O Lord, Have Mercy Upon Us, Internet Sinners

I Want To Do The Internet Right, Because I Do Not Like Being Wrong.

Grace Leuenberger / 4.15.21

Recently, the Internet has made me aware of an interesting fact about myself: I’m wrong about everything! The books I read, the music I listen to, the type of credit card I use to pay for the aforementioned books and music, even having a credit card — it’s all bad! Wrong! “NO! How dare you consider this!?!” shouts the Internet as I read the two-hundredth review on Amazon for a new bike helmet so I can protect my (ignorant) brain. “Should I even be buying things from Amazon?” I wonder, reading a tweet about the latest controversy surrounding the corporate giant. 

If Dr. Suess (another recently controversial person on the Internet) were to write a rhyme about what it’s like to be an Internet user in 2021, it might go something like this:  

Your dog, your bike,
Your God, your likes;
You’ve chosen bad
And made me mad! 
You were wrong,
You don’t belong!
So long, goodbye!
xoxo, Internet Guy 

I have read articles telling me it’s wrong to “own” my golden retriever (I should’ve adopted from a shelter) or that the bike I bought actually sucks (I should’ve bought that more expensive, “better” one). I’m a bad person for believing in God. I’m a bad person for not believing the right things about God. Even the choices I didn’t know could be controversial, like what can of beans I buy at the grocery store, was brought to my attention by the Internet as a matter of great social, political, and ethical importance. Choose wrong and I’m bad. But choose right, and … I’m still bad, according to Internet Guy. 

I grew up at a time when the Internet was exploding. Due to what I’ll claim as my counter-cultural youthful rebellion, I avoided all social media during high school. Instead, my Internet activities included reading ”Pioneer Woman” — Ree Drummond’s blog about life on her ranch (or buttery Bundt cake recipes) — and exchanging emails with my college-bound brother. I finally got a Twitter account in college so that I could follow bands I liked and to laugh at — as the kids say — “dank memes.”

Nowadays, the Internet has become my go-to source for almost everything. It’s where I get updates about politics, current events, or news like who Harry Styles is dating. It’s where I shop for clothes, learn how to unclog my sink, watch people fight about theological issues I didn’t know we could fight about, and keep up with friends. But the Internet is also where I go to receive crushing shame, fiery scorn, and unmerciful judgment about everything I’ve ever done, liked, or was thinking about doing or liking.

As a recent Mockingbird piece said, “The world wide web is not free from the law. In fact, it is heavily burdened with it.” I feel the weight of this burden as I try to interact anytime, anywhere, with anyone on the Internet. I want to Do The Internet Right, because I do not like being wrong. I do not want to be judged, called out, canceled, or condemned. I want to be One Of The Good Ones, a person with 5-star reviews from everyone who meets me or tweets me. But the problem with this is not the culture of the Internet. The Internet is more like Mordor than the Shire; one does not simply walk into it, going there and back again without having a part of one destroyed by others, oneself, or the law (or all three).  

Everyone from psychologists to parents to pastors all seem to agree that we want a better Internet. We want Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Amazon to make their part of the Internet (and therefore of the world) at least a little more humane. We want the Internet to feel less like the Last Judgement. We want people to read the article before they start a tweetstorm. We want those double-tap hearts to have less weight. But as Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making argues, any solutions to our Internet Issues have their limits. He writes, “The biggest cultural mistake we can indulge in is to yearn for technological solutions to our deepest cultural problems.”

In his essay “Counterpoint,” Wendell Berry confronts this same idea, writing: 

Soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of acres by the careless acts of millions of people. It cannot be saved by heroic feats of gigantic technology, but only by millions of small acts and restraints, conditioned by small fidelities, skills, and desires. Soil loss is ultimately a cultural problem; it will be corrected only by cultural solutions.

If the problem of technology — of the soil where we are planted, cultivated, and grow — is, according to Crouch and Berry, a cultural problem with a cultural solution, then what would that solution be? It might sound crazy, but I have a thought about where we could begin: with confession. 

The practice of confession isn’t universally practiced in the Church, let alone the Internet. “Spare all those who confess their faults” most certainly does not apply on Twitter. Instead, we have — quite literally — followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We use the Internet to satisfy our longings and unknowingly participated in using technology in ways that oppress others. We delight in pointing out the offensive ways of Internet Guys, yet are crushed or embittered when they point the finger back at us, Internet Gals. And in this whole process, we have even weakened our actual eyes because we stared at our screens for too long in the dark. Little bits at a time, millions of times over on my tiny patch of Internet soil, I have withheld grace from others and chosen badly, too. “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

Confession is a sobering act, requiring us to admit that we are lacking in the fidelities, skills, and desires necessary to live a godly, righteous, and sober life on the Internet or anywhere else. It also reminds us how hypocritical we can be — how much we need grace and how little of it we have to offer others. Confession reminds us that we’re not actually One Of The Good Ones who has Done The Internet Right. “O Lord, have mercy upon us,” sinful Internet users. But fortunately and unlike the damnation of the Internet (You were wrong, you don’t belong!), confession to God does not end with us being burned up. 

Participating in the act of confession, as Wendell Berry writes in my favorite poem of his, is how God invites us to “practice resurrection.” By kneeling low and getting into the soil — the dust from whence we came and to where we shall return — confession reminds us that though we are deserving of condemnation (cancelation, even!), we are absolved of it through Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross. The problem of sin is solved by the solution of our Savior. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom 6:6). 

It’s inevitable that I am going to mess up on the Internet again. Choose badly. Tweet unwisely. Comment unkindly. Judge and be judged. I hope that I won’t (but I know that I will). But the Almighty pardons and absolves “all who truly repent and genuinely believe his holy Gospel”. For this reason, I can confess that I am a part of the problems of the Internet and not be destroyed, crushed, or canceled by this fact. Through the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit, God grants me his pardon and peace, “that we may be cleansed from all our sins, and serve you with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” As Romans 6:14 says, “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” 

The idea of practicing confession might have very little immediate impact on the Internet. The soil may still erode. Twitter is still likely going to be the Land Where Shadows Lie. But perhaps confession will help us have some hope as we make our journey through Mordor, as we turn the ground and work the land. Or as Tolkien wrote, “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”


Images via Slate and the WSJ.