The National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has been all the rage in the blogosphere these past couple weeks. The debate over whether or not he is a traitor or a patriot is not dying down and, amidst this fray, it almost seems that we have forgotten about Snowden’s actual revelations, that the American Government has a massive surveillance system in place.
Regardless of where you “stand” on that debate, there’s a natural unease that comes with this news. You may not be coordinating terrorist activities, you may even feel you have nothing to hide, but the thought that somebody behind a desk at the NSA could comb through your digital history and locate you through the GPS on your phone…well, it doesn’t give warm-and-fuzzies. Hollywood has certainly fed our imaginations on this score by showing how abuse of a program like this could be catastrophic (think Enemy of the State and Eagle Eye).
But “being watched” is not exactly new to Christians. We go so far as to celebrate the news that God is always with us and always watching over us. David rejoices, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” (Psalm 139). This can be an enormous comfort to those who feel like they’re fundamentally alone in the world, or that no one cares about their comings and goings, or that justice has been looked over.
So why are we consoled by this supervision but get shivers when it comes to surveillance? Well, first off, if God is as good and perfect as the bible claims, His omnipresence and omniscience, by its very nature, are not subject to the same abuse. The Hollywood films I mentioned hinge on the misuse of these surveillance programs, how they can destroy personal lives and industries. God instead works by way of provision; He looks out for us and has our best interests at heart. This is why David rejoice at the notion of divine supervision. Whether one supports government surveillance to combat terrorism or not, we could never be as comfortable with other humans watching us than with God doing so.
More importantly, though, we believe that God is gracious. Not only is He with us, He is for us. Otherwise, the claim that God is in touch with our lives (and I mean our whole lives, including everything locked in our inner-basements, every e-mail and text we fire off) would be terrifying, because we know wrath. Whether we’ve read the Old Testament or not, we’ve known judgment from our closest friends. We don’t want anybody to see those hidden parts of our lives because we can only imagine what will fall on us if they do. However, the Gospel message tells us that, in Christ, God sees the shameful corners of our lives in the light of His forgiveness. This forgiveness is primarily alien to us in the here and now, which is why we cringe at the idea of surveillance.
Perhaps it is that word—surveillance—that makes the difference. “Surveillance” and “omnipresence” are very different, after all. Surveillance implies suspicion and distrust—no one enjoys being under surveillance. But the cross announces that God is not our incriminating overseer. He is not out to get us. Perhaps we have a hard time with this good news because we prefer independence and achievement, earning our favor; we would much rather hide the sin in our lives and feel like we are somehow worthy of His love. At times like these, we most need to be reminded that God sits with us as much as He watches over us, as integral to our lives as the air we breathe. We can trust not only that He will always see, but that He will always forgive—and He will never take advantage. God is not the NSA, or you, or me.