The Gospel and our virtual selves


In discussion with a friend yesterday I was reminded of a talk I gave in Church a number of years ago which I have updated a little bit.

I would like to focus on some of the covenants we make that should influence us as we strive to live the Gospel on a daily basis. The first is found in Mosiah 18:

And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life (Mosiah 18: 8-9).

There are so many aspects of our baptismal covenant in this passage, however, the one I would like to focus on is the promise we make “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places”. In conjunction with this covenant, I would like to refer to another one in section 4 of the Doctrine and Covenants:

…see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day (D&C 4:2).

These two aspects of our covenants should affect us every hour of every day of our lives. We should not just be weekend warriors, but everyday disciples of Christ.  The question we must ask ourselves is: How consistent are we in living the Gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a bolt on accessory that we remove when it becomes uncomfortable, or when we want an easier life. Living the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings protection using the armour of God throughout our lives that when the devil will send forth his arrows, his winds, every weapon in his arsenal we are prepared to withstand the onslaught. The gospel of Jesus Christ becomes an integral part of who we are. Let me suggest a couple of areas that might illustrate how we face choices in the consistency of our Gospel living.

There is an aspect of every day Gospel living that is deeply troubling to me. Elder Richard L. Evans gave the following sobering thought:

Life offers you two precious gifts—one is time, the other freedom of choice, the freedom to buy with your time what you will. You are free to exchange your allotment of time for thrills. You may trade it for base desires. You may invest it in greed. . . . “Yours is the freedom to choose. But these are no bargains, for in them you find no lasting satisfaction. Every day, every hour, every minute of your span of mortal years must sometime be accounted for. And it is in this life that you walk by faith and prove yourself able to choose good over evil, right over wrong, enduring happiness over mere amusement. And your eternal reward will be according to your choosing.

The entertainment we seek, and the message we send through this entertainment is reflective of our commitment to live the Gospel and stand as a witness of God at all times and in all places. Recently, as a Stake Presidency, we sent a letter about the use of electronic devices in sacrament meeting. In that letter, we quoted from a talk by Elder Bednar. Let me now more fully expand on the short quote we used. He said:

Sadly, some young men and young women in the Church today ignore “things as they really are” and neglect eternal relationships for digital distractions, diversions, and detours that have no lasting value. My heart aches when a young couple—sealed together in the house of the Lord for time and for all eternity by the power of the holy priesthood— experiences marital difficulties because of the addicting effect of excessive video gaming or online socializing. A young man or woman may waste countless hours, postpone or forfeit vocational or academic achievement, and ultimately sacrifice cherished human relationships because of mind- and spirit-numbing video and online games.

If only this were some young men and young women. It extends much further into adulthood. Now, let me be clear, there is much value in websites, and electronic devices, but only when they are used in conjunction with the covenants we make. You may well say: “But, James, you are my friend on Facebook, surely you are being hypocritical in what you say”. Hopefully, the things which I do say will show how it is not the use, but the misuse, of such sites that is problematic. Let me return to the covenants I outlined at the beginning of my talk and how these relate to the virtual world.

Serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength

This is hopefully straightforward. People often find a lot of time to spend browsing the internet and social networking but neglect that which is of most worth. We may not have time to do our home teaching, reach out to those around us, fulfil our calling, but we do have time to socialise online or play video games. Let me use a practical example in my life that is not particularly Gospel centred. When I wrote my PhD thesis I had to sit at a computer and tap at the keys- this was an important use of my time, and I feel following my patriarchal blessing to gain a good education. However, as I sat at the computer to fill this vital task in my studies, how easy would it have been to give in to the thief of time? I could just check a particular website, which then leads to another and another, before you know it my 2 hours of allotted work time is gone and I have not done any work. What could I do? Well, it is what I did- I turn off the wireless on my computer so I can just complete the task I had set myself and not get sidelined. We all have important tasks to perform that can only be done on a computer, but these must be time referenced so that we do not idle away our times for things that are of no value.

Stand as a witness of God at all times, and in all things, and in all places

Picture2Again, this is an example of weekend warriors versus everyday disciples. The scripture does not say stand as a witness of God at all times, and in all things, and in all places except the virtual world. The persona and standards you present on the internet should be the same that you live in every other facet of your life. There are many aspects of the online world that I find deeply disturbing:

  1. The language people use. Using the For Strength of Youth as a basis:

How you speak says much about who you are. Clean and intelligent language is evidence of a bright and wholesome mind. Use language that uplifts, encourages, and compliments others. Do not insult others or put them down, even in joking. Speak kindly and positively about others so you can fulfil the Lord’s commandment to love one another. When you use good language, you invite the Spirit to be with you. Always use the names of God and Jesus Christ with reverence and respect. Misusing their names is a sin. Profane, vulgar, or crude language or gestures, as well as jokes about immoral actions, are offensive to the Lord and to others. Foul language harms your spirit and degrades you.

