Abusing God's Name on Social Media

Some day I will finish Ursinus' Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, which, at present, I usually read to fill in the gaps between books. I recently made it to his exposition of the Ten Commandments, for which I have been waiting for a very long time. It is as good as I expected, including important distinctions and definitions, explaining both the positive and negative sides of each commandment, what it forbids directly along with what it forbids implicitly and, by reverse, implicitly requires.

Several aspects of his teaching have been insightful and interesting, but I was particularly struck by one of the prohibitions he identifies in the third commandment ("You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain"). On the whole, he has little to say about tossing around the word "God" carelessly (though he does condemn this), but he does bring up a possibly unexpected way to violate the this commandment:

[To the confession of the truth enjoined by this commandment there is opposed A]n untimely or unseasonable confession of the truth, by which men stir up and excite the enemies of religion either to contemn or revile the truth, or to bitterness and cruelty against the godly, without advancing the glory of God and the salvation of any one, and without any necessity demanding a confession of the truth at the time and under the circumstances under which it was made. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism

We could paraphrase his point this way: we break the third commandment when we confess the truth in the wrong time or the wrong place so that all we accomplish is enraging unbelievers against God, His truth, or His people instead of glorifying God and working for anyone's salvation, when we could just as well have kept out mouths shut without harm.

For Ursinus, an inappropriate confession of God's truth is an abuse of God's name. Confessing God's truth should have a purpose: to glorify God and to build up faith. Often enough, of course, we can make people mad by doing this. So be it. If we are demanded to answer a question or give an opinion, or otherwise called by the circumstances to take some kind of stand, we have no choice but to confess God's truth.

Nonetheless, there are circumstances in which the wise keep silent. We are not called to throw doctrinal grenades into the unbelieving world but to maintain a quiet, peaceable, and respectable witness inasmuch as it depends on us. Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 13 what good it is if he has all knowledge but does not have love, and we could likewise ask what good it is if we proclaim all knowledge but have not love.

A chief example of this, to which I refer in the post's title, is how we use social media. Social media is the ultimate superfluous context. In most situations, we have no moral obligations to use it at all. (In some cases, we are morally obliged not to.) Almost everything we do on social media is entirely optional.

In such a context, it is not necessarily valuable to stir up strife by throwing down the gauntlet of God's truth against everything we see to its contrary. We do not have to pick every battle, die on every hill, or comment on every thread. For, given the nature of social media, any such engagement is likely to happen “without advancing the glory of God and the salvation of any one.” It is frequently much more likely that we will “stir up and excite the enemies of religion either to contemn or revile the truth, or to bitterness and cruelty against the godly.” This would be acceptable if the circumstances demanded a bold stand, but rarely in this genuinely the case on social media. So, most often, it is better to shut up. When we create strife on God's behalf without glorifying Him or encouraging anyone to love Him, we have made use of His name utterly in vain.

Of course, this should not be used as an excuse for timidity. “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of this person when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” It is nigh impossible for us to judge these motives in others, but we can always examine our own hearts. I would like to suggest, however, that rather than an aggressive “witness” on social media, we ought first consider our boldness in our real, face-to-face relations. Indeed, it is often easier and cheaper to confess God's truth, vainly or genuinely, on social media than it is before a living and responsive human being in front of me. There are still times, of course, when a face-to-face witness would still fall under Ursinus' warning here, but much less often. Before a friend, a coworker, or a cordial acquaintance, it is much more likely that we will be able to advance the glory of God and someone's salvation. We can back up our words with our visible hearts and deeds, offer clarifying remarks or qualifications right off the bat, and prove our concern and goodwill.

Naturally, I write this last paragraph to my own shame. Do I say what I need to say in the real world? Do I confess the truth whenever it is called for before my own coworkers? Haunting questions, but I pray only for mercy and fortitude. But I can only write any of this because I have also myself been guilty of the other crime, wasting words online to bring wrath on God's people for no good purpose. In this I know I am not alone. “Woe to me! For I am destroyed! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I am living among a people of unclean lips!”