“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)
Who we are when we’re alone with no one watching is the true metric that measures our progress in the Christian life. This is our unedited, nonperforming self. Regardless of what our potential may be, who we are in practice when all eyes but God’s are turned away from us is who we really are at the most pragmatic level. This is the true measure of our growth and maturity as believers.
Certainly, we look much better from our positional standing in Christ, but the degree to which we’ve worked out our salvation in daily practice reveals the man or woman we’ve become so far. Paul’s praise of the Philippians to be obedient to the truth in his absence as well as in his presence is true praise indeed. It is all too common for even the best intentioned of believers to put their best foot forward in the presence of others only to relax their vigilance behind closed doors or away from the crowd.
Anyone who has traveled often will tell you that there is a strange thing that happens when we find ourselves alone in a place where we’re known to no one. Suddenly, for many, the fences that have kept them living within proper boundaries are gone, and they are aware that they are free to express a side of themselves they would never even admit existed in the presence of friends or family. I have heard seasoned veterans of traveling ministry admit to hearing the seductive voice of temptation whisper in their ear when they were far from home and from the restraining influences of those whose presence helps to keep them accountable. In such scenarios we find out our true mettle as our faith is tested and our commitment tried.
However, there is a new form of anonymity in our society behind which many are revealing a horrible, even wicked boldness. It is the anonymity of social media. Recently, during the Super Bowl season as much discussion and “chatting” was going on regarding the prospects different teams, I saw a post that some man directed toward a woman who happened to express her opinion about one particular team. The hateful vitriol he spewed out at this woman was undoubtedly, to my mind anyway, only something he had the temerity to do because there was little to no possibility of reprisal. I sincerely doubt that he would have said to her in person what he wrote had it been in a room filled with other people, or in the presence of the woman’s husband who, for all he knew, stands 6’5” and weighs 265 lbs. However, on social media, people who are most likely cowards in the presence of others are suddenly as bold as a lion, demonstrating a hostile disrespect toward anyone who dares to express an opinion different from their own. It would almost seem that it becomes a release for people of small moral and emotional stature to express a fearlessness they don’t possess in any other aspect of their lives.
Certainly, there is plenty to find on any social media platform to offend, since it is a venue where unbridled opinions are forcefully expressed with no room or tolerance for open, honest debate or discussion. However, how we respond in such times tells us more about ourselves than the people with whom we may have a disagreement. To me it is one more sad but undeniable piece of evidence demonstrating the disintegrating fabric of civility in our society.
Interestingly, this kind of thing is not new. The apostle Paul himself was accused of this kind of duplicity by upstart false apostles who were endeavoring to undermine his credibility to the Corinthian believers. Paul quoted and then countered their criticisms. “‘For his letters,’ they say, ‘are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’ Let such a person consider this, that what we are in word by letters when we are absent, such we will also be in deed when we are present.” (2 Corinthians 10:10-11). Paul was essentially saying, “The person I am when talking to you while absent is the same person you’ll find me to be when I’m present!” Paul was not one to use the safety of distance to offer correction he would have avoided in their presence. Paul was the same wherever you found him because he had matured to a place in Christ where he didn’t need to put on a false front. He was who he was in all circumstances, before all audiences, or in that time when it matters most: when there is no audience at all.
The sad fact is that what we’re seeing on these social media platforms is not some new, monstrous version of people, emerging by way of the transforming effects of the Internet. The reality is that we are at last finding out what we as a society have truly become. This bold, brash, disrespectful persona is not the Dr. Jekyll to our Mr. Hyde, but rather this is the true Mr. Hyde, honestly and finally revealed.
As believers we must learn to respond to this new kind of anonymity with the steady consistency that any disciple of the Lord should demonstrate when faced with any other kind of temptation. Whether we stand before a crowd or are watched by the eyes of God alone, we stand or fall in our own character, choosing to either be strengthened or cheapened in our walk with God and before men. In the end we are who we are, and we have to live with that true version of ourselves that we alone, outside of God, truly know.