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How We Repent and Forgive Despite Digital “Permanent Records”

“Angels above us are silent notes taking of ev’ry action; then do what is right!” As a child, I took those hymn lyrics to heart, imagining that someone somewhere was watching my every action and taking note. 

But social media and the internet introduced me to a world where I didn’t have to imagine the unseen “silent notes taking of ev’ry action” because the digital space did just that, keeping a record of my every message, post, and online interaction for anyone to access if they tried hard enough. The only difference was, in this scenario, the people watching over my shoulder certainly weren’t angels, and everyone seemed to have their own idea of what was “right.”

We live in an era of widespread record-keeping and record-sharing. There’s a sense of permanence to our actions as every update, like, tweet, text message, photograph, or video that we share lives on in an online abyss, seemingly outside of our control. Whereas the angels presumably keep those notes to themselves and God, our online actions are subject to hundreds if not thousands of pairs of imperfect, human eyes, and our most embarrassing photos or shameful posts carry on long after we’ve grown and changed.

But do these permanent records and reminders change how we perceive repentance and forgiveness in the digital age? How do we navigate the hyper-accountable culture we live in today? Here are a few things to keep in mind as we teach and practice Christlike behavior and understand what repentance can look like online.

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Ditch Shame as a Method of Changing Behavior

The online world, to me, resembles what pure democracy would feel like. It’s a place where the masses cast their vote with every like, upvote, and double-tap. And in the digital space, everyone is judge, jury, and executioner; when the internet doesn’t like you, they let you know—and that public shaming, in and of itself, is often the greatest punishment one can inflict.

It’s easy to justify the use of shame as a punishment or means to change the behavior of others. After all, if the individuals improve their behavior as a result of their shame, isn’t that a good thing? The answer is no. According to behavioral researcher Dr. Brene Brown, “In any form, in any context and through any delivery system, shame is destructive” (emphasis added). Brown builds her career around one sentence: “You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors.” She explains that this is because “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

Brown notes the difference between guilt—which can be a powerful motivator for change—and shame in her book I Thought It Was Just Me, writing:

“Guilt is holding an action or behavior up against our ethics, values and beliefs. We evaluate that behavior (like cheating) and feel guilt when the behavior is inconsistent with who we want to be. Shame is focusing on who we are rather than what we’ve done. The danger of telling ourselves that we are bad, a cheat, and no good, is that we eventually start to believe it and own it. The person who believes she is ‘no good’ is much more likely to continue to cheat and fulfill that label than the person who feels guilt.”

In other words, people with guilt recognize that they made a mistake, but people with shame believe they are a mistake. This is fundamentally different than what our Latter-day Saint doctrine teaches, which is that we are each children of God with infinite worth. We are not a mistake; we are beloved children of God. 

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Unfortunately, this belief often gets lost or forgotten in digital shame-based policing online. As we are interacting with people online, whether celebrities, businesses, friends, or family, it is important for us to check ourselves and make sure we are not hastily writing off others who have what you consider to be an off-putting opinion, misdeed, or fault. There is a person—a child of God—behind every online profile and post, but sometimes, there’s a sense that “calling them out” or publicly trying to prove how wrong they are will help encourage “positive change” in the world by forcing individuals to admit guilt and apologize. Let’s stop and think about that for a minute, though. What effect does our shaming of others online actually have? Consider the story of the woman taken in adultery. Her story is probably the closest historical comparison of the public shaming we do online today. She was brought to a public place and her faults loudly listed and proclaimed by the Pharisees. Did the Savior add to this shame? Did he force the woman to confess or blame her for evils in the community? Did he broadcast her error and ban everyone from interacting with her? Of course, the answer is no. 

In our online interactions, we should carefully consider if we are reacting as a Pharisee or as the Savior. Obviously, we are asked to make righteous judgments and stand up for what we believe to be right, but perhaps we can do so in a way that is more loving than current culture dictates. After all, it is not the harrowing up of our sins and bitter regrets that causes us to want to permanently change. Rather, it is recognizing the power of Jesus Christ and His Atonement and one’s divine worth that can heal and promote lasting change. And we are not responsible for forcing others to repent. We are responsible for treating others the way we want Christ to treat us.

Mistakes may seem permanent here, but they are not permanent in heaven.

Isaiah 1:28 reads, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Repentance does more than just wipe away the stains of past wrongdoing. It can fundamentally change our nature, bringing us closer to our Heavenly Father and to our divine destiny. 

