Suffering in Cyberspace

The unique process of learning to suffer well online.
Suffering in Cyberspace
Image: Geber86 / Getty Images

On October 21, 2016, I saw this short lament on my Facebook page:

Such an agonizing marathon, this living with my wife’s dementia. I wrote a whole manuscript on it, but that cannot begin to explain what my wife and I are feeling, each in such different and tormenting ways. Tears tell stories that only one can hear.

I wrote this post, just as I have written so many other laments about Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’s descent into deeper and darker dimensions of dementia. The manuscript I mentioned is a forthcoming book called Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness and a Philosopher’s Lament(InterVarsity Press, 2017).

While I have been critical of how the internet can depersonalize and cheapen human communication, I have found that it may be—at its best—a safe and edifying place for sharing suffering and hope. Here, as everywhere, we should live well before others so that God will be glorified and shalom will be spread locally and globally.

Christians should aspire to do all things well, to be virtuous through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and according to the Holy Scriptures. This includes suffering in various settings. Jesus Christ did all things well, and he is our model. He was also “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3, ESV). The Lamb of God suffered much, even before the matchless suffering of the Cross. He endured and lamented his sometimes clueless disciples; he often endured religious leaders whose hearts and words were darkened; he faced and conquered the temptations of the Devil himself. At the tomb of his friend Lazarus, Jesus was outraged at death but then wept with the grieving—before raising the dead man to life. Of course, Jesus suffered the greatest and most egregious evil possible in his crucifixion: forgiving the sins of his enemies, committing his mother to proper care, crying out to God in anguish according to Psalm 22, and announcing, “It is finished.”

Suffering is a skill that we have but one chance to learn. In that deathless and joy-saturated far country that awaits us, there is no need for it; but I am sure the memory of suffering will remain, albeit reframed by a resurrected world with no curse, no tears, and no death. In the 21st century, there is a new arena for learning this difficult lesson, cyberspace, but how do we suffer rightly on the internet?

Migrating into Cyberspace

Twenty years ago when I was first researching the new-fangled world of the internet, the term cyberspace was accepted for all kinds of computer-mediated communication. When my shot-across-the bow book, The Soul in Cyberspace, was published in 1997, the forms of the internet were limited to email, chat rooms, webpages, video games, and a few other media. Today more and more of life has migrated into cyberspace and cyberspace has become much more integrated into our lives.

For example, in its first few years, Amazon offered mostly books and CDs. I was an early adopter! Now it offers a football field’s worth of products of every kind. The cell phone was primitive in 1997 and losing one was not existentially catastrophic. Today, losing a cell phone is like losing a big chunk of your life—all your contacts, financial setups, social media access, various monitoring technologies, and more. WikiLeaks can change the course of history and terrorists use the internet to recruit and to coordinate one massacre after another. Research often begins (and sometimes ends) with Wikipedia, a gigantic, crowd-sourced, and constantly changing organ of information. Social media, such as Facebook, Skype, Twitter, and Instagram, have become the preferred medium for personal interaction for millions worldwide. One could go on, but the point is that our lives are largely lived in cyberspace and that cyberspace has altered our lives.

Pros and Cons of Cyberspace

Is this move into digital media good or bad? There isn’t a simple answer, but I follow Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: the medium is the message. Every medium of communication shapes its content. None are neutral dispensers of information. Technologies are not tools; they create forms of life.

Information hurdles everywhere and at rapid rates. We have access to information practically everywhere, as our cell phones, laptops, and tablets go with us. Coordinating meetings may be merely a matter of exchanging a few texts. Lives have been saved through cell phone calls and text messages that were not available 20 years ago. Grandma can see her new grandchild minutes after his birth through FaceTime or Skype or Facebook video.

Cyberspace not only increases the amount of information available (textual and visual), it also increases and diversifies the means by which to receive and respond to information. I sent the hard copy text of my first several books through the mail to my publisher. Later, I sent in floppy disks (most of which are now decaying in landfills). For my magnum opus, Christian Apologetics (752 pages), I sent the entire manuscript electronically. You may guess which method I prefer. We may also interact quickly and publicly by posting comments on webpages, Facebook, Amazon, and other cyber outposts.

All of this may be summarized in one word: acceleration. The amount of information produced and distributed is accelerating. The means of receiving and receiving information are accelerating. The ways of interacting with information and people are accelerating. And the speed of all this is accelerating. Yet these marvels of acceleration are not without costs.

The Word became flesh in order to make the Father known. He was no hermit but lived among us, full of grace and truth. As John says:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. (1 John 1:1–4)

Cyberspace often reduces human interaction to information transfer. We may read something or see someone, but we are not with these people face to face. The apostle John lamented the loss of the human touch:

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (2 John 1:12)

Cyberspace accelerates the amount, speed, and interactivity of information. But personal contact—body language, environment, conviviality, liturgy—is too often left behind. I cannot take Communion online, nor can I improvise in the classroom with my students online.

As everything accelerates in cyberspace, life becomes frantic and cluttered as we strive to manage all the sources of all the diverse kinds of information we receive and give. We must keep up with the new cell phone, the new app, and the new video device. We become chronically exhausted while yet still hyperactive. This is not good for the soul, for society, or for the church. Our compassion can be dulled by the sheer volume of information and stimulation. As Ecclesiastes 4:6 says, “Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.”

Given the bright lights and dark shadows of cyberspace, how might we suffer well in this protean and prodigious realm? How do we weep, moan, lament, and agonize online?

