The UK Bible Students Website
Christian Biblical Studies
Scripture references are to the New International Version UK edition, unless stated otherwise.
FEW OF US are comfortable with being watched. We don't want our hidden thoughts and habits exposed to others without our consent, if at all. Each of us maintains a buffer zone around Self, into which we admit only those we trust. The revelation that our e-mails and phone calls are routinely monitored by domestic and foreign intelligence services shatters the quaint illusion of privacy.
In practice it is not feasible for any monitoring agency, no matter how technologically advanced, to read and interpret every jot and tittle of the data collected. Besides, most of us are of insufficient interest to be closely scrutinised. But at the personal level, one's awareness that an unknown someone might be looking over our shoulders while we sit at our computer or chat on the telephone niggles at the margins of the mind. When Ira Gershwin pined in verse for ʻSomeone to Watch Over Meʼ, surveillance was probably not what he had in mind.
Intelligence gathering, spying or espionage – whatever one calls it – is not new. But through the deployment of supercomputers running highly advanced algorithms, unmanned drones, satellite technology, street-side cameras, and by many other means, it can now be practised on a global scale. To detect terrorist threats or thwart criminal behaviour, governments around the world run their own domestic programmes and collaborate with other governments in doing so. For example, the Five Eyes alliance is a monitoring enterprise in which the intelligence services of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States pool their resources and exchange relevant data mined by electronic surveillance. Although most democratic countries have enacted legislation designed to limit the amount of permissible electronic surveillance by their secret services, rogue states and many private companies engage in the practice, too.
There are legitimate and practical reasons for the intelligence services to garner information by covert surveillance, tapping into the aptly-named ʻchatterʼ – ominous and suspect electronic jabber which criss-crosses international boundaries. When the state is under threat from covert external and internal sources it is necessary to detect and deflect malicious assaults to keep the homeland safe: war by other means. Warfare is a fixed feature in national survival; how it is waged varies according to the available technology. But foiling the plans of an enemy is preferable to allowing him to launch an attack, and this is where pre-emptive spying comes in. During the Second World War Britain's successful strategy against German forces relied in part on the code-breaking teams at Bletchley Park, and Colossus, a computer programmed to crack the Enigma cipher used by the enemy, enabling Britain and her allies to anticipate and counter military operations by the foe.
All authority eventually trends towards central control. In the secular world – corporate and governmental – this can lead to intrusion into the private lives of individuals. Since computers make the gathering and collation of information relatively easy to accomplish, they invite central control. Progress toward the gathering and storing of intelligence about the citizenry is a one-way street, and cannot be undone. Fingerprints, DNA records, bank details, credit card information, and oodles of information about each one of us is stored indefinitely in databanks, often in countries other than the one in which we reside.
The attraction of compiling information as a justification in itself is very strong, when the means are to hand and there is a burgeoning industry poised to make profit from the venture. So powerful is the attraction that this might well be regarded as a natural attribute of the human mind – a combination of inquisitiveness and the need for symmetry. But restraint commensurate with democratic institutions is called for. That failing, legislation is often introduced to curtail the excesses and shield the public from worrisome intrusions.
As a general rule, suspicion lies at the root of impertinent inquiry into the lives of others, indicating a lack of trust in this or that person. Civil authorities may often rightly assert such an interest, as civic order and security depend on their diligence. As the Apostle Paul expresses it, ʻrulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrongʼ (Rom. 13: 3). Of course, this is a generality, not a perfect principle, inculcating a traditional bias towards civil obedience. But history offers many examples of rulers who trampled the rights of the citizenry and executed dissidents for no other reason than their imperial ego and lust for power. Of such villains Nero was one. St. Paul would not have approved.
In the religious sphere, distrust inevitably leads to authoritarianism, and most denominations succumb to this fault eventually. Close-living religious communities are especially notorious for implementing controls on their adherents, no matter how sage the intention. Even the godly John Wesley is noted as having ʻexercised an absolute supremacy over his peopleʼ (Southey; Life of Wesley; p. 250). The leader of the local congregation was tasked to police the membership, to call on those who absented themselves from the class-meeting and inquire into the cause; and he was to render an account to the officiating preacher, of those whose conduct appeared suspicious, or was in any way reprehensible. By this means, and by the class-paper for every week, which the leaders were required to keep, and regularly produce, the preachers obtained a knowledge of every individual member within their circuit. (Ibid. 255)
Such procedures no doubt encouraged pious gossip in the eighteenth-century coffee klatches, to the ruination of good reputations. Everyone loves to harvest other people's secrets . . . and pass them on.
An awareness of being studied influences one's behaviour. This is a proven principle, whereby the observer affects the outcome of a watched experiment. So bird-watchers hide in blinds and intelligence agencies hide in cyperspace.
But as efficient and super-duper with a super-computer as the intelligence services may be, there is a still higher level of observation. Much higher. And more well-informed of what's going on. Of Jehovah God, the Psalmist writes ʻhis eyes watch the nationsʼ, adding the caution, ʻlet not the rebellious rise up against himʼ (66: 7). As Psalm 139 tells us, nothing escapes His attention:
2. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
4. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. . .
7. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? . . .
11. If I say, ʻSurely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,ʼ
12. even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
However, it's probably safe to say that more people are worried about being watched by unseen security entities than are worried about being watched by an unseen God. Nonetheless, their secrets are more secure in the databanks of the latter than the former.
In his short story, A Vision of Judgment (1899), H. G. Wells portrays God holding sinners in the palm of His hand and scrutinizing them, while an angel ticks off a list of their transgressions for the assembled throng to hear and consider. This is how past generations imagined the Final Judgement would unfold before the divine throne.
However, this crude picture of humiliation does not do justice to the reality of Judgement Day as taught by the Scriptures. Nor does it capture the essence of divine compassion and restoration of the sinner. For God who sees all and knows all does not delight in exposing our sins, but rather in cleansing us from them and covering them over – obliterating the memory of them.
Of Israel's national sins, the prophet Micah (7:19) declares to God that
You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
And Psa. 103: 12 proclaims that
as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
To spiritual Israel, the believers in Christ as Saviour and King, the joys of repentance and forgiveness are especially precious. The inexhaustible compassion of the Heavenly Father expunges the sinner's transgressions, covering up the dirty rags of our own fictional virtue with the white robe of Christ's righteousness. Through the miracle of justification by faith we are forgiven, washed clean, and accepted in the beloved Son. There is therefore no condemnation of the believer (Rom. 8: 1). ʻIf we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousnessʼ (1 John 1: 9).
Do angels gossip? Are we ourselves the occasional topic of heavenly conversation each time we sin or do something stupid? Perhaps heaven advertises our failings, conveying the news of our various defeats along a heavenly grapevine so that the angelic orders can have a good chuckle?
No doubt we do this here in our earthly sphere, by discussing or intimating at the foibles, failings and foolishness of our friends, neighbours or even fellow-Christians, to spike interest or send out a ʻwarningʼ – all out of necessity of course. For most of us cannot resist revealing secrets we hold about others. The secret is like the valve on a pressure cooker, building up a head of steam, until its force can no longer be resisted and it must be released or we'll just burst.
But this is not heaven's way.
The spirit of Christ has no trade in sordid secrets. It is not crimped or mean and does not monitor or spy on the sanctified liberties of another Christian. In fact, it goes out of its way to hide the failings of another, covering over ʻa multitude of sinsʼ (James 5: 19, 20).
We can be sure that the shameful or discreditable secrets of our minds and hearts are safe with God. Even now they are being erased . . . . God is not startled by our sins or our guilty secrets, but He sees us as we want to be: a replica of Christ.
And He watches us always with a sympathetic eye.
Copyright November 2013 ukbiblestudents.co.uk
You are free to reproduce this article, but please let us know if you do so.