Our Ever-Vanishing Privacy As a Call to Conversion

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No, you’re not paranoid. You are being watched. Very closely.

Let’s arbitrarily begin with Facebook. Whether you have a Facebook page or not, the company is keeping careful tabs on you. Were you aware of this? Apart from whether or not you have a Gmail account, Google is allowing others to read your personal emails, as long as you are in an email exchange with someone who uses Gmail. (But don’t worry, they have promised that they no longer do it themselves …wink, nudge.)

It is not just Amazon’s Alexa who is listening to your family’s conversations; the folks who put her together are too. The speaker on your smart phone is not just active during phone calls. And if you have a “smart” TV, you are no longer watching TV, in fact, your TV is watching you. The more recent your car model, the more likely it is watching you too.

Very few are unaware these days of the great prevalence of security cameras in society. Of course, they are all over commercial businesses, airports, apartment buildings, houses, and so forth. In certain parts of the globe, cameras are literally trained on every single street corner of the municipality. I was going to suggest that the only place one is safe from a camera these days would be in the Amazon jungle, but then I came across this gem. (Warning: if you fear spiders and other creepy crawly things like possums, do not click on the link. Just know that there are cameras in the Amazon jungle too.)

Do you think you are not being watched if there are no cameras present? For the moment, that may depend on whether or not you have your smart phone with you. I am sure it will not be long before it does not matter either way. And it is not just the military and intelligence agencies who can see through walls now. The police can do it too.

Did you know that everyone’s fingerprints are not the only traits unique to the individual? It turns out that our heartbeats are too. And the Pentagon can now identify you by yours.

If you are not uncomfortable yet, we can keep going – on and on and on.

Have We Ever Really Had Any “Privacy”?

Social privacy is not merely an option but an actual right to which everyone is entitled. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) notes that

Everyone should observe an appropriate reserve concerning persons’ private lives. Those in charge of communications should maintain a fair balance between the requirements of the common good and respect for individual rights. Interference by the media in the private lives of persons engaged in political or public activity is to be condemned to the extent that it infringes upon their privacy and freedom. (CCC, 2492)

When it comes to general human affairs, battles for the protection of privacy are certainly in order.

And yet, if we believers think carefully about it for a minute, we would have to ask honestly: have we ever really had any true privacy to begin with?

“My bones are not hidden from you,” says the Psalmist, “when I was being made in secret, fashioned in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw me unformed; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be.” (Psalm 139:15-16) From God, the One “in Whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), nothing is ever kept secret.

Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

How beautiful and riveting, Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel (cf. John 1:43-51) when, meeting him for the first time, Jesus informed the apostle that this was not His first time laying eyes on him. And of course God is not the only one who is watching us:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1)

God’s Gaze Liberates

On the one hand, the fact that God (and the saints and angels) literally watches over every single thing that happens to us in life should ultimately be a source of great comfort to us. God is love – from beginning to end, and at all times. “In Him there is no darkness at all,” Scripture says (1 John 1:5). Therefore, it pleases Him to offer us His protective and probing gaze. It should please us to bask in it.

God likes looking at you and watching you! Those of us who have had demanding parents or who have otherwise been heavily castigated in life may be highly sensitive to the idea that we are always being watched. But be careful not confuse man’s disordered dispositions with God’s. God’s gaze is supportive, not heavy, on those who seek Him sincerely.

Just ask Haggar, Abraham’s concubine, who knew well God’s loving gaze.

No sooner does Hebrews 4 get done warning us that God sees everything and that we will have to give an account for everything, than it proceeds to by reassuring us that, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

“As Far As the East is From the West”

Some of my readers may be well aware that some sin or sinful pattern they are caught up in is wrong. It may be the case that they have struggled valiantly for years or even decades to shed the shameful practice, without success, and are feeling the heat now more than ever in this age of ever-vanishing privacy. Do not despair. All God calls us to do is to be faithful, not necessarily “successful.” Just ask St. Mark Tianxiang – martyr, Saint, and opium addict. (This is not a typo. He really was an addict.)

To the extent that we are doing all we can to do right by the Lord and others, we have no ultimate reason for sadness. Rather, we can have full confidence that He sees, sympathizes, and is well pleased with our best efforts. Remember that when Jesus asked the apostles to feed five thousand with a few loaves of bread and a few fish, He was perfectly aware that what they had on hand was not enough to fulfill His request. “Bring me what you do have and I’ll take care of the rest,” He essentially told them. He knows our limitations. He understands. And He delights in making up for our deficiencies and weaknesses.

Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger, abounding in mercy. He will not always accuse, and nurses no lasting anger; He has not dealt with us as our sins merit, nor requited us as our wrongs deserve. For as the heavens tower over the earth, so his mercy towers over those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us. (Psalm 103:8-12)

Maybe it is not the present that haunts you, it is the past. Maybe, with the help of God’s grace, you have long since confessed and put certain sinful behaviors in the past but still struggle with the deep shame or regret of it all. Be consoled by the fact that individuals like King David and Saint Paul had the same struggles.

There is an instructive fictional story about a man who claimed to have received locutions (internally audible messages) from the Lord. He went to his pastor for guidance on how to handle the experience. Skeptical, the pastor told the man to go and ask Jesus what the sins were the pastor confessed in his last sacramental confession. When the man returned and informed his pastor that Jesus’ response to the question was, “I forget”, the pastor knew the man’s claim to receiving locutions was real.

That is how thoroughly God’s forgiveness renews our souls. God Himself completely forgets that which has been completely atoned for. (And He does not charge with sin in the first place that which our souls are completely opposed to but which, through human weakness, our bodies may not be able to avoid.)

Call to Conversion

All of this being duly noted, the Bible makes painfully clear that a man reaps what he sows. For example:

Do you suppose, then, you who judge those who engage in [sinful deeds] and yet do them yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you hold his priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience in low esteem, unaware that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance? By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness. (Romans 2:3-8)

The Book of Hebrews says, “If today, you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Hebrews 3:15). The time for conversion is now. The time for rest is in Heaven. Infinite rest, if we but dig in for just a handful of decades.

God is unfathomably patient. But He is also just – which, really, is to say that He likes to give us what we want. And so if it is mediocrity that we show ourselves wanting by our actions in this life, it is mediocrity we will receive in the next (an indefinite period in Purgatory). If we want nothing but Heaven, both with our minds and our actions, we will most certainly receive the object of our hearts desire upon death.

This is true of Heaven and Purgatory. It is true of Hell also. It is difficult to fathom that anyone would ever want Hell. But the way to it is rather simple – selfishness – a lack of regard for God and others.

Jesus makes a curious suggestion in Matthew 7:23 regarding Judgment Day. Speaking not just of anyone, but specifically of some believers, He states emphatically, “I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers’.” Taken literally, of course, this statement makes no sense. We have already established the fact that God’s “knowledge” is total.

But 1 Corinthians 8:3 sheds light: “If one loves God, one is known by him.” In other words, we will reap what we sow. The time for growing in love for God is now. He knows everything already anyway. There is nothing we should or can hide from Him. And if any further impetus is needed other than just His love for our conversion, consider our ever “vanishing” privacy and what this might mean for our behaviors in the social sphere moving forward. In other words, we can have it one way or the other…

Holy angels and saints, intercede for those who sojourn on earth, that we would make every effort to be deeply known by God who already exhaustively sees.

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