The summer before my sophomore year, I began texting with a guy who had just graduated from our high school. I really didn’t know much about him, so our conversations began with the typical “get to know you” material. Before long, they moved to a deeper level. We had yet to have a face-to-face conversation, but I was growing more emotionally and romantically attached to someone after three weeks of exchanging text messages.
In John Suler’s article “The Two Paths of Virtual Reality,” he writes,
Virtual reality is a reality that has the effect of actual reality but not its authentic form. It’s a kind of simulation or substitute, but one with potency and validity. It gets close to the real thing. In its effect on people, it’s practically the real thing.
Emotional attachments can form even without physical contact. Relational connection can be established even when mediated by text messages.
My interactions with this guy gave me the feeling of being pursued without the reality of pursuit. In fact, during our 18-month relationship, he went through two in-person dating relationships with other girls. I knew I was the girl on the side, but I stayed anyway. My heart deeply longed for love, and its virtual presence seemed to be better than waiting around for its actual presence. But I was not loved; instead, I was being perpetually rejected.
During this relationship I began to view pornography on a regular basis. Pornography seemed to guarantee complete freedom to satisfy my never-ending appetite for intimacy without harm. Unlike a real person, porn couldn’t hurt me, so I’d be safe, right?
Without even realizing it, virtual reality dictated who I was and how I understood relationships to work. I had come to function as though I were independent and autonomous. In the virtual world, I was in control, for the most part. I could talk and act “without consequences.” I could get my needs met whenever I wanted. I created an environment in which I called the shots and ruled the day.
Scripture and Virtual Reality
Scripture, however, tells us something different about who we are and the world in which we live. In Acts 17:24-26, Paul declares that there is a God who rules and reigns, and we are not him. This God cannot be manipulated or contained. He is the autonomous One; we depend on him, even for our very breath.
Furthermore, human autonomy is an illusion, which we gladly buy into as a result of our sinful nature. As Paul writes in Romans 1:18-32, we have failed to glorify God and give thanks to him as the almighty Creator of the universe. Instead, we claimed wisdom for ourselves, resulting in the ever-darkening of our minds and the foolishness of our hearts. Such rebellion led not only to personal depravity but also to twist how human relationships were created to be.
I had also come to believe that virtual love, pursuit, and affection could satiate my God-given longing for genuine relationships, characterized by vulnerability and intimacy. In the absence of face-to-face interaction, I could hide the flaws that I wanted to conceal and exaggerate things I viewed as strengths. As a result, I could never be sure that it was the real me who was wanted and loved. I didn’t want to risk being known and not loved, and I ended up sacrificing both.
But Scripture tells us that our deepest need can only be met in the flesh. As the apostle John writes in the beginning of his gospel, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The gospel declares that we need and have a God with skin on. Jesus saw, felt, heard, smelled, and tasted it all. As a result, his knowledge of us is not merely an attribute of his nature but a fact of his experience. In the fullest sense of the word, God knows us.
Not only are we known, but we are also fully loved. In Romans 5:8, Paul writes, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The cross declares to us that God’s love is not blind. Our sin was fully exposed for all to see, yet so was the heart of God. When God pursues us and calls us to himself, he understands full well what he is getting into. He knows and loves completely.
Teens, Virtual Reality, and the Future
Statistical trends suggest that the challenges for teens only will intensify as they approach adulthood. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of teenagers who own a smart phone nearly doubled from 2011 to 2013, increasing from 23 percent to 37 percent in that time period. This same study reports 95 percent of teens are online and, although its popularity among teens is decline, 94 percent have a Facebook account. In the majority of statistics related to technology consumption and adoption, teens tend to outpace adults. Thus, statistics suggest that the rising generation will face an even more virtual existence down the road.
Given the increase in both teen technology ownership and online consumption, parents and youth leaders must guide teens in this area. First, they must invite children into life-giving, genuine relationships as well as ask them questions that challenge them to think about the world in which they live. Adults should ask students whether they try to escape reality via the virtual world or whether the virtual life fulfills them. They also should ask how virtual relationships compare to the ones Christ has called us to.
Finally, nothing can replace the need for intentional face-time with teens. Because Scripture ultimately attests to our human identity, we never will out-grow our fundamental need for in-the-flesh relationships where our true selves are exposed and yet pursued with the love of Christ.