Privacy and God



Privacy and God: From Facebook to a Biblical Theology of Privacy

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts


Copyright © 2010 by Mark D. Roberts


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Privacy and God: Introduction

My dog enjoyed the TIME article

Facebook has been all over in the news this week. It made the cover of TIME, for example, with the story “How Facebook is Redefining Privacy.” This article chronicles the astronomical rise of Facebook as well as the privacy crises it has engendered.

Facebook even managed to get a letter from four U.S. Senators (Schumer, Franken, Bennet, Begich), who, presumably, had so little to do that they took the time to write to Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. In this epistle the senators complained about Facebook’s privacy policy and said they “look forward to the FTC examining this issue.”

Then, on Wednesday of this past week, Facebook announced the roll out of simplified privacy controls. Soon it will be easier for Facebook members to limit what is known about them. Senator Charles Schumer, one of the original letter writers, was quick to praise Facebook: “This is a significant first step that Facebook deserves credit for.”

I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more about privacy on Facebook in the days to come, as both U.S. Senators and ordinary citizens evaluate the new privacy tools. Of course this is just one small piece of a much larger and important conversation about privacy in the age of the Internet and social media.

But, near as I can tell, one part of that conversation has been largely missing. So far, there has been little theological reflection on the whole notion of privacy. Psychologists, sociologists, politicians, business leaders, and pundits have weighed in about privacy. But theologians, biblical scholars, and pastors have been mostly keeping their thoughts private, so to speak. (I did find, ironically enough, a Facebook discussion on the topic: What is a biblical theology of privacy? But it’s more than two years old, with only 11 posts, and not much theological reflection.)

So, I’ve decided to do some thinking on this issue, working towards a biblical theology of privacy. I have lots of questions swirling around in my mind, such as: Is privacy important from a theological point of view? Does the Bible have anything to say about privacy? Is privacy good, theologically speaking? Is it bad? Is it neutral? Should Christians be concerned about preserving privacy? Or should we be glad that things are becoming less private than they might have been a few years ago? What does God have to do with privacy . . . and privacy with God?

One closing thought. Privacy certainly isn’t something we get to experience in our relationship with God, at least not in the sense that our lives are hidden from God. We know that “the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). Moreover, we read in Hebrews 4:12-13:

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Not much privacy here!

Privacy and God in Biblical Perspective: Part 1

Today I continue a series I began last Friday: “Privacy and God: From Facebook to a Biblical Theology of Privacy.” Because yesterday was Memorial Day, I did not add to the series. Perhaps this was an oversight on my part, however, because yesterday was “Quit Facebook Day.” Seriously. According to the aptly named webside, QuitFacebookDay.com, May 31, 2010 was a day for people who are sick and tired of Facebook to cut the cord. One reason for this bold gesture of liberation was concern over Facebook’s privacy policies. (According to QuitFacebookDay.com, 33,345 people chose to quit Facebook yesterday. Before you get too impressed, consider that this is well under .01% of all Facebook users.)

I’m not planning to weigh in on whether one should quit Facebook or not. Nor do I expect to comment on Facebook’s privacy issues. But I do want to think theologically about privacy and online social media. In particular, I’m wondering how Christians should think about this issue in light of Scripture.

The Bible doesn’t speak directly about privacy. This has to do, in part, with the fact that privacy wasn’t a major issue in the cultures in which the Bible was written. In those settings, privacy as we envision it was a rarity. People lived in close proximity with others. It was not uncommon for families to share a common space for sleeping, bathing, and other sorts of intimate behavior. Moreover, most people lived in relatively small communities where little could be kept secret. Even the cities of the Roman Empire afforded relatively little that we would call privacy, unless one happened to be wealthy. So, the Bible tends to assume that life is shared and that one’s actions cannot be kept secret. One who wanted privacy generally needed to escape to the countryside (Mark 1:35-39).

