Opportunities to share the gospel online are all over the place if we’re looking for them. There are some fantastic Mormon and non-Mormon “comments section” missionaries out there, but there are too many that are just … not good. Most all terrible missionaries out there share this one thing in common that renders their ministry not only feckless but even counterproductive to their cause.
The best way to be a terrible online missionary is to be contentious
This seems like a no-brainer. We know these things, but all it takes is a quick look into the comments section of any popular religious post on social media to see that many people (including you and I, sometimes) just don’t understand this principle, or are ignoring it outright.
The whole purpose of this article is to get this message across as clearly as possible: Conveying truth (even gospel truth), but through the vehicle of contention, is offensive to God. Forgive the colloquialism, but sharing the gospel is no justification for being a jerk online, no matter what religion you belong to. For surely the scriptures are right when they say that,
He that hath the spirit of contention is not of me [saith the Lord], but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.
Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.
It doesn’t get much clearer than that. But to drive the point home, we should note that the scripture does not say,
He that hath the spirit of contention is not of me [saith the Lord], but is of the devil, unless you’re right and the other person is being irrational.
Name-calling, back-biting, disrespect, condescension, and scorn towards those we disagree with is never acceptable. It is never from God. Period. Even if you disagree with someone so passionately that you don’t think they deserve a shred of respect, remember that it’s easy to love your friends, but much harder to love your enemies. Coincidentally the scriptures emphasize that latter, so even if you don’t respect your enemies, we’re still commanded to love them. But it goes even beyond that:
I would even go so far as to alter the verse to read even more specifically: “…bless them that curse [at] you…” And that’s a hard thing to do! Especially when others refuse to play by the same rules. But I guess that’s where the whole “turn the other cheek” scripture comes into play. We need to make our voices heard but not stoop to the level of those that mock.
Triggers, trolls, and the trap of anonymity
Why is it that online interaction has become the Wild West of the modern age? Why are comments so inflammatory, challenging, and triggering? Anonymity has something to do with it. According to The New Yorker,
When Arthur Santana, a communications professor at the University of Houston, analyzed nine hundred randomly chosen user comments on articles about immigration, half from newspapers that allowed anonymous postings, such as the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle, and half from ones that didn’t, including USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, he discovered that anonymity made a perceptible difference: a full fifty-three per cent of anonymous commenters were uncivil, as opposed to twenty-nine per cent of registered, non-anonymous commenters. Anonymity, Santana concluded, encouraged incivility.
Anonymity encourages incivility. Satan loves that. It’s ironic that it’s when we don’t have an identity linked to us that we might start to show who we really are. But it’s more than anonymity. Even if your name and a picture are attached to your comments, the mere fact that online conversations are not face to face also affects how we behave and leaves us feeling less accountable for our words. It’s a fantastically dangerous woven web of sociology, psychology, and technology.
Disagreement versus disagreeability
There’s nothing wrong with having different opinions than other people, and there’s nothing wrong with expressing those opinions in a respectful way. The danger comes when disagreement turns into being disagreeable. And when one person starts to become disagreeable and contentious, it’s so easy for the situation to escalate.
That escalation is actually a real thing, with a real name. It’s called the Nasty Effect, and it does the opposite of changing minds to your manner of thinking. It polarizes people on both sides of the issue, and all heck breaks loose—unless you and I refuse to participate in the mudslinging.
And this principle is true for people in any religion. As a host for an LDS YouTube channel, I’m often approached by people from other faiths whose goal is to convince me that my beliefs are wrong. Many of these people are simply angry, and one of their chief tactics is to insult, marginalize, and convolute my beliefs in an attempt to embarrass or pressure me out of my faith. This is a terrible way to do missionary work. And we need to make sure we’re not guilty of it.
“Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved”
That’s a quote from our late prophet, Thomas S. Monson, and it’s true. When you’re doing missionary work by asking or responding to gospel questions online, remember that sometimes it’s more important to love than to be right. When that guy with the cat profile picture on Facebook starts hurling insults and accusations, just love the guy. Let us not respond in kind.
It may be the case that when you come across inflammatory comments about your beliefs, you’ll feel the need to systematically address every claim they make and correct them. Again, we should stand up for our beliefs, but we’ve also got to learn how to pick our battles. Elder Dallin H. Oaks once explained that,
Just as the principle of justice must be constrained by the principle of mercy (see Alma 42), so must the use of truth be disciplined by the principle of love.
So, should you respond? Should you respond again? Should you keep responding and responding? Quoting scripture, Elder Oaks also reminded us that,
Under the direction of the Spirit, when someone continuously and aggressively challenges our beliefs attempting to “catch us in our words,” we might do well to simply remove ourselves from the situation. The apostle Paul taught:
As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.
(Titus 3:10, EST Bible)
Our current prophet, President Russel M. Nelson, also provides some great advice on how to deal with contention:
To begin, show compassionate concern for others. Control the tongue, the pen, and the word processor. Whenever tempted to dispute, remember this proverb: ‘He that is void of wisdom despiseth his neighbour: but a man of understanding holdeth his peace’ (Prov. 11:12; Prov. 17:28).
James 1:19 also has some sound advice:
It’s not about “being nice,” it’s about being like Christ
If the Spirit prompts you to withdraw from a contentious conversation, the other person might not like it. It might even intensify their aggression for a moment in their attempt to drag you back down into the mud. Too many people look at meekness, peace-making, and humility as a weakness. But not being contentious isn’t just about an elementary attempt to “be nice.” It’s infinitely more important than that.
One of the chief purposes of mortal life itself is to become like our Savior, Jesus Christ. We’re meant “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that [we] may be in, even until death, that [we] may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that [we] may have eternal life.”
Let us not put the divine nature at risk because of a Facebook fight. It’s the seemingly inconsequential minutia of our day-to-day activities that really expose who we are and who we are becoming. So let’s become peace-makers, just like the Prince of Peace.