Seek wisdom in the age of algorithms

Our age is that of algorithmic flattery. Internet algorithms tell us nice lies that we want to hear because smart people want what we have. They want our money, our attention, our vote. Whether for profit, praise, or power, some of the brightest minds on earth are employed to flatter us.

Algorithms don’t care about the truth. They are designed to capture our attention for as long as possible in order to exert the maximum influence on our decisions. They bring to our screens the most trusted attention grabbers: things that make us angry, scare us, excite us, or adore us. Algorithmic flattery insulates us from the soft cushions of positive affirmation and confirms what we’ve always suspected: we deserve better. We are smarter than God.

Algorithmic flattery insulates us from the soft cushions of positive affirmation and confirms what we’ve always suspected: we deserve better.

The Bible brings us back to earth. While the algorithm makes us feel better with its lies, the Word of God tells us the truth and puts us on the path to authentic and lasting fulfillment. Faced with the reality of my idolatry and sin before God, I am ready to receive and rejoice in the good news that in Christ I am fully known but freely loved, an adopted son of my Heavenly Father – eternally justified , fully forgiven, forever in his family, and yet currently engaged in a brutal process of sanctification that ends in glory.

So how do we order our lives for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor in an age of algorithmic flattery? Here are seven considerations.

1. Resolve to be wise.

As I preached through the book of Ecclesiastes, I offered our church family a working definition of wisdom: wIsdom is the skillful discernment and application of truth for the glory of God and the good of others.

We are not born with discernment; it is a developed skill. To avoid being misled “by human craftiness, by craftiness in deceitful schemes,” we must grow spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually (Eph. 4:14-15). The longer we follow Jesus, the wiser we will be.

2. Call upon Scripture as the arbiter of truth.

We evangelicals confess sole scripture. The scriptures alone are our final authority and our standard of truth. But biblical illiteracy is notoriously high among us, leaving us ill-equipped for the challenges that await us in “the age of misinformation.”

When we compare our weekly screen time with our weekly scripture time, is it obvious that we believe in the final authority of scripture alone? As Patrick Miller notes, for many church members today, “their mentor is an algorithm.” We are bombarded with deceptive and flattering messages presented in one form or another of the question “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1). The first step to resisting the lure of algorithmic flattery is knowing what God actually said.

3. Sharpen your skills to navigate the Internet.

“Make no mistake about it” is a command, not a suggestion (1 Cor. 6:9; 15:33; Gal. 6:7; James 1:16). It is not pious to be gullible, nor noble to be naive. In fact, being deceived can be a sin. The believer has a duty to cultivate and calibrate an internal lie detector.

Effective discipleship must now include a level of digital literacytrain followers of Christ in critical thinking, lateral reading, triangulate the truthidentify logical errors, verify facts and, in general, avoiding misinformation and disinformation online. In the age of algorithms, doing research is not the same as doing research.

The voices on our digital platforms persuade us to favor experts who confirm our bias. But the wise will weigh the evidence carefully, understanding that “he who first states his case seems to be right, until the other comes to examine him” (Prov. 18:17).

4. Thank God for the Internet.

My mechanic told me I could make an appointment in three weeks to have him diagnose and repair my GMC Sierra. I made an appointment, went home, found a YouTube video that taught me how to fix it, fixed it, and canceled the appointment. Thank goodness for the internet.

Like any technology, the Internet can be a channel of God’s grace. You probably found this article on the Internet, perhaps through an algorithm. Because the Internet provides access to many things that are true, honorable, and uplifting to Christ, it can serve as a helpful tool for the Great Commission.

5. Challenge conspiracy theories.

Both the Old and New Testaments begin with a conspiracy theory designed to misinform, divide and destroy. In Genesis, the serpent accuses God of conspiring to deprive man and woman of their highest good (Gen. 3:1). In Matthew, the Sanhedrin accuses the disciples of conspiring to steal a corpse and start a selfish movement (Matthew 28:13).

Skeptics today often adopt one form or another of these conspiracy theories to deny the resurrection and explain the rise of Christianity. When professing Christians become widely known for their gullibility, captured by conspiracy theories, we fuel these false narratives and damage the credibility of the church.

6. See politics as a minefield of pleasant lies.

Sometimes minefields have to be crossed and sometimes they have to be avoided – wisdom knows the difference. Christians should be salt and light in the public square, but political engagement in the age of disinformation calls for extraordinary vigilance.

The first victim of political partisanship is the truth. It is in our nature to uncritically receive evidence that supports our policy positions and suppress evidence that refute them. With so much at stake, we might even be tempted to believe that a just end justifies unjust means.

Partisan politics can open our eyes to our adversary’s double standards while blinding us to our own. Algorithmic flattery fuels polarization, widens the cultural divide, and disrupts the peace of the church.

7. Practice humility in applying the truth.

The world doesn’t need more morons who quote the Bible, think critically, analyze algorithms and check facts. Even if we become proficient in discerning the truth, we deceive ourselves if we don’t skillfully apply it to our own lives. Jesus told his disciples, “I am sending you as sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). The wisdom of the serpent minus the innocence of the dove equals a hypocritical sheep.

The wisdom of the serpent minus the innocence of the dove equals a hypocritical sheep.

Doves don’t have to be the smartest birds in the room. They are not used to hot takes and hasty conclusions. They have enough self-awareness to know when they are in over their heads and when to run away from controversy without profit. They don’t feel the need to be an expert on everything, to correct everyone’s mistake, or to contribute to our national ignorance pooled on social media. Before they refute someone’s argument, they strive to understand it.

Animated by the Holy Spirit and practicing “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control,” doves gain a reputation for being “reasonable,” fair, impartial, and just (Gal. 5:22-23; Phil. 4:5). Such a life contrasts irresistibly with a world of algorithmic flattery.

Sharon D. Cole