Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Christians in an internet age

I have something to confess. I am a “user.” I am a user of the internet. And how to do that in a distinctly Christian way is therefore something I am having to constantly think through.

I am also a father of three children – aged 11, 8 and 6. So this is a big issue as I seek to guide them too.

Now, if you want a book sized treatment, this is the best book to go to. “The Next Story” by Tim Challies.

In it, he writes: “By the time today’s digital native reaches his twenties, he will have spent some 20,000 hours accessing the Internet and 10,000 hours playing video games. All of this digital immersion takes place during those formative years when the brain is developing, when it is very sensitive to any kind of outside influence. His brain will be shaped by digital technologies, just as printed books shaped his father’s brain.”

I take it none of us would doubt the impact of the internet. And the issues it raises are too many to list: Surfing, streaming, shopping and social media – the internet impacts pretty much every part of life. And we’ve got just twenty minutes!

So we’re going to cover 4 top tips with two points under each. We need to consider them not just for our children’s use, but for our own – not least so we set a good example to them.

And if you think we focus more on negatives than positives, can I encourage you to remember the garden of Eden. There God focused on the negative: “Do not eat of that tree.” But he did it, so that Adam and Eve would be able to enjoy the rest of the garden freely and without worry.

Well, this is similar. We need to put a few things in place, so that we can freely enjoy the good the internet offers.

(1)  Top Tip: Be thoughtful – this is about our minds.
It sounds obvious, and I guess it’s why you’re here. But it is so easy to just engage on line like a technological Zombie, blundering unawares, this way and that.

First here, we need to appreciate the internet’s potential.
Technology can be used for both good and bad. Smelting down gold could be used in Israel for adorning the temple or building the golden calf.

Now at the two extremes here, you get cavemen and spacemen. Cavemen are sceptics, naturally nervous of new technology.
If that’s you, you need to see technology as a result of our God given mandate to subdue the creation – utilizing its resources for good. The internet can be received with thanks from God. It can be used for immense creativity, to communicate with people we might not be able to communicate with otherwise. It can therefore develop or deepen community. It can celebrate what is good and noble and pure. And it can contribute to the realm of ideas, helping people think through false ideas and consider the truths of God.

Having said all this, I mentioned spacemen. They are those whose instinct is to wholeheartedly embrace new technology.

If that’s you, you need to remember how humanity perverted their call to subdue the world, using technology to build the tower of Babel in great arrogance – being so focused on that, that they neglected their responsibility to scatter out and fill the world.

And so, second, we need to appreciate the internet’s impact.
Four seem most dominant. It distracts. The bleeps, the quick checks during dinner or conversation or work, the constant multitasking. Studies have shown they not only distract as we do them, but wire our brains so that they cannot focus.

It distracts. It also trivializes. The speed with which it forces us to scan information, breeds a concern for quick knowledge over considered truth. The constant access to entertainment and cheeky videos, leads people away from harder realities than need consideration.

It distracts. It trivializes. It corrupts. Whatever we want to see, hear, get or think on, it is only a couple of clicks away. And the internet bombards us with little tempters to those things.

It distracts, trivializes and corrupts. It also isolates. This is ironic. The very thing it claims to enhance – communication – is the very thing it undermines. As it fills people lives they give less time to deeper face to face relationships. And as it unites people in forums of shared interest or identity – whether in terms of a games, hobbies, sexuality or gender - it keeps them from interacting with the diversity of community that so helpfully gives perspective on our own issues and helps us learn from others.

(2) Top Tip: Be godly – this is about our desires
Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 15v18-19? “Out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person.”

He spoke this to Pharisees. All their rules and regulations couldn’t eradicate their sin. Likewise, unless we have God change our hearts – the things we love and want – no amount of checks and balances will keep us from compromise online.

First then, we must train our hearts.
We must recognize how we can look to technology as an idol. Relying on it not God to provide us with all wisdom, with a better life – even with an identity.

Instead we must recognize these things come from God. We must love him over all. And if we do, we will prioritise his wisdom and become less interested in massing information online. We’ll value his life of godliness and joy in the things of his creation and so not want what is ungodly and unreal. And we’ll delight in being his children, being formed for the world to come. So we won’t feel the pull to spend so much time on forums about other identities, or portray ourselves dishonestly to others.

Do you see? Everything flows from this. Perhaps the key characteristics needed as we engage online are truthfulness in what we say, humility in how we present ourselves, and purity in how we conduct ourselves. But all these things will only come if we first love God more.