This does not mean, however, that all personal activity was meant for public display. Members of the Army were to relieve themselves outside of the camp so as not to be seen by the Lord (Deut 23:14). Saul went into a cave where he could take care of business in private (1 Sam 24:3). Ham, one of Noah’s sons, is cursed because he saw his father naked and gossiped about it to his brothers, who covered their father up without looking at him (Gen 9:20-27).

Though Scripture does not refer to deeds done in privacy, it does speak of actions done secretly, when nobody is looking. In some cases, the assumption is that such behavior is wrong. Consider Ephesians 5:11-13, for example: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible.” Privacy allows people to do things that displease the Lord.

Yet sometimes Scripture commends doing things without letting others know. Note these passages from the Sermon on the Mount:

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt 6:2-4)

”And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt 6:5-6)

”And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt 6:16-18)

According to Jesus, certain actions ought to be done privately, where they will be seen only by God. Those who seek to make a public show of their religiosity are mistaken.

Admittedly, the biblical texts I have referred to in this post are only tangentially related to the issues of privacy that we face today. At best, they help us get our bearings as we seek a theological understanding of privacy. In tomorrow’s post I want to dig a little deeper into the issue of privacy as it impacts the Christian life.

Privacy and God in Biblical Perspective, Part 2

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in Maine

As I have said previously in this series on privacy and God, our world is far removed from the world of the Bible. On the one hand, we in United States live with far more privacy than almost anyone in the ancient world could have imagined. Many of us have lived for years without meeting our neighbors, or even knowing their names. That wouldn’t have been true in first-century Nazareth, or even in Philippi. On the other hand, the technology of our age allows for the possibility of our lives being far less private than anyone in the ancient world could have imagined. Just ask Tiger Woods. Or Vanessa Hudgens. Or South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. Or any teenager who has to change his or her Facebook relationship status from “In a Relationship” to “Single.” Given the distance of our cultures from those of the Bible, I think it’s perilous to try and come up with a definitive theology of privacy at it relates to the technological challenges of our day. Yet I do think some biblical principles are relevant here. And these might turn out to be a little surprising.

For example, as we Christians fret about the technological threats to our privacy, we may be tempted to undervalue the importance of living personal lives that are public demonstrations of the truth of our faith. Consider, for example, what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

Jesus says that we are to live in such a way that people see our behavior and give glory to God. Our “good works” could surely include matters we might think of as private: how we treat our families, how we use our money, etc.

In fact, it is often the things we do in private that have the most power to reflect well upon God . . . or poorly. Remember the case of Ted Haggard, the former evangelical pastor and national religious leader who thought his private life was hidden from public view. When his secret life of illicit sex and drugs was revealed, not only was Haggard’s life decimated, but God’s reputation was tarnished. How much better it would have been for all if Haggard hadn’t thought of parts of his life as securely private.

And how much better if Haggard had taken seriously a passage about leaders in 1 Timothy:

The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way– for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil. (1 Tim 3:1-7)

If you read through this list carefully, notice how many characteristics of a Christian leader have to do with personal life, that which we might consider to be private. These include how one uses (or abuses) alcohol and money, and how one manages his family.

Neither this passage from 1 Timothy nor the earlier passage from Matthew 6 would suggest privacy is not appropriate in certain contexts. But both passages at least make me wonder whether sometimes our obsession with privacy causes us to neglect the biblical call to live our whole lives in a way that honors the Lord. Yes, I would rather that my personal finances not become public (not that anyone would care). And, yes, I would rather not have my personal conversations with my wife and children show up on YouTube. But if either of these things were to happen, I would hope that what people saw would be boring rather than scandalous. Perhaps they’d even see a Christian trying to live out his faith in his daily life, however imperfectly.

Again, I’m not saying that we should be unconcerned about possible invasions of privacy from corporations and governments. But I am saying that we Christians might be better off if we were to spend more of our emotional energy seeking to live at all times in an exemplary way.