Lamenting Online

Humans bring their fallenness into all their endeavors. Tears and laughter accompany us wherever we go. Suffering well over our own misfortune or that of another requires learning the art of lament.

We live in a groaning creation, and we groan along with it. Even God is not excluded from this groaning.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans (Rom. 8:22–26).

Ecclesiastes says much the same thing. After searching and experiencing life by wisdom, the Preacher says:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all (Ecc. 9:11, KJV).

Even after the coming of Jesus Christ, we must still lament in this broken world. Lament is an art, and it can be practiced well in cyberspace. Biblically speaking, I understand lament to be the anguished cry of sorrow, grief, and often anger made before God and, in some cases, with hope of resolution. At its best, lament is caused by the loss of a true good or by the fear of the loss of a true good. This lament may be over one’s sins or simply because of the often inexplicable brokenness of a fallen world. One may lament over oneself, others, or the creation itself.

Lament comes from the grace of God as a way to suffer skillfully.

Self-pity, however, is another story. The Oxford online dictionary defines self-pity as “excessive, self-absorbed unhappiness over one’s own troubles.” Self-pity is selfish and self-centered; it closes in on itself and refuses gift of lament. Scripture sometimes calls this complaining—in the sense of grumbling or griping. Paul writes, “Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you” (Phil. 2:14–15, NLT). Complaining is not a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23) but rather emanates from the flesh. God punished such grumbling harshly in the history of Israel (Num. 11). Paul warns the Christians at Corinth to not be like them.

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. ... And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel (1 Cor. 10:6, 10).

Yet God inspired the many psalms of lament, some of them quite raw (Pss. 22, 39, 88, 90, etc.). In Hurting with God, Glenn Pemberton claims that there are 60 psalms of lament, although not all of them share the same form.

In light of all of this, how might we suffer well in cyberspace? How do I love God and neighbor in cyberspace, especially in suffering?

First, airing our laments or lamenting with others has more force the greater the personal presence. When I recently consoled a friend who lost a beloved pet, my spoken words, bodily expressions, and touch went deeper than any text could do. Further, if I send a handwritten card, this expresses more fellow-feeling than an email or text. As I suffer through the sad story of my wife’s dementia, I appreciate emails and texts and video calls, but receiving a physical embrace or weeping with someone goes deeper and lasts longer. Handwritten cards do much the same.

However, many good friends are literally out of reach, they live too far away. In this case, a well-crafted Facebook message or email may be heartening to me. I sometimes do the same to those far away, although I try to supplement this with handwritten cards and phone calls when possible. When possible, I try to visit them personally or have them visit me. As John wrote:

I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. (3 John 13–14)

Second, when we use the medium of cyberspace, how can we lament and help others in their lament? I have done much lamenting on Facebook, especially in the last three years. I have lapsed into self-pity, I have been gritty, but I have labored to express grief in a medium-specific and medium-appropriate manner. I don’t tell family secrets. I do not want to cause undue alarm, but I do bleed on the screen. I do this because I know many will pray for me and offer words of compassion and advice. I have made friends on Facebook who have become true friends: people who care about me and show it. I try to reciprocate—on Facebook and elsewhere. One kind woman offered to edit some of my writing, given that my wife, Becky, can no longer manage that. Her editing style is remarkably similar to Becky’s. Thanks be to God.

Of late, I have been writing much about the theology of lament and how it should shape apologetics and ethics. When I am working on an essay or a book, I sometimes take a sentence or paragraph and post it. From the responses, they seem to console and encourage others who lament or who need the permission to lament. Some have thanked me for writing out my laments online. Thus, no matter how limited the medium, it can become a conduit for healing grace. I do not look to Facebook or other internet media for my deepest solace and wisest counsel, but it can rub balm into my wounds.

A third way we can suffer well in cyberspace is to limit our circle of suffering. In recent years, many have told me of deep, extended, unusual, and even bizarre suffering. My richest conversations happen face to face and often yield tears. (Tears cannot be received through the internet, no matter how fast the connection or how high the resolution.) My students have told me of woes I did not know existed.

Those who suffer in this way I call siblings in suffering. They know weighty woes unknown to most. I may interact with them on Facebook as well. The Facebook time gains meaning because of my personal engagement with them offline. But this can be emotionally exhausting. I see needs I wish I could meet—more siblings in suffering—but the need is not necessarily a call.

We can lament only so much. My heart has broken in more places than I thought possible. My compassion is not unlimited. Our capacity for sympathy and empathy is constrained by our finitude and fallenness. We may be prone to “compassion fatigue” and be sucked into the dark waters of despair. By casting our lament membrane over too many souls—on Facebook or otherwise—we may feel the shredding of our sanity. Paul must have felt this way when he spoke of Epaphroditus’s illness. “But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil. 2:27).

Learning a Lamentable Skill

As a philosopher of technology and as a suffering soul, I am learning the hard-won skills of suffering well in cyberspace. These are lessons I never wanted to learn, but lessons I cannot now escape, since a significant part of my ministry is to engage people in the digital world and I cannot deny the hard path God has put my wife and me on. Perhaps these reflections can equip us to both understand the nature of cyberspace and to heed the call to suffer well. If not, I will offer another lament—perhaps on Facebook.

Douglas R. Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is the author of Walking through Twilight: A Wife's Illness, a Philosopher's Lament (InterVarsity Press), publishing November 2017.

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Suffering in Cyberspace