The playwright Oscar Wilde once wrote, “I can resist anything except temptation.” The humor of the remark is mixed with a sad recognition that we fail so often to resist the temptations that come our way each day and from every direction. Of course, there are temptations and then there are temptations writ large. What are people’s greatest temptations? Why? What are their “favorite” sins — indicated by frequency and repetition? Why do we so often find ourselves in the same position as St. Paul? “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15). During this Lenten season, each of us is called to name our temptations as part of a moral and ethical struggle in trying to live a holy and righteous life. Then once we name that temptation, we begin to unfold and inspect, to then start to answer what it is about this temptation that becomes especially alluring. Such are the first steps to healing.
I had been thinking about what I could write on the topic of temptation that might be helpful: temptations aligning to our greatest vulnerabilities? Our weakest hopes? Our strongest regrets? A desire unfulfilled? In the middle of musing and muddling, I ran across an article that piqued my interest. A few years ago, the Council of Torah Greats, a forum of the most distinguished Orthodox rabbis in Israel, gathered to discuss the “great spiritual danger” of the WhatsApp messaging app for smartphones. They banned use of the app by all believers because it was a delivery system for temptation and the occasion of sin. This group has a history of banning and relaxing bans on technology, but their concern focused on technology as the fuel that is accelerating temptation in modern life.
Here at home, a recent study by the Barna Group (an evangelical polling firm) points out the traditional seven deadly sins that remain as temptations in our lives: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony — no surprise there. Another key finding was the ways in which technology has provided the lure and the means to commit these sins. The study showed that while pornography remains a virulent problem, a more pervasive problem is addiction to media — referring to television, on-line streaming, cable, social media, and a whole host of technologies whose use is pointing to an increasing expression of jealousy and anger in a digital venue.
Consider the deadly sin of wrath. Look at the comment section of online articles these days. The comments are extraordinarily aggressive without resolving anything. In a Scientific America article, Art Markman, University of Texas professor, commented about this phenomenon: “At the end of it you can’t possibly feel like anybody heard you. Having a strong emotional experience that doesn’t resolve itself in any healthy way can’t be a good thing.” That begs the question: if it’s so unsatisfying and unhealthy, why do we do it? Why do we give into the temptation of wrath?
There are several reasons researchers give. First, commenters are often virtually anonymous, and thus, unaccountable for their rudeness. Second, they are at a distance from the target of their anger — be it the article they’re commenting on or another comment on that article — and people tend to antagonize distant abstractions more easily than living, breathing interlocutors. Third, it’s easier to be nasty in writing than in speech.
That seems to me to more describe the milieu of the behavior that has been learned after the reordering of an individual’s moral compass. The Barna Group study continued to point to technology as the means by which an alternative moral baseline has been embedded in the context of our lives. While parents are trying to teach and give an example of Christian discipleship and behavior, the kids are digitally exposed to behaviors that make the outrageous, shocking, and offensive (to one generation’s view), the new norm — and hence moral baseline.
As a parish we often ask you about your use of “Time, Talent, and Treasures” to build the Kingdom of God. Perhaps we should add a fourth “T” and ask about how we use “Technology” to build up or tear down the Kingdom. Something to think about in our on-going Lenten reflection about life in Christ.