Second, however, we must also learn contentment.
Just as Paul said he “learnt contentment” in Philippians 4v11, this is such a critical mindset to learn.

The internet offers an unlimited amount of information, music, TV, porn, people, identities and goods we can engage with. And, biblically speaking, “contentment” is the only remedy for excess and the greed that it encourages.

We don’t need that mass of information about that miniscule part of life or about what our friends get up to every day. We don’t need to hear yet another song or see another program essentially on the same thing. We don’t need to be sexually gratified through watching sex acts.

The first Christians managed with less information in their lifetime than you probably store on our phone. So unplug. Smell the roses. Unsubscribe from sites and blogs you don’t need. Browse less and buy less.

(3)  Top Tip: Be controlled – this is about our decisions.
Remember the fruit of the Spirit? What ends the list? “Self-control.” Has there every been a greater need of it.

We must remember that the internet is our servant not our master. God has commissioned us by creation to subdue the earth – to bring order to our own lives and to our use of the world’s resources in every respect.

The irony with the internet, is that it tricks us. It gives us the illusion that we are in control. We can speak to, see or buy pretty much whatever we want. But the reality of course is that the internet then controls us. We feel we can’t do without it.

A 2010 study of 1600 adults, found that a third of women from 18-34 check facebook as soon as they wake up – even before going to the bathroom. 21% say they check it in the middle of the night. And 39%v declared they were addicted.

Well in seeking to regain control, there are two things to consider.

First, seek what’s best.
That’s essentially what wisdom is. It is to do what is best. And one of the traits of the internet is amateurism. Article after article, blog after blog, post after post, emanating from arm chair experts. Speculation abounds. Think wikipedia. An encyclopedia that anyone can input into.

But it’s not just amateurism in terms of information. The nature of the internet leans towards what titillates. It’s the banal and funny posts on facebook that get all the likes. The profound and thoughtful ones often far less.

So in controlling your involvement, seek what is best. Seek out the articles that are well researched and have weight. Read thoughtfully rather than just skimming as much information as possible. Don’t let email and facebook replace conversation on the phone and face to face. Unsubscribe from sites that just waste your time. Don’t bother clicking on videos that will eat up that five minutes with family or doing better things.

Second, tame your typing.
Consider Proverbs 10v18-21: “Whoever conceals hatred with lying lips and spreads slander is a fool. Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver, but the heart of the wicked is of little value. The lips of the righteous nourish many, but fools die for lack of sense.

There’s so much here isn’t there? The fool spreads slander – untruth about others. And when other say what’s wrong, prudence doesn’t exacerbate it by multiplying words. And what is said, must be righteous as only this is of value and good.

Make a decision not to post anything before you’ve asked these questions: (1) Is it really true? (2) What will the impact of saying it be? (3) Does it really need to be said? (4) Is it righteous?

Now time is pretty much gone. Our final top tip is the one we’re so aware of.

(4) Be accountable – this is about your safety

First and above all else, we must keep ensuring we fear the Lord.  
Only a constant awareness that he and even his angels see everything we do, will give us the check we need. And remember he will judge not just every act, but every word spoken – Matthew 12v37, and every motive too – 1 Corinthians 4v5.

Second, we must set up protection too.
Here, just remember A-B-C-D:
A – is for access. Ensure your devices are accessible to another adult. Tell your children that a condition on their having devices is that you have their password and can check them at any time.

B – is for block. Parental blocks from your internet provider will help. You can also put these on search engines and you tube. Better still is to pay for something called “covenant eyes.” You can block certain types of sites and be emailed if dodgy sites are accessed. This means your children know you will know if they look for things they shouldn’t. But it also means you know a fellow adult will be notified if you do.

An “app-lock” app is really good too. You can lock down certain apps on you or your children’s devices – and even specify times they won’t work.

C - is for cap. Consider capping the amount of screen time each day. Screen free days or weekends or weeks. Whatever you need.

D - is for discuss. With all this, you need to keep talking to one-another about your internet use and its dangers. Especially giving your children reasons why you are keeping things in check, teaching them the discernment they will need as Christians in an internet age.

Apparently Plato – the Greek Philosopher expressed great concern that the new technology of – writing – would be deeply damaging. He thought it change how we understand space, destroy our memories and focus us on facts rather than wisdom.

He may have had a point.

The fact is, that every new technology brings concerns. But that is not a reason to reject it. However, it is a reason to be discerning in its use. So above all else, it is perhaps discernment that we all need.

Well, we haven’t mentioned prayer. But you could pin Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9-10 to your computer:And this is my prayer” he says: “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”