Charles Hambrick-Stowe: History, forgiveness and the Internet

“Do not remember the sins of my youth.” But the Internet does.

“Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions” (Ps 25:7). It’s an age-old plea, one uttered with particular urgency in our time. Living down or leaving behind old misbehavior is harder today than ever before. Why? Because the internet doesn’t forget.

People naively try to delete embarrassing online tirades, excise profane blurts and purge painful indiscretions into digital oblivion, only to find that “like a metastasized cancer, the incriminating data had embedded itself into the nether reaches of cyberspace, etched into archives, algorithms and a web of hyperlinks.”

They might even hire an online reputation manager. The market for techies with web skills has soared because people want to get rid of bad stuff they’ve posted on social media sites and damaging personal details that pop up when they get Googled by a prospective employer or a new romantic interest.

But the new reputation managers can’t wash away your sins. They do promise something like an answer to the prayer of Job -- they can “cover over my iniquity” (Job 14:17). They promise to blanket shameful information with layers of neutral or positive data. They’ll monitor your virtual image, but your transgressions don’t disappear. Banished from visibility, they still hide somewhere in the virtual abyss.

Cleaning one’s online image will obviously help a person avoid embarrassment and constantly having to explain things. This can make it possible for a person to look to the future without feeling shackled by the dead weight of the past. Digital image cleaners can give someone who has messed up a chance to do better. That’s a good thing. There is something like a priestly function at work here.

But does the never-ending work of managing one’s “virtual image” really go to the heart of the problem? We can try to live as if things never happened, but we never know when they will come back to haunt us or when we will suddenly find ourselves repeating the behavior, discovering some new way to screw up.

American culture in the digital age shapes people to demand instant results. Forget the past -- updating and upgrading our lives should be as easy as acquiring the latest smart phone. Surely, it’s unfair to be penalized for having done stupid things before. That was then and this is now.

But “reputation” and “image” ultimately have to do with “character,” a quality that must be earned or built over time. Character develops when we actually come to grips with our sins and failures. The gospel teaches that step one is to confront honestly what it is within us that makes us behave as we do and to lay this all out before God.

What God offers us in Jesus Christ is far more powerful than reputation management. Forgiveness. Not humiliation but imputation, Christ’s own imputed righteousness which goes to work on us. Forgiveness is transformative; its effects cumulative.

The verses that surround Psalm 25’s “sins of my youth” line can become the prayer of anyone who wants to go deeper than damage control and image management. “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. . .Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love. . .Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions. According to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness sake, O Lord!”

The Internet never forgets, but God always stands ready to forgive.

Charles Hambrick-Stowe is pastor of the First Congregational Church, Ridgefield, Conn. He was formerly an academic dean at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois.