Bridging Your Real-Life and Virtual Identity

When we were young, my mother, undaunted at having sons instead of daughters, read us some Betsy Tacy books. My mind wandered during many of those hours, dreaming about being a pirate or an NFL running back (neither of which have yet materialized). Yet some stories stuck with me. One was when Betsy began attending a new school. She was thrilled by the prospect of reinventing herself. Her schoolmates would be dazzled by this fascinating, sophisticated, and mysterious new girl. No one would know anything about her except what she presented. Gradually, however, her project crumbled. Betsy receded to being merely. . . Betsy.

There’s nothing new about yearning for a fresh slate, for the power to craft a new self, to conjure a dream-me into reality. Many popular video games center on fulfilling the fantasy of character creation. The internet beckons you to be like Betsy at her new school—to try on a new hobby here, a new cause there. But in today’s increasingly digital world, sustained anonymity is less and less feasible. After all, the internet’s power to conceal comes with a flip side: its power to reveal.      

In the virtual world, people will find it as difficult to live a double life online as they do in real life. That is to say, it won’t work for any extended length of time. You’ll be found out and exposed. As Jesus taught us in Luke 12:3, “Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” That is to say, you won’t be able to keep a real-life Mr. Hyde separate from your online Dr. Jekyll, or vice versa.


God is the Audience


In Luke 12, Jesus warns his disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy (v. 1). These prestigious leaders had built large public followings on a religious show. They knew their audience. They prayed sophisticated prayers, boasted in their goodness, and were clever and outspoken at the right times. But their private life was another matter. Jesus told them, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed” (v. 2) He was talking about final judgment when all sins done in private will be publicly made known.

It’s easy to imagine the internet as a stack of cities you can keep moving to and starting over. Maybe, you think, in the next one you’ll be able to posture the identity you really want into existence. But Jesus reminds you that you can only be one person. You can’t hide behind manicured pictures, or a new product, or a more edgy tone. All the different sides of you still meet in the middle, and will ultimately be judged as one. So, ask God to help you cultivate digital integrity. How do you do that?


Prioritize Depth


It can be tempting to believe that people following you for a few years on X know you. But merely following online is like wandering around your house for several hours, taking in the furnishings and family photos. They’re lurking. They don’t have a real relationship.

On the other hand, some people lump all online connections into the same basket of “not real.” That’s reductionistic. Your video game buddy is a real relationship, it just shouldn’t carry the same emotional weight as the people you live with. Jesus lived in an intricate relational web, engaging with public figures, acquaintances, friends, and deep friends. He knew how to prioritize. Look for the people who know you in the most three-dimensional sense: they’ve seen you in pajamas and formalwear; they’ve heard you speak on your college major and struggle to find your keys. These people have a fuller picture, so their trust, advice, and support matter more.    

You don’t need a relational org chart to figure out which people in your life really care. You may be estranged from your father, but your dog groomer now joins you for holidays. The seriousness of a past connection doesn’t matter nearly as much as the faithfulness of the follow-up (Prov 18:24).

Going online opens a portal to fresh contacts every day. The people you meet online have the potential to become meaningful friends, but time will help you to filter their genuineness and commitment. Does Nancy show up occasionally as an emoticon on your photo, or do you find yourself texting daily? You might receive immediate support through an online forum, but relational gardens grow over years of cultivating roots that have weathered many seasons.


Balance in-person with online


As Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) improve and gain prominence, proximity will seem less important. It’s not. God made us with physical bodies to live in a physical world. Technology brings us closer, but digital connection is like frozen pizza, it tastes like the real thing but can never replace it.

No matter how crisp the video feed is, we’ll never transmit human touch, setting, and atmosphere through the internet. Downplaying the importance of such things downplays the fullness of your humanity. God spent five days preparing a rich, ready-to-explore environment before placing humanity in the middle of it. Certainly Covid taught us that man does not live by Zoom alone. If nothing else, relating in person brings you in touch with a higher level of unmanageability. When you feel uncomfortable, you can’t just ignore the text or click the “end” button—and that’s a good thing. We need reminders that in this world (and the next), we are actors, not directors. In-person relationships teach us this truth.


Foster accountability


Do you have people who have access to all sides of you—the virtual and in-person? Can they bring critique? Do you listen? “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (I John 1:8). The more you live online, the more you need to be ready to repent for the sins you commit there. There’s no digital bypass to sanctification, so listen to others and grow in godliness in both in-person and online contexts. 

In the virtual world, people will increasingly meet, hear, and know other people online first, then only possibly later in the flesh. Christians who want to live a stable, godly, integrated life will seek to harmonize all the sides of our identity, virtual and in-person, around the melody of Jesus.

Justin Poythress (DMin Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of All Saints Church in Boise, ID. You can find more of Justin's writing on his blog, Time & Chance.