The next time one of the middle school boys in our youth group wants to snap and share a picture of himself on the toilet, I hope he’ll reconsider.
Of course, I have nothing against a little potty humor now and then. After all, what sort of youth ministry would be complete without it?! But I think that apps like Snapchat and Cyber Dust come with a real spiritual challenge. These apps promote their services (platforms for sending and receiving messages that disappear within seconds of viewing them) by appealing to our desire for speed, control, privacy, and fun—against the backdrop of the ever larger piles of digital clutter we accumulate these days. What could be wrong with that? In my opinion, a lot. It seems to me that these services are built on a spiritual lie—the idea that our words (and images) don’t matter. In response, here are four truths that I hope will convince you to avoid using these services.
- God is watching, too. In his Gospel account, Saint Matthew recounts what Jesus said to some critical Pharisees after he had healed a blind and dumb demoniac: “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” There is no image or word that God will “forget”. The One who gave sight and speech to that demon-possessed person will hold us accountable for every image we send and every word we speak.
- Our words and images are reflections of our inner, spiritual condition. Just before Jesus laid that heavy line on the Pharisees, he said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” A few chapters later, Jesus reinforces this connection between one’s heart and words. Paying more attention to our words and images—and taking more care in producing them—can help us pay more attention to the inner condition from which they come. If you care about the condition of your heart, soul, or mind, it pays to watch your words and images.
- Words and images—both our own and those of others—affect us. We all know that the old rhyme about sticks and stones is a big fat lie. Words can hurt us. They can also heal us. The words and images to which we are exposed matter. This extends to the words and images we produce about ourselves. Although it may be tempting for some to ridicule “talk therapy”, it’s often a helpful correction to the toxic stories and portraits we can create about ourselves.
- Our words and images affect others. They carry an energy within them, and just as the energy we ingest matters, the energy we create also matters. Orthodox Christians receive a powerful reminder of this truth every year at the beginning of Lent, at the Vespers of Forgiveness. When we go to each person in the gathering and ask for his or her forgiveness—even if we don’t know the person—we’re recognizing that our sin pollutes the world. The energy of our sinful words and images contributes to the spiritual chaos in the world. But we also recognize that God’s forgiveness and holiness can sanctify the world.
Living in this noisy, 24/7 world, cluttered with information, our minds are excited anthills of words and images. To a certain degree, we can insulate ourselves from this clamor by cultivating silence within ourselves. This can help us hear our own thoughts more clearly and see the reality of our sin more truly. We don’t need apps that don’t accumulate digital clutter. We need the wisdom to understand that silence is better than chatter, that being slow to speak is better than a quick word.
But perhaps it’s even more important to strengthen our minds daily with the eternally significant words and images of God, especially by reading Holy Scripture. Having the word of Christ dwelling in us richly will make it easier for us to communicate with care and to remember that we will give an account to God for every word we speak, every text we send, and every image we share.