Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Saturday 13 December 2008

New Game, Old Rules

Last Sunday, I gave a sermon. The regular pastors for our congregation were both away, so I pitched in. It was the first time for me, so I followed the wise maxim "talk about what you know". Naturally that meant my sermon was about the Internet.

One may ask how the Internet is sermon-worthy. It's simple: one of the things God cares most about is how we treat one another; for someone like me a lot of that happens over the Internet, because my work and friends are scattered; so it's worth exploring how God's instructions, ancient as they may be, apply in this new environment. I think it turns out that they're even more incisive than ever. Here's the gist...

Showing where we stand

"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men,
that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." [Matthew 5:14]

It can be harder to socialize or chitchat with people you work with online. You may work with people for years before you know much about them beyond work. Fortunately the Internet gives us new tools to express ourselves; in particular, email signatures and blogs are great ways to communicate "out of band" information. Use them. You may be challenged, but that's generally a good thing. You may also get unexpected support.

Walking the walk

We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. [2 Corinthians 5:20]

If we advertise our allegiance, we'd better live up to it. Consider the following email:
You're obviously stupid. Go away and stop wasting my time, moron.



"A new command I give you: love one another" [John 13:34]

OK, I confess I've sent a few emails like that over the years :-(. It embarrasses me and the Lord. It's even worse if it happens in a public forum: God may forget your sins, but Google won't.

It's tempting to react to the possibility of falling by putting one's light back under the bowl. But that's obviously an incorrect response. A better response is to recognize the awesome responsibility we have, stop taking it lightly, and go immediately to God for help in desperation ... every day.

The red mist

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder,
and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who
is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment." [Matthew 5:21-22]

Jesus says that hateful anger is like murder. On the Internet, we're all serial killers. Consider:
"What the hell is wrong with Mozilla. First there's the madness of closing the app when the last tab is closed, then this! Since when was 'doing what's expected' justification for breaking something that is not broken? Firefox is going to the dogs."

"You proved your complete ignorance with that last statement, please don't waste any more time posting to this bug."

Both of these people "turned the knife" with statements whose main purpose is to belittle the opponent.

It's very easy to get angry with people online, partly because we can't see them. Always remember that at the other end is a real person made in God's image. When you write something in anger, stop, reread it, think about it, and pray about it. Imagine you're actually talking to this person. Imagine what would happen if you send it and the next Sunday they visited your church and recognized you.

XKCD by Randall Munroe

Maybe it's a guy thing or a nerd thing, but it's easy to slip into this mindset that treats overcoming "wrongness" as a puzzle to be solved or a game to be won. As we play to win it's almost inevitable we lose sight of the other person.

Turn the other cheek

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'
But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right
cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your
tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go
with him two miles." [Matthew 5:39]

This must be one of Jesus' most well-known and least-obeyed teachings. That's unsurprising since it's so unnatural. He wants us to accept damage for his sake.

Breaking off an unproductive or hostile exchange definitely falls into this category. Without the last word, you may look a fool, or feel like one. Accusations may lie unrefuted. We have to be confident in ourselves and especially in God:

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written:
"It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary:

   "If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

      if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

   In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [Romans 12:19]

This is especially important in online behaviour because we often perceive insults that weren't intended. We read "That can't be true" as "you're an idiot". Leaving it in God's hands is the safe option.

Another aspect of this is being willing to admit fault. Saying "I was wrong, I'm sorry" can be painful, but we should not be reluctant to accept this pain. It should be unconditional; all too often one hears (or says) weaselly apologies like "I'm sorry if you were offended" or "I'm sorry if I was wrong". We always think that we'll look bad if we're not defensive; we should be willing to set that pride aside, but in fact unconditionally admitting fault is rare enough that it often impresses people.

When we stop being defensive we lose the need for rationalization, which is another sin that seems to thrive on the Internet:

"I think we should do it my way because it will be faster."

"It won't be faster because of reasons XYZ."

"OK, I think we should do it my way because ... hmm ... it will be easier!"

We rationalize when we're trying to be right independent of the facts.


"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." [Matthew 5:27-28]

(It's like the Sermon on the Mount was written for the Internet...)

There's a lot of porn out there. Technical blocking measures are never going to be very effective. It's mostly up to our own self-discipline, but there are a few useful tricks, like keeping computers in public places. One thing I've learned is to watch out for familiar mind games, like "Hmm, I wonder what this site www.xxx.com is about, I'd better click on the link to find out." It's like I'm trying to fool God (or myself) with excuses that are ... less than convincing.

