An email, intended for one person, was accidentally sent to another. And it happened to be about that other person. The resulting conversation did not go well.
Word gets around. Make an offhand and critical comment about a coworker, and that coworker will hear about it. The whisper-down-the-lane of the elementary school yard is alive and well…everywhere.
With electronic memory that seems to have a half-life of centuries, private information doesn’t feel so private. As a result, we must redouble our efforts to safeguard information. Even more, as another example of the way the kingdom of heaven cuts against the grain of the world, we must affirm the abiding spiritual reality that we, indeed, live publicly.
“Live publicly.” It was my farewell exhortation to my children before they went to school, until it was usurped by “drive carefully.”
We live in a world where there is no confidentiality because God sees.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Ps 139:7–12)
If there is one ecumenical feature of most theologies, it is this: God sees and hears. He is omnipresent. Yet if there is one feature of most theologies that quickly slips from conscious awareness, it would be this one. Most sin is a temporary denial of how we live publicly. Addiction is the classic example. Most addicts will not indulge their addictions when a spouse, boss, or parent is present. It’s amazing how much self-control we can have when people are watching. Most men who hit pornographic sites don’t do it when their kids are in the room.
I was in Brazil. My host told me a story about how the president of the local seminary had recently been on a flight where pornography was distributed by the stewards and stewardesses. He declined. And it just so happened that a student from the seminary was five aisles back, wondering what a seminary president did when no one was watching.
For some reason, I wasn’t too impressed by the story. I don’t know if it seemed too evangelical-ish or what. Too cute. A little superficial. Okay, got it, you never know when someone is watching.
When my work in Brazil was done, I was driven the hour and a half to the Sao Paulo airport by my host, who was also a dear missionary friend. We said our goodbyes and I went off to the gate. On the way, I noticed the overhead board—my plane was delayed about four hours, so I veered off to investigate some of the Brazilian stores.
The first one was all books and magazines. Even if most of the titles were in Portuguese, the pull of a bookstore is still strong for me. And yes, there was a section of pornography, and if I picked it up, I certainly couldn’t have said I was just reading the articles. I paused a little longer than usual.
“I know no one in Sao Paulo. No one would ever know.”
Then the Spirit brought me back to reality. “What am I thinking? Do I really think that God doesn’t see me in Brazil?!” So I found a book in English, went off in the corner of the store, sat down, and started reading.
After a few minutes, I began to hear people saying “Eduardo.” That’s what they had called me in Brazil, but I didn’t look up. I didn’t have contacts at the airport. But I kept hearing them. When I finally turned away from my book, I saw, right above my head, six of my Brazilian students. They had graciously made the trip to the airport in order to surprise me with a group farewell. They had been by the gate, saw that I never showed up, and began looking for me. All of a sudden, that earlier story didn’t seem like a Christian Reader’s Digest vignette. It had been another signpost saying that God sees.
This can too quickly evoke visions of a heavenly hall monitor or a parent saying, “Watch yourself, young man, because I have my eye on you.” This isn’t the picture God gives us. Instead, the eyes of God are our hope. They are a blessing. When he sees us, it means that he is close, and there is nothing better than to be in the presence of the Lord. So the picture is not that of a heavenly gestapo. It is of heaven penetrating earth—God with us. His presence reminds us that we are in his holy presence, in which we can see that sin is a destructive intruder. With the light shining clearly, we can run from sin and death, and we can be imitators of the light. His presence is our protection.
Yet there are old instincts in us. We still have some affinity with the darkness. We don’t want to go to that darkness all the time. We only want to go there when our interests diverge from God’s stated will. For example, we prefer the darkness when we believe that someone who disrespected us needs a good cursing out, done only, of course, when no one is looking, or when our lusts need to be topped off. We think, “God will understand. We are only human, after all.”
Lord, have mercy. And he does.
The merciful One draws us back into the light. He reveals our deceptive and self-destructive tendency to hide in the shadows. He proclaims forgiveness that has been assured by the cross of Jesus. He surrounds us, once again, in unfailing love. We are left with a greater desire to see reality and remain in the light.
Lord, open our eyes. Please let us live publicly in the beauty of your presence.
Here is one way to respond: confess. Speak to the Lord about those dark corners in your life. He sees them. Follow his lead by bringing them to the light. If you keep them in the dark, you will live with low-level fear before both God and other people, and that is not the way we were intended to live. At some point, you will want to test yourself: Are you willing to bring dark places to light with another person? If you confess a dark place to the Holy God but are reluctant to confess to fellow sinners, then you might have reason to be suspicious. Do you really want to live publicly?
Every human being knows this: it is a great gift when we live with nothing to hide.