Sometimes I wonder whether social media is making our society worse or if it is just amplifying our existing problems. We see actors, actresses, musicians, and celebrities go from wearing odd outfits to acting in extremes as they show more skin and less clothes. Then the extremes become even more extreme. It’s as if they believe once they’ve embarked on these extreme paths, they’re somehow locked into them.
You don’t need to be religious to understand the point Venerable Fulton Sheen (1895-1979) made about this very topic years ago because his teaching applies across a cultural context today as well. He essentially said that before you sin the first time, God prompts you to refrain. Meanwhile, Satan takes the exact opposite approach. Venerable Sheen says:
But how does Satan say or talk when we are about to sin? Oh, don’t be silly. We don’t believe those things anymore. Times have changed. Are you still a virgin? You mean you’ve never had a smoke of marijuana? Listen, everybody’s doing it. Don’t pay attention to those doctors who tell you that it will hurt your brain cells. You’ve got to live! You have to be yourself. You haven’t committed adultery? Everybody’s doing it now. These views of strict morality were all right 100 years ago or 500 years ago, but this is a new world. I’ve got to be me. I’ve got to be free. That’s the way the devil talks. He’s on our side. Before we sin, Christ seems to be the accuser. Before we sin, the devil is our defender.
His words are timeless. Satan says, “You’ve got to live!” so that you will say, “I’ve got to be free!” This is the same message we hear today — that life should be about freedom and being the real you. This turns into people embracing and committing sins. But then what happens?
After we sin, the roles reverse. Venerable Sheen explains that God is on our side and tells us that though we have sinned, we can become better. We can change ourselves. God wants us to know we are allowed to transform. Opposite that, the devil becomes the ultimate accuser saying, “You’ve already done the bad thing. What’s the problem? Just keep at it because there’s no redemption. You can’t come back from this.” But the idea that transformation is not possible leads to despair. Venerable Sheen specifically discusses Judas at this point, saying that because he was a traitor, Judas believed he could not transform — and committed suicide. We see this in our own society today when people become gripped by despair, falsely believing they cannot change or transform. People feel hopeless. It’s why suicide rates continue to rise.
For people who believe provocative behavior is true freedom, they also hear a devilish voice urging them on, telling them there’s nothing left for them anyway. The same thing happens on social media when a 16-year-old sends a tweet that is dug up 10 years later, which is followed by crowds claiming they aren’t fit to be accepted. The message is: You cannot be transformed. Even if they wanted to go to church on Sunday, have faith, and not be the person they once were, they become trapped, thinking they will be accused of being a fraud, of not being serious.
Sometimes, when you try to change and do better, people will accuse you of being fake. This has even happened to me. I used to be more liberal, even though I was never a Democrat. I just thought feminism was cool, and liberalism sounded fun when I was young. To this day, people still say I am a grifter — that I only became a Republican because there were more opportunities and money with it. People think I can’t change the ideas I had from the time I was 17-years-old to now. That is the society we live in. They tell you that you are stuck permanently as the same individual.
But you are not stuck. You can wake up, and you can change your mind. You can have sinned yesterday, and you can decide to be a better person today. You may have been a horrible individual, a drug addict, an internet troll, or devoted sinner for ten years straight — but you are allowed to change. You are not stuck with evil and stuck in wickedness.
The world has become so unforgiving. But don’t believe in false permanence. Be better because you’re allowed to be.