The Internet can expose us to other potential mental addictions, like gambling or compulsive game playing. In the future, self-discipline and accountability are going to be more important than ever before.


We need to remember that the Internet is less than real life. God cares about real people, not virtual people; only real people have an eternal destiny. The Internet can be very useful, but it is just a tool, and should be used to enhance real life and our relationships with real people, not supplant them. When we're pouring a lot of time into repetitive online activities that don't pay off in the real world, we're probably in trouble.

It's important not to let face-to-face people skills atrophy, especially for nerd types like me.


The (pseudo-)anonymity of the Internet messes with our inhibitions against sin. In face-to-face interactions we cover feelings of anger or lust with learned politeness, but on the Internet we often drop that mask. I think then we reveal ourselves more as we really are, deep down --- nastier than we care to imagine. (A true saint wouldn't need to be polite.) This behaviour can hurt others and ourselves, but ironically I think it can also be a great help: it shows us our true fallen state, and hence our need for forgiveness and redemption --- and Jesus who brings them.


As someone who is and tries to be completely non-religious, I find this kind of post very interesting; thank you for posting it. I sometimes enjoy seeing what a religion says about things and whether I agree or disagree, but I've just realized now that that's much more common when I'm given direct applications to my life in particular, and things that are important to me, such as you've done very well here.
So much of this fits directly into my own thoughts about how to act with no changes save removing the references to God. The Matthew 5:14 passage is a perfect example here, just by stopping at "...let your light shine before men." In Matthew 5:21-22 I mentally replaced "subject to judgment" with thoughts about how it affects the people around us, but it's nice to see how the message is really the same, and even likely for the same reason.
There are places I feel differently, of course, and I find it's good too look at those, too. I've never felt pornography was wrong, and I've never felt that adultery was the right thing to be concerned about. Rather, I feel that cheating is the problem (and "cheating" is the right word to use for it): the breaking of the rules that the people involved set on a relationship. Cheating breaks trust, hurts partners who depended on that trust, and leads to a decrease in the total amount of happiness for those involved. Adultery is often set as a form of cheating, but in many relationships it's not, and when not, it doesn't have any reason to cause hurt. Porn is similar, but more commonly allowed by those involved.
Turning the other cheek is completely separate altogether. I think you're right to say it's one of the most well-known and least-obeyed; I think it's probably also one of the least understood and least thought-about. I know it's something that while I had heard it before, it had never actually clicked what it was that was being said. It is, as you say, slightly unnatural. Yet it also has a ring of sense to it in the same way that "In the same way, let your light shine before men" does and a flat prohibition on sex outside a currently-established relationship doesn't. I think that out of the things here, this is the one I'll be taking away to see whether I think it is a good idea and, more importantly, why.
Nice job. I would've enjoyed hearing that message delivered in church. Thanks for posting it.
John Dowdell
"It's very easy to get angry with people online, partly because we can't see them. Always remember that at the other end is a real person... Imagine you're actually talking to this person...."
Agreed, thanks. Comes out of the Internet tradition, too:
Jonathan Rascher
"God may forget your sins, but Google won't."
This is about seven different kinds of awesome. Seriously, that sounds like the best sermon ever. I long for the day I go to a church service and see an xkcd comic on the overhead. Cheers! :)
David Humphrey
Thanks for sharing this, Rob. One other thought that I'd add to this comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:11 -- "Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing." I see a lot of the opposite of this on irc, in bugzilla, etc. and I think that in addition to your points about not ripping people apart online, we need to go further and actively encourage and build each other up. So many people are online because they are looking for ways to be accepted and loved in a world that otherwise doesn't seem to notice them. What a great opportunity the web brings to those of us who can share the perfect love we've been shown.
I hope your sermon went/goes well, it's very applicable.
By the way, xkcd's comics are distributed under a CC-Attribution-NonCommercial license, which means that you *can* use his comics freely but you must mention who the author of the comic is unless you got explicit permission from him not to do it.
"The Internet can expose us to other potential mental addictions, like gambling or compulsive game playing."
..or reading the endless supply news and opinion, blog posts and comments.
Thanks for posting this entry. It's encouraging to read & contains much truth.
"...it shows us our true fallen state, and hence our need for forgiveness and redemption --- and Jesus who brings them."
<>< Michael