Wading into the cesspool of the comments section of a news article or a YouTube video is pretty much always ill-advised if one’s goal is meaningful and civil conversation.
It’s not so much that meaningful conversation cannot happen in standard online communication. Despite the understandable growth of pessimism concerning the possibility of quality online communication, the problem isn’t really the medium. No, that lets the human beings on either side of the medium off too easy. The medium has its quirks and unique challenges, but it’s not like humans haven’t been communicating in written form for thousands of years. We know how to be civil to each other. Unfortunately, we humans do the typically human thing when, emboldened by the relative anonymity of Internet communication, we choose instead to engage in civil war. Nevertheless, while I believe that quality communication is possible via online media, because of the preponderance of angry and mean-spirited people among comments section users, and because of the overwhelming difficulty of keeping one’s own emotions in check when confronted by unfettered human foolishness, my general policy is simply to avoid reading or participating in comments sections.
That’s why a recent violation of my principle deserves some explanation. I was watching a lecture by Philip Yancey on YouTube. Predictably, the lowest common denominator peanut gallery were out in full force – both those with a beef against Christianity as well as those who take it upon themselves to “defend” Christianity in ways that end up doing more damage than good. Few of the comments had anything to do with Yancey’s lecture or even betrayed evidence that the commenter had actually watched any part of the video. In short, this was not fertile ground for productive and thoughtful discussion of deep religious and philosophical questions.
But one conversation in particular so troubled me that I broke my vow of silence and spoke up.
The original comment was this: “what about the god who kills children”. With a comment like that, if your troll alarm isn’t going off you don’t understand the Internet. Not that the question isn’t a legitimate question (theodicy, or how a sovereign God can also be a righteous God, is a hugely important topic), and not necessarily questioning the sincerity of the person asking the question, it’s just that a comments section is such a spectacularly inappropriate context for this kind of question that it just screams out “I’m looking for someone to fight.”
Perhaps predictably (and unfortunately), the original commenter was more biblically literate than any of those who felt God needed a champion for such a moment as this. It was clear that the commenter had done his or her research. The Bible itself had led them to a really hard question, and in wrestling with it they had not been able to conclude that a God who would kill Egyptian firstborn children, wipe out a world of children in Noah’s flood, and order the death of Canaanite infants could be trusted or loved.
I disagree with that conclusion, but it isn’t because it’s a non-issue. It’s a hugely important issue, and it shouldn’t be dismissed with a response like “Dude, you just need to read the Bible.” Dude, maybe you should read the Bible and then actually address the question rather than self-righteously dodge it.
Those who respond this way essentially think that it is wrong to ask these kinds of questions. For them, to accuse God of wrongdoing is the really worst kind of sin. There’s an easy explanation that lets God off the hook: humans are sinful and deserve death. If you find some kind of moral dilemma in God’s actions, the dilemma is simply the result of your own sinfulness and willful unbelief. No such dilemma exists or can exist.
There’s a biblical term for people like this with such a neat and tidy view of the world: Job’s friends. In the book of Job, the protagonist, Job, whom the narrator tells us (in a non-ironic way) is a righteous man, loses everything, including his children to disaster after disaster. Then he is tormented by disease. Job expresses his desire that he had never been born, and the implication of this desire is that God, who is sovereign, has not treated him justly. Job’s friends are too pious to hear such things while remaining silent. They defend God’s innocence at Job’s expense, telling Job that there is clearly some kind of sin in his life that he needs to repent of. Moreover, to call God’s integrity into question the way Job is doing simply confirms that he has a rebellious heart and has brought his disaster on himself. For Job’s friends, the very last thing you can do is call God’s integrity into question. They clearly see themselves as God’s defenders, his champions.
But God makes it clear at the end of Job that he neither needs nor desires such defenders. It is Job, the one who has been calling God’s righteousness into question in the face of his suffering, whom God considers righteous in the end. And God demands that Job’s three friends essentially apologize to Job, and then, based on Job’s intercession for them, God says he won’t punish them. Despite the way virtually all translations render the end of Job 42:8, God is not angry at Job’s friends because they said incorrect things about him. Rather, it is because they did not speak to him right things like Job did (original credit for this observation goes to my friend Donald Vance in a paper he presented at the 2012 SBL International Conference in London). Job is the only character in the book who actually brings his case to God. His problems don’t drive him away from God but to him.
On the other hand, Job’s friends’ defense of God in fact keeps God on the periphery and conceals a deep distrust of God. Essentially, in hushed tones they had been telling Job, “You can’t say things like that! You’ll make him angry!” In other words, they weren’t defending God out of their love for Job or for God, but out of their fear that God wouldn’t put up with it (and perhaps out of their fear of what it would mean if Job turned out to be speaking the truth). Their mental picture of God was of a distant being who would brook no questioning of his wisdom or goodness. Job’s accusations of God, though they are eventually declared impertinent in their tone, reflect Job’s basic faith in the goodness of God, and he is trying to come to grips with why a good God would allow such terrible things to happen to his servant.
Ultimately, what we should take away from Job is that God is a big God who isn’t afraid of our questions. He doesn’t need us to avoid asking hard questions (even harshly) so that we don’t make him look bad. In fact, it is those who piously dismiss hard questions and condemn those asking them that make God look bad.
This was the dynamic I saw playing out in this particular comment thread on YouTube. Finally, one of the “Job’s friends” commenters began using obscenities and attacking the original commenter, ostensibly in defense of God and the Bible, but some of the things he was saying were shockingly wrongheaded. It was at that point that I, like Elihu and Popeye, said, “That’s all I can stands. I can’t stands no more.”
I let loose: “First of all, [the last commenter] should be ashamed of himself. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that that sort of language is generally considered more offensive than the f-word. And regardless of the how offensive a particular word is, the dismissive and angry tone he and a lot of people take in response to [the original commenter]’s question is the real offense. If you haven’t wrestled with this question, then you haven’t really wrestled with the Bible, and I would suggest that your grasp of your Christian faith is shallow at best.”
I proceeded to offer some support for the original commenter’s question as well as some argument that it is possible to wrestle with that question in such a way that drives you to God and not away from him. But the rest of my answer is not really relevant for the present post. I’m sure that with some intelligent Googling and/or searching through YouTube, you’ll be able to locate the conversation in question. My point today is twofold:
- God is not afraid of hard questions. In fact, he invites them. It is when you avoid the hard questions because you are too afraid of God to ask them that a barrier is thrown up between you can God, because this kind of avoidance is really just another way of defending yourself against God. We need to live life towards God, and we need to have enough faith in his goodness and mercy that we can boldly come before him and wrestle with the hard questions with him, not apart from him. You don’t have to have everything figured out before you go to God. You go to God in order to figure things out. That’s what Job did and what his friends didn’t do.
- Quality Internet communication may require some effort, but it is really not that hard. We humans have been participating in written communication for thousands of years. You just have to communicate out of love rather than out of fear or anger. Part of being a loving online communicator is being generous giving the other guy the benefit of the doubt.
I still don’t recommend trying to wrestle with pigs in the comments sections of news sites and such. Whatever pearls of wisdom you might offer will more often than not get trampled in the mud. There is all too often just no good to be done. You’re better off just letting fools be fools. But it wouldn’t hurt if Christians everywhere decided that whenever we do post anything online we will be careful that what we say will be wise and loving. If you cannot speak from wisdom and love, the book of Proverbs says you should probably just keep your mouth shut.