Privacy and God in Biblical Perspective, Part 3

Today I want to change directions and talk about privacy, not in relation to the larger world, but as it concerns Christian community. I’m wondering to what extent individual Christians should to live their lives shielded from the scrutiny of their brothers and sisters in Christ. As a Christian, do I have a right to privacy? Or is my life supposed to be transparent to my fellow believers?

Before I answer these questions, I want to examine some relevant New Testament texts. These will provide a foundation for my thoughts about privacy in the Christian community.

Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

1 Corinthians 12:26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, where I experienced the reality of shared suffering and shared joy when I was a boy and a young adult.

Both of these verses envision a Christian community that shares the deepest things of life together. This doesn’t work if people keep their lives private. For example, I cannot rejoice with you unless you share the cause of your joy. And I cannot weep with you if you keep your sorrow to yourself. The Christian community is to be a place where “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” This assumes a great deal of openness about our personal pain, which often involves matters we might consider to be “private.”

1 Corinthians 6:15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

It might seem odd to us that Christian men in Corinth were visiting prostitutes, but it wouldn’t have seemed odd to them. In first-century Corinthian culture, it was common and considered morally acceptable for men, even married men, to use prostitutes for sexual pleasure. The Apostle Paul, who fathered the Corinthian congregation, not only believed that such behavior was wrong for Christians, but also that he had every right to address this behavior. There is no sense here that what one does sexually in private is one’s personal business. Rather, it is God’s business and therefore the business of God’s people as well.

1 Corinthians 7:5 Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

The next passage in 1 Corinthians addresses the question of sex within marriage. Some of the new Christians in Corinth associated sexual intimacy, even within marriage, with sinful behavior, and had unilaterally denied sex to their spouses. Paul urges spouses not to deprive each other sexually. Again, we see that even what happens between a man and woman in the marriage bed is not private, in the sense that it is their business alone. (We do not get from Paul the idea that marital intimacy should be observed by others, only that the ethics of such intimacy is the business of God’s people. Also, nothing in 1 Corinthians would encourage a spouse to talk publicly about his or her sexual relationship. The point is that what happens even in private falls under the moral domain of Christian ethics and accountability in the body of Christ. So, to make connections to our day, it is certainly appropriate for a pastor to teach about sexual intimacy in marriage. It’s not off limits because it’s “private.” Or, if a spouse is mistreating a spouse in the privacy of their home, that is certainly something that the church, through its leaders, needs to be involved with.)

2 Corinthians 1:8 We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, 11 as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

In this passage for 2 Corinthians, we see Paul revealing his deep emotions to the Corinthians: despair, fear, discouragement. Since we live in a culture that tends to “show all,” we might not see just how revolutionary Paul’s openness about his own life really was. He models the kind of sharing of personal life that he expects from others.

Ephesians 6:4 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

This verse from Ephesians follows advice for children. Paul does not believe that one’s relationship with one’s children, our “parenting style,” if you will, is a private matter. Rather, it is something that Paul feels both free and obligated to discuss.

James 5:16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

James 5:16 calls for mutual confession of sins. Notice that this is not the sort of thing practiced in some Christians traditions, most famously the Catholic tradition, where people confess to a special confessor (priest). Rather, James 5:16 envisions such openness with Christian community that people feel free to share their sins with each other. This kind of sharing is a precursor to being healed of sinful behavior and tendencies. And it certainly involves not using a right to privacy as a way of not having to admit one’s shortcomings to others.

Interim Conclusion

What we see in these New Testament passages, and I could bring forth others that are similar, suggests that within the body of Christ, privacy such as we know it is inappropriate. Some of the most private things in life – personal suffering, personal victories, sexual behavior outside of marriage, sexual intimacy in marriage, deep despair, and sinful behavior – are meant to be shared with others.

Tomorrow I’ll reflect further on these findings. I’d be interested in any thoughts you might have along the way.

Do We Have Too Much Privacy?