Why is it, then, that adults and young people feel it is okay to use language that is inappropriate in the virtual world. I would never type anything that I do not say- whether it is a swear word, the name of the Lord in vain, or an inappropriate comment. No matter how much we want it to mean something different, OMG does not stand for Oh my goodness!  Weekend warriors adapt their language to go with the flow of what is accepted in the virtual world. Everyday disciples use language that uplifts and inspires wherever they may be found (in life, in the virtual world, or on the football field).

Sometimes this can also extend to some of the political views that we share. I am not arguing for one political view over another but we need to explore the compatibility of the views that we share with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This can affect us in a couple of ways. Sometimes we see our political and religious views/ identity as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) and that our religious identity as not affecting our political views. As a disciple of Christ my discipleship should infuse every aspect of my life. In viewing the armour of God as a removable accessory rather than the fused adamantium of Wolverine we unconsciously suggest that our discipleship is optional or part time. We should consider how our discipleship is played out in our views and actions. A further outworking of this is that we can reach different conclusions based on our beliefs- do we strive to understand others or dismiss them as wrong with little or no thought? The second danger is that in not seeing them as NOMA we evidence a dogmatism in our views- we do not consider the impact our views will have. I am mindful of the incendiary language that we sometimes use to justify our position- this can be used to justify a holier than thou attitude- we can convince ourselves that ‘if only they knew what I know’. I think of Gordon B. Hinckley’s admonition that “we can disagree without being disagreeable.” Do our posts evidence the charity and love that the Saviour showed in all of his interactions?

Further, we sometimes engage in verbal sparring on the internet. We have public moans and whinges that then turn into public spats. We need to strengthen each other in our conversations and statuses. Don’t write a status to vent our anger or upset; but then also do not respond in a sarcastic way, or a way that will exacerbate the situation.

The problem with this is that unless we’re close to the Spirit we can justify our rants as being in line with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We feel completely validated in holding our views and stating them- we do not recognise that even if our views may be correct the way we state them is wrong. We must step outside of our ego- our own self-interest in being right is more important than being righteous.

  1. The lies people tell.

That sounds very harsh, but they can be very simple or very dangerous. They range from every person under 13 having a Facebook account having lied to get online, to the lies people tell their spouse or family in developing online relationships. Elder Bednar counselled:

I am raising a warning voice that we should not squander and damage authentic relationships by obsessing over contrived ones. “Nearly 40% of men and 53% of women who play online games said their virtual friends were equal to or better than their real-life friends, according to a survey of 30,000 gamers conducted by . . . a recent Ph.D. graduate from Stanford University. More than a quarter of gamers [who responded indicated that] the emotional highlight of the past week occurred in a computer world… My beloved brothers and sisters, beware! To the extent personal fidelity decreases in computer mediated communications and the purposes of such communications are distorted, perverted, and wicked, the potential for spiritual disaster is dangerously high. I implore you to turn away immediately and permanently from such places and activities (see 2 Timothy 3:5).

Doctrine and Covenants 42 tells us “to cleave unto our wives (or husbands) and none else”. Whenever we use other people as the same kind of emotional support that we receive from our spouse we are on a very slippery slope. The law of chastity is not just about being physically faithful, but emotionally and mentally so.


  1. The things people do

Elder Bednar instructed us to “use its many capabilities in appropriate ways to learn, to communicate, to lift and brighten lives, and to build and strengthen the Church”. Oftentimes, however, we use it to seek entertainment that either goes against the gospel, or presents a view of us that is contrary to the witness of God we have covenanted to live.

When Facebook was in its early years I remember having friends who use an application called Mafia Wars- to me this suggests violence and crime so I always avoided it and wondered at the people who played it. I looked into it a little bit- meaning I looked at an advert- and it says “Mafia Wars contains references to sex, drug use, violence and other subject matter that some parents may consider inappropriate for audiences under 18 years of age”. For me, this suggests that the use of such a game is not for every day disciples, and sends a message that we accept such things. A furtherexample is Texas Hold ‘em poker- the Lord condemns gambling- so why would we imagine that such a game is ok? This can be extended to many online activities that these two are only indicative of.

The use of the internet should be to uplift and enable us to stand as a witness. Our activities should not, as Alma describes, become a stumbling block to the Church, rather they should ennoble and uplift. Elder Bednar suggested two questions for consideration in examining our use of technology:

  1. Does the use of various technologies and media invite or impede the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in your life?
  2. Does the time you spend using various technologies and media enlarge or restrict your capacity to live, to love, and to serve in meaningful ways?

You will receive answers, inspiration, and instruction from the Holy Ghost suited to your individual circumstances and needs. I repeat and affirm the teaching of the Prophet Joseph: “All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not. The devil has no power over us only as we permit him.”

I have been fairly direct, for that I make no apology. The need to live our covenants with ever more exactness has never been greater. Through living these covenants we are able to have the Spirit in our lives, we are able to have a closer relationship to the Saviour and our Heavenly Father. All of our lives are about the relationships we develop- with the Godhead and the people around us. We need to make sure that these relationships are grounded in the love of our Saviour.