Bad Actors on Social Media

1 Corinthians 14:20a “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking.”

While social media used rightly can be a resource for our intellectual and spiritual growth, it is commonly used in ways that are not only unhelpful in our pursuit of those ends, but are positively detrimental.

As a case in point, this morning the above social media post showed up on my timeline.

The article referenced can be found here: Can caffeine be harmful to a Christian’s spiritual life? John Piper answers

Clearly Ms. Parsons is framing this in a way as to make John Piper appear foolish and, as some of the exchanges in the comments following the post demonstrate, legalistic. In this aim she is successful. For Piper to simply claim that one must drink energy drinks “in love,” if one is to drink them at all, seems to be a case of overreach by someone who is intent on monitoring and critiquing the behaviors of Christians and placing upon them undue burdens.

You can see how this was her goal and how she eggs on those who affirm her in it:

But is this fair?

Many of those who respond to her tweet wouldn’t know because they have clearly not read the article she links to. For example, Mr. Carr asks a question that is directly addressed in the article itself:

He is just one example of many who commented in ways that demonstrated that they were simply reflexively responding to her post rather than the content of the article which addresses what Piper actually said and the context in which he said it. As the comments pile up, it is clear that a form of group-think takes over where Piper is a ridiculous man with ridiculous takes and it is “obvious” that his goal is to show himself to be more pious than others and that he enjoys lording over their consciences. For someone who does not know John Piper, this all can sound very compelling. Now they know that he is someone to mark and avoid and to warn others from. Things like this happen on social media often.

Again, is this fair?

The context of the statement regarding using energy drinks in love is Piper’s “Ask Pastor John” episode of April 8, 2024. The question he received is as follows:

“Pastor John, hello and thank you for this podcast. Caffeine, and specifically energy drinks, are controversial in our youth group. As someone who likes them, I was wondering if there are any negative effects or reason to not drink them. They help me focus and have energy during my work shift. I only drink one every two or three days, but I would like to have some spiritual insight in order that I may run this race without being slowed down.”

So, the first thing to notice is that Piper is not simply making a declaration out of thin air that believers must drink energy drinks “in love.” He is not seeing to place burdens upon backs nor to Lord over anyone’s conscience. What he is doing is responding to a specific question asked of him by someone who wants to know what he thinks on the matter.  

In fact, I would guess that the use of caffeine in energy drinks was not a real concern for Piper and not on his radar as something needing addressed based on the fact that he admits that he, himself, drinks them:

I have a box of energy drinks in my office. I probably don’t use them quite as often as José. He said every two or three days. And what I do is that, if I’ve got a pressing task and I cannot stay awake, yes, I’ll go there. But that box that I buy at ALDI — you can get them at ALDI real cheap — lasts a long time.

Since Piper receives this question, however, it leads him to do some self-reflecting as well:

A question like this helps me keep my finger on the pulse of whether I’m defaulting to an artificial stimulant because I’m so proud I won’t get enough sleep. That’s what I mean by masking. If my real problem is that John Piper doesn’t have the discipline to go to bed at night and therefore gets six hours instead of eight hours of sleep, and therefore he’s always falling asleep at his tasks, and thus he resorts to an artificial stimulant, that’s masking, that’s hiding, that’s running away from God, and it’s pride.

Note that Piper, in responding to this gentleman’s question, is now examining himself for evidences of pride. This is interesting in light of the response of commenter “chasingphotography” above that said he didn’t care for Piper’s “ego.” He may be justified in his concern, but where does he get this idea that Piper has an ego problem? Could it be from social media posts like that of Ms. Parsons?

Given this is a question directed to him, how should Piper respond? Most of us would have likely responded with a simple “Don’t be silly! Energy drinks are fine, it is not sinful to drink them,” and been done with it.

Piper, however, approaches the question pastorally. He knows that if someone’s conscience is bothered over an act, no matter how innocent it may seem to us, then it is worth investigating. It is worth asking if that act, while not sinful in most cases, could be spiritually detrimental to the person raising the question. If nothing else, the fact that Piper spends the time to examine every facet of the question and weigh every conceivable pitfall related to it, 1) demonstrates that he cares about the person asking, 2) will lead to the questioners’ conscience before the Lord being relieved because Piper has helped them to bring the concern under the authority of God’s Word.

Is Piper’s attempts to help worthy of mocking? Is the questioner worthy of mocking?

Doesn’t Ms. Parson’s posting say to the questioner, “You question is foolish and you were foolish in asking it”? In what way is that a Christian attitude towards someone who desires to honor the Lord in all that they do? Is not Ms. Parsons violating the spirit of Romans 14:1-4?

14 As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

While the use of energy drinks may be of no issue to us, it may actually be sinful to the one posing the question. As Paul notes,

Romans 14:22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

Ms. Parsons mocks Piper who is seeking to help this young man determine whether or not his conscience is making his use of energy drinks sinful or not. In this, Piper becomes a model of 1 Thessalonians 5:14:

Encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.

So that you might know how Piper ties the use of energy drinks to acts of love, here are Piper’s comments to that effect:

So, when Paul says to José, or me, or you, or anybody else, “Energy drinks are lawful, but do they build up?” he means, “Be sure that your heart is set on the good of others and that your example to them and your choices are aiming to build people up in faith — that is, helping them trust Jesus and treasure Jesus and honor Jesus above all things.”
So, here are my three summary guidelines for José and me.
Are they truly helpful? Are energy drinks truly helpful? That is, are they masking problems that I need to deal with or helping me deal with them?
Are they dominating me, mastering me, and obscuring that Jesus is my real master?
Am I using them in love? Am I building others up? Am I seeking to build my own faith and the faith of others?

The point of this essay, however, is not to discuss whether or not the question was silly or if Piper’s response was sound. My concern here is not to defend Piper and his ministry, but it is to point out how social media creates opportunities for people to sway people’s opinions in ways that are unhelpful and, even, sinful. Small bites of information are floated with a bold declaration as to their legitimacy, often times leveling aspersions against the character of those involved, and readers simply accept these comments as authoritative and pass judgment without having given the matter two seconds of thought and without having done any investigation of their own.

Ms. Parsons is one who should be warned but then ignored (Titus 3:10). But so should many others who are on social media.

In the end, I’m pleading with you, as your pastor, to be wise and discerning.

Watch for patterns in the ways in which people interact online. Are they someone who is always combative? Are they continually mocking and sarcastic in their tone? Do they sow division or do they build up? Do they seem to have the best in mind for those whom they interact with? Are they patient and kind? Are they generous with compliments and slow to condemn? Do they speak from knowledge or emotion? Do they have a lens through which they view every situation whether or not that lens is relevant in that particular situation?

Ask these questions and then use the block, mute, unfollow buttons liberally. There is absolutely no reason for you to subject your eyes and mind to those whose words tend to get you angry, upset, discouraged, and tending towards suspicion rather than hopefulness. Recognize that many of those with larger online platforms have an agenda that they are seeking to push forward which may color their take on a particular issue and that it may not be an accurate take but only one that serves their ends.

I’m concerned that there are many places that people are going today in terms of their evaluations of individuals and their ministries, and in terms of their own personal doctrinal stances, that they would never go to if they simply stuck to listening to what the individuals in question actually teach themselves, and to reading what the Bible actually says rather than deriving their theology from soundbites that are crafted to illicit an emotional response rather than a thoughtful one.

Be discerning!

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