I know there’s great concern in our world today about privacy and the possible lack thereof. Many are afraid that we are losing our privacy to the spying eyes of the Internet, represented most ominously by social networking sites like Facebook. I share this concern to an extent. But, I must confess that I also think we have too much privacy.

Before you fire off a nasty email or add a critical comment below, let me explain what I mean and don’t mean.

First, here’s what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that I think Facebook and related sites should have the freedom to access all sorts of personal information about us, our purchases, our families, etc. . . . without our permission. Nor do I think the government should be peering into our bedrooms, our checkbooks, or our medical records. So when I say we have too much privacy, I’m not referring to that which gets most of the buzz these days.

Rather, I am considering privacy with respect to our personal relationships, especially relationships in the context of Christian community. Here is where I think most of us have too much privacy. Privacy enables us to keep our lives separate from others. It means we can hide our pains and struggles, our joys and victories. It means we’re alone in precisely those areas of life where we need other people.

The biblical picture of the Christian life stands in contrast to our privacy-obsessed way of living. As we saw in yesterday’s blog post, the New Testament envisions the Christian life as something that is to be shared. Christians are to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Our sexual experiences, though done in private, nevertheless lie within the moral purview of the Christian community. How we parent our children is not our personal business, but something for which we are to be accountable to our Christian community. And when we mess up in our personal lives, we are to confess our sins to each other (James 5:16).

I believe that most Christians have way too much privacy in their lives, privacy that keeps them disconnected from the encouragement, prayers, counsel, and accountability of Christian fellowship. During my years as a parish pastor, I listened as hundreds of people shared with me their moral failings. In almost every single instance, these failings were done in secret. A man on a business trip gets snared into watching porn on the hotel television because nobody will know. A woman visits a computer chat room and ends up falling in love with someone she’s never even met because she could do secretly. A teenager sneaks out of the house so we can smoke marijuana. [Oops. Now that's what I call a typo, caught by my wife. I meant "he" not "we." Yikes!] A business owner breaks the law because he thinks he’ll never be caught. And on, and on, and on it goes.

I believe individual Christians and also Christian communities would be much healthier if there was more sharing of life and less privacy. Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that you should broadcast your sins to your whole church. Nor am I inviting the church busybodies – and most churches have plenty of these – to satisfy their curiosity by eavesdropping on your life so they can blab about it around the church. Rather, I am suggesting that every Christian needs some safe place where he or she can share with trusted brothers or sisters the real stuff of life: pains, fears, dreams, fantasies, temptations, failures, losses, financial choices, etc.

I have been part of such safe places and have personally benefited from them. I have seen vulnerable sharing of “private” matters lead to transformation and healing people’s lives. For example, I have seen a man share with a couple of brothers his sexual attraction to a woman who was not his wife, thereby finding support and accountability, not only to shun adultery, but also to strengthen his marriage. I have seen a woman share some of her deepest dreams with a small group, finding support and encouragement to follow those dreams in a way she never would have been able to do if she had kept them to herself.

To be sure, sharing yourself with others is risky. You are being truly vulnerable, a word that comes from the Latin meaning “able to be wounded.” I have seen people risk opening their lives to others, only to be hurt by their judgmentalism or failure to hold things in confidence. In my pastoral life, more than once I opened my heart to someone, only to be kicked in the gut. So, believe me, I am not idealizing Christian community. Genuine community is not easy. Truly sharing your life with others is not easy. But it is an essential component of health and growth in our personal lives and in our communities.

To sum up, as I hear so much talk these days about privacy, I keep wondering if some of us might be better off deciding to share our lives more openly with a few trusted Christians rather than fretting about our potential loss of privacy over the Internet. Of course one could decide to have strong privacy settings on Facebook and be more open in a small group. That would be just fine. But, as a Christian and a pastor, I continue to think that our desire for privacy often does more harm than good . . . to us, our families, and our Christian communities.


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