With this in mind, it can be difficult dealing with the seemingly permanent record of past wrongdoings on social media. We can be changed—“born again”—and yet our previous lives live on in the digital space, a reminder of who we were that can keep us from progressing to who we are meant to be. We see this more and more in the world recently in a variety of forms, whether it’s using old posts to drag a public figure’s name through the mud, a social media post to make judgements about a person’s character and standards, or in a more serious form, using photos and mistakes (especially from teenagers) for things like sextortion. 

The doctrinal principles of repentance don’t change in the context of an online “permanent record,” but this long-lasting physical “evidence” does come with a unique set of challenges. Remembering key aspects about repentance can help us avoid common missteps in this process.

1.We Do Need to Own Up to Past Mistakes and Abandon Bad Behavior

Sometimes there is a sense that online world isn’t the real world, and that idea gives us a sense of distance from the things we say and do online. But our interactions online are with real people, and what we say and do can and does have very real effects on others’ lives and our own. We emphasize this principle to teenagers, but it is important for everyone to remember. Acknowledging the reality of our online misdeeds is part of the repentance process; we have to recognize and take responsibility for the ways we’ve both knowingly and unknowingly hurt ourselves and others.

The Church’s essay on Repentance says, “Repentance…is much more than just acknowledging wrongdoings. It is a change of mind and heart that gives us a fresh view about God, about ourselves, and about the world. It includes turning away from sin and turning to God for forgiveness. It is motivated by love for God and the sincere desire to obey his commandments.”

If you have done something online that you regret, one of the best ways we can approach apologizing for wrongdoings online, as outlined in the Church essay, is to acknowledge that we made a mistake, express true remorse, and be more aware of what you are posting, sharing, liking, or doing in the future so that you don’t make that same mistake again. If you begin this process with a faith in Jesus Christ that we can be healed and changed through His atoning power, you’re headed in a good direction.

2. After We Repent, We Need to Let Go and Trust God

After apologizing and repenting to the best of our ability, the next hardest step might be to let go of persisting shameful narratives—that is, let go of trying to convince people to believe that we have changed or that they need to forgive us.  As the Church’s essay says, repentance is gaining a fresh view about “about God, about ourselves, and about the world.” Our focus should be on changing our view, not other’s.

However, this can be difficult when we’ve repented and others continually bring up past sins, pointing to old posts, messages, and photographs. I have had personal experience with this, as one of my friends would continually bring up something I had regretfully shared online years before. Initially, I was angry and defensive. I wanted to respond by arguing all the ways in which I had changed, and I was even tempted to remind her of all of her past mistakes—as if that would settle the score. I felt as if I was on trial and wished I had some sort of lawyer to plead my case.

My perspective changed when I remembered that I did have someone who would plead my case, and He would plead it when it mattered the most: “And if any man sin, we have advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). Christ was my advocate. Rather than defending my past actions and trying to prove myself by my current behavior, I realized that I had already owned up to my past choices and apologized for the hurt they had caused. Christ, ultimately, would be the one to mediate this conflict and advocate for me with my Father in Heaven, so it did not really matter what my friend thought at the time.  

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It can still be difficult to “fear God more than man” in these situations, though. We can’t control how someone is going to spin a story based on a past record of our behavior. Text messages can be taken out of context, photos can be posted with offensive captions, and people can come to their own conclusions about our intentions. I learned long ago that I have to let go of trying to control the story that other people told about me. True repentance—and forgiveness—came, for me, when I humbly learned to trust that God would make things right, and that He knew my intentions and loved my changing heart. 

Forgive and Move Forward

In D&C 58:42 the Lord says, “He who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.”

Our online interactions may seem permanent, but they aren’t—not really. Though our online decisions can impact ourselves and others in real ways, the Atonement of Jesus Christ is also real and far-reaching.

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I love the line in the new Christopher Robin movie where Pooh tells Christopher, “I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been.” Christ’s Atonement is what makes it possible for us to walk away. With His help, we can turn our backs on those overwhelming online voices and judgment—as well as the past mistakes and flawed personas we’ve made—and walk towards a more Christlike life. 

On the flip side, we also need to extend this message of progression and hand of forgiveness to others as well. We are all imperfect human beings, and none of us has a clean record. We all make mistakes together, but when we forgive ourselves and each other, we can all walk forward together. As Holland says:

 “The past is to be learned from but not lived in. We look back to claim the embers from glowing experiences but not the ashes. And when we have learned what we need to learn and have brought with us the best that we have experienced, then we look ahead…”

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