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FIRST-PERSON: Simone Biles and a torched witness

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FRANKLIN, Tenn. (BP) – Olympic gymnast Simone Biles set off a social media firestorm when she withdrew from the first week of Olympic competition, and apparently her withdrawal sparked a wildfire that’s torched Christian witnesses across America.

Biles is arguably the greatest Olympic gymnast in history. Her gold medal sweep at the Tokyo Olympics was all but assumed prior to the opening ceremony. But Biles did not complete a sweep. In fact, she didn’t even make it very far into the competition before she withdrew due to mental stress.

It is impossible to know what “mental stress” means in Biles’ context. And that’s the point. No one knows except for Biles and possibly a few close confidants with whom she shared information. However, our collective ignorance of the details hasn’t prevented countless individuals from assailing Biles. Unfortunately, even professing Christians have been spewing uninformed, demeaning, belittling, ungodly, mean-spirited and deeply uncompassionate comments through their social media channels. Every such post only torches their witness, leaving an ash heap in place of what may have once been credibility.

And we wonder why people are walking away from, or want nothing to do with, the church.

Biles’ situation is only the latest log to fuel what is perceived by many as a raging dumpster fire for Christians. It seems any issue rolled into the public forum these days – politics, racial issues, COVID-19, MLB All-Star game, the Olympics, the Southern Baptist Convention – becomes fodder for division while the world watches Christians engage in verbal knife fights. Reading comments about Biles posted recently by supposed disciples of Jesus leaves me shaking my head and has brought to mind the DC Talk (a group for which I’ll probably be criticized by some for quoting) song, “What Have We Become?”

In the song, the commentator asks:

What have we become?
A self-indulgent people.
What have we become?
Tell me where are the righteous ones?
What have we become?
In a world degenerating,
What have we become?

He then pleads:

What about love?
What about God?
What about holiness?
What about mercy, compassion and selflessness?

Seriously, it is truly worth asking, what have we become and what are we becoming? And what happened to the fruit of the Spirit?

While social media has the capacity to be used for good, I am increasingly convinced it is the tool that saved Wormwood’s fledgling demonic “ministry.” You remember Wormwood, the hapless nephew of Screwtape, the head demon in C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters.” Screwtape tells Wormwood that, “All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy (God), are to be encouraged.”

Has there been any “tool” in Wormwood’s toolbox over the past 15 years that has inflamed passions, escalated tension and pushed Christians further toward extreme division than the use of social media? People feel an unyielding determination to not only be right, but to convincingly bludgeon others who they perceive are wrong. We’re making Wormwood look like a genius. We often say things like, “Just because I don’t agree with you, doesn’t mean I don’t still love you.” However, we often then take to social media and hammer out self-righteous vitriol 280 characters at a time.

Christians, we’ve got to do better. A dying world is watching. What if we did pursue “extreme devotion” to God? What if we did use social media “for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12) rather than tearing it apart and others down? To get there we must start with self-examination and an honest examination of our own social media feeds. If your comments are the antithesis of the grace you supposedly claim, repent and work on your heart rather than your next post. As Jesus declared “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). He could just as easily have said, “for out of the abundance of the heart your social media speaks.”

A Christian witness can take years to cultivate then literally be destroyed through social media in a matter of seconds. The destruction is self-inflicted when it happens. Don’t be the cause of your own downfall. Before you hit return and skewer Simone Biles (or anyone else), ask yourself, “Do I really want to strike that match and torch my witness?”

    About the Author

  • Chris Turner/Tennessee Baptist and Reflector

    Chris Turner is director of communications for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. This article first appeared in the Baptist and Reflector (www.baptistandreflector.org), newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

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