A few months ago, I ignored my better judgment and shared my stand about a controversial issue on social media.
I never imagined the effect of a simple post. While one friend and I shared some healthy dialogue, another called me insensitive, shamed me, and cut off communication.
The experience taught me some painful lessons about how reactions on social media have a ripple effect that extend beyond our control. The flip side of the coin is that we do still control what we say and how we say it—and there lies our opportunity to be the difference we want to see in the world.
#1: Value your convictions and other people’s right to disagree with you.
Our culture has completely unraveled on someone’s right to respectfully disagree. We’ve reached a place socially where people interpret disagreement as hate speech.
You and I both know that’s not true. I can disagree with you and still love you and vice versa. Unfortunately, people are intentionally picking fights with each other. The motive isn’t one of resolution but of contention.
This problem isn’t isolated to our day and age. In fact, back in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and religious leaders would often try to pick fights with Him so they could accuse Him of violating the law. Matthew 22:15 says that they literally “plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk” (NKJV*). In this situation, they tried to trick him by asking if they should pay taxes to Caesar or not.
But Jesus saw right through their cunning, and His response offers instruction for our own interactions.
- First, He called the situation for what it was. “Why do you test me?” Jesus asked them in Matthew 22:18. We might use different wording today, something along the lines, “Why do you want to argue about this issue?” Asking a question creates space for dialogue.
- Then, He drew their attention to something concrete: the coin itself. “Whose image and inscription is this?” (Matt. 22:20). When we engage in heated issues, we need to keep the discussion specific. Sweeping generalizations only stir up disagreements.
- When the Pharisees provided the obvious answer that Caesar’s image is on the coin, Jesus replied, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21b). Jesus stuck with the facts and did not allow these Pharisees to get under His skin. His uncharged response silenced them, because they recognized His wisdom.
Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees so beautifully illustrates how to stand firm and diffuse conflict. Jesus does not argue their right to disagree with Him (though disagreeing with God is foolish indeed). Instead, He specifically speaks to the heart of the matter.
So too, we do not have to be a pushover or silenced for our beliefs. Instead, we can share responsibly and engage wisely, remembering to keep “the main thing the main thing.”
#2: Treat others with dignity even if they don’t reciprocate.
When someone slams you for sharing your thoughts online, the last thing that comes to mind is self-restraint. More than likely, we run to friends and family who support us and vent about how unfairly we’ve been treated.
Doing so only spreads more animosity. Instead, if we find ourselves in a confrontational situation online, here are some best practices that can help diffuse the situation.
- Acknowledge the person’s feelings. You might begin your reply with: Thank you for sharing how you feel.
- Respond with respect and restraint. In a brief reply, let the person know you would like to talk separately with him. I value you as a friend and will reach out in a private message so that we can talk about your concerns more.
- Reach out in a private message. Better yet, pick up the phone and call if you can.
- Walk away from social media mudslinging. If the person continues to rant and ignores your attempts to communicate, do not respond further. Doing so will only add fuel to the fire. (If comments become inappropriate, use your judgment to delete them.)
Honestly, we may have to set aside our devices and come back when we feel more in control of our emotions, because words do hurt! But when we treat others with dignity and respect them as individuals, we’re obeying God’s Word. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
With God’s help, we can be kind and considerate to people who do not treat us that way. In the process, we maintain our testimonies while still engaging in conversations where everyone’s convictions and opinions deserve to be heard without disparagement.
#3: Be willing to extend grace.
Four months later, my friend texted me to say our friendship meant more to her than our differing views. She added that she completely understood if I “hated her.”
I responded as fast as I could. Of course, I didn’t hate her! I thanked her for reaching out and told her how much I valued her and our friendship.
Sometimes, extending grace isn’t as easy as it was in my situation, yet it is so necessary if we’re going to be followers of Christ.
In Luke 6:27-36, Jesus outlines how we should treat people who mistreat us, what most people call “enemies.” I like to think of these people as “sandpaper” people. You know the type: the ones that rub us the wrong way. (And guess what? Sometimes, we rub others the wrong way too!)
Jesus’ challenge remains relevant, and here are some key takeaways:
- Love sandpaper people and be kind to them.
- Do good to them even when they don’t do good to you.
- Pray for them. Pray for them again.
- Be generous toward them, expecting nothing in return.
Easy? Definitely not! However, we ourselves must remember God’s mercy toward us. By definition, mercy is undeserved. We didn’t deserve God’s mercy and forgiveness, but He lavished it on us when He sent His Son to die on a cross for our sins.
God isn’t asking us to go to the cross for sandpaper people, because He already died for them and us. What He is asking is that we respond in mercy, following His example (Luke 6:36).
A Challenge for Today on Social Media
Are we going to “get it right” every time we encounter sticky situations on social media? Probably not. What we can do is walk closely with God each day and ask for His grace and guidance in standing for our convictions respectfully and responsibly.
One way or another, our social interactions have a ripple effect. We can’t control if people misinterpret our meaning or malign our viewpoints. We still have the right to take our stands, just as others have the right to take theirs. The bottom line, though, is that in the process, we have a responsibility as Christians to show people the difference that Jesus can make in their lives, and we do that by following His example in all our conversations.
*All Scripture verses come from the NKJV.