someone unflinchingly bold and courageous online.
A critical, brooding, angry person can play a pleasant, inspirational, Barnabas-like encourager online.
You see how easy it is to play act using social media, to create an avatar of ourselves? This is why I’m not surprised to know that find people, like my friend mentioned above, who are angry online and nice offline. There is something about social media that rewards this kind of play-acting. But Christians should think differently. We know that we are not our avatars, we are who we are, body and soul, created in the image of God. We don’t have to pretend to be someone we are not because God loves us the way we are. We don’t improve our character by adapting our Facebook profiles, we submit to the regenerating work of the Spirit to sanctify our hearts.
The truth is that Christ didn’t come to save the person we play online. He came to save you and me, in the flesh. Creating a false identity only masks our deep human need and keep us from the only source of saving grace: Christ Himself. There is no salvation for avatars, but there is salvation for sinners.
Daniel Darling is the Vice President for Communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC). He is a regular contributor to Leadership Journal and the author of several books, including his latest, Activist Faith. He regularly blogs at danieldarling.com. You can follow him on Twitter @DanDarling.