Nathan W. Bingham
Connecting in a Hyper-Connected World

Tweets Set on Fire By Hell

Generally speaking, we are a polite society. We are taught from a young age what is appropriate dinner-table conversation and what is not. We try not to speak over the top of others. We learn to demonstrate restraint with our words when we need to offer criticism. We are a rather civilized bunch. Unless, that is, someone gives us an internet connection. From drive-by Facebook comments and tweets, to entire blog posts, the internet has opened the floodgates of our sinful hearts and unfettered our tongues. And sadly this is no less true for those within the church.

We shouldn’t be surprised. James tells us that the tongue is “set on fire by hell” (James 3:6) and that if you’re able to tame your tongue you’re a “perfect man” (James 3:2). Now when James speaks of the tongue, he isn’t restricting his comments to oral communication. Our “tongue” can be just as dangerous when expressed through fingers holding a pen, firmly pressing keys on a typewriter, or tapping the screen on a smartphone. Why? Because our tongue, our words, merely express what is truly in the heart. For as Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

What is surprising is the influence of screens. You are looking at one as you read this. I am looking at one as I type. And they have drastically interfered with our moral compass. It’s almost as if when we discovered the ability to instantaneously communicate to anyone and everyone from behind a screen that we also decided to throw away our Bibles to explore the New World (Wide Web).

I wrote recently on our youth’s need for wisdom. But even the wisest adult among us can be tempted with foolishness when a screen is placed in front of them. These screens induce a kind of forgetfulness. We forget that pixels are people—that we are called to love our neighbor. We no longer offer a judgment of charity, but assume the worst. These screens serve as our armor and give us a false sense of bravery to say online what we would never dare say in person.

Mom and dad probably taught you that “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Although they meant well, the reality is that while wounds inflicted by sticks and stones can heal, the wounds inflicted by words often never do. We quickly forget an edifying or encouraging comment, but carry the weight of one wounding word for decades. As I think back, I can still recall the sting of one particularly nasty tweet. I’m certain they didn’t give that tweet a second thought. I’m certain they would not have said those words to my face. And I’m also certain it hurt.

The internet could be a better place if the convictions that govern our speech offline also governed our speech online. Comments could be turned on. There would be freedom to dialogue, not the exchange of potshots. There would be an atmosphere of gratitude, not entitlement. Social media may better serve as an extension of relationships, and not for their destruction. But although these would be good things, if they merely remained an external piety they would only serve as a mask to disguise our disfigured hearts. When Jesus said that it was out of the abundance of our hearts that our mouths speak, He was describing the need for a radical heart change—a change that is only possible by a work of God’s grace. His words also serve as a reminder for the Christian to repent for speaking in ways not in accord with our new nature and to ask God to cleanse us anew (1 John 1:9).

I write on these subjects because I believe there is a distinctly Christian approach to technology and our use of the vast array of social networking sites available today. I am not seeking to place a digital burden on anyone’s back. I am simply aware that many are exploring this New World and don’t even realize that they left their Bible in the boat. We get swept up in the instantaneousness of the moment and forget that we will give an account for every “careless word” (Matthew 12:36). And yes, some of our tweets are set on fire by hell.

So do you have your Bible with you? If so, read James 3. James could include this chapter in a book on social media and online communication without changing a word. And once you’ve read it, ask for God’s grace to heed his divinely inspired words.