Even though we may not find the word in scripture, the Bible does give us guidelines regarding privacy. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they were immediately aware of their nakedness. Then in Genesis 3:21 “the LORD God made leather garments, with which he clothed them.” The eighth commandment also deals with privacy: “You shall not steal”(Exodus 20:15). And this is the basis of property rights today, a Genesis concept carried down to the 21st century. If we include intellectual property and anything that is not ours, then the importance God places on privacy cannot be overstated. Since our bodies are our property (through the grace of God), we must have complete control over who comes into our space, unless we are a threat to ourselves or others or are being confronted by law enforcement. The very nature of a human being requires privacy, and after birth we quickly learn the meaning of “mine.”
Charity is another topic in the Bible that also deals with privacy. Matthew 6:3-4 reminds us: “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” Since alms includes every act of charity we do, that pretty much also covers everything. How private are our gifts supposed to be? They are not to travel from one side of your body to the other, from your left hand to right hand. Contrast that with today’s practice of churchgoers publicizing gifts and using them as tax write-offs. Later in Matthew 6 we read how important privacy is in our prayer life. “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6:5-6). Hypocrites may have recited long prayers in an attempt to compensate for their evil lives. They could not comprehend a one-on-one conversation with God. Since God is a private person, it only follows that we reach our highest level of communication with our fellow man in a one-on-one setting in the privacy of a quiet room, a real room with real chairs.
Exodus 20:16 warns us not to bear false witness against a neighbor. Spreading false rumors is an invasion of privacy because it is a betrayal of friendship and trust, an act of misrepresentation. Who are our neighbors? Who are our friends? With the digital age, our definition of friends has expanded to include chat rooms and Google Circles. We have social media friends we have never met and pretend that we “like” everything they do. Our human nature is one of private face to face conversation which cannot be replaced with email, text messages, chat rooms, or tweets. It’s the way God made us.
Research has even shown that babies can recognize their mother’s voice in the womb. I don’t think it will show that babies recognize their mother’s iPhone ring or email alert. We depend on privacy for civility and it is deeply engrained in our worship experiences. Imagine what would happen if confessions became public, if priests posted them on internet blogs, if webcams were set up in confessionals. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate invasion of privacy? Civil servants are also expected to keep things private for the security of their country. Doctors and lawyers are expected to keep their records confidential. When everybody knows everything, nobody will know anything.
Moses met with God privately in the tabernacle, affirming his existence in time and space. Even the temple itself speaks to the privacy of God, as well as the secret nature of the holy of holies. This may well be the first documentation of private property rights. If Christ lives in our hearts today, is it not a Sanctum Sanctorum, a holy of holies? The Catechism of the Catholic Church has much to say about privacy. “Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it (No. 2489).” The problem we have today is that there is little respect for truth and everybody thinks they have a right to know everything. Courts enforce privacy where there should be none and outlaw privacy where it is necessary. Privacy rights for teenagers and contraception comes to mind.
With the digital age, we have fooled ourselves into believing that privacy is as good as a digital password, that everybody has equal intelligence, that all opinions are of equal value, and that all knowledge resides in portable devices in the palms of our hands. Instead of the Bible, many people turn to the news for truth. But the media do not have a good track record when it comes to privacy. “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” (No. 2492). The essence of our beings and dignity of our souls cannot be measured by computers. Machines know no privacy. They only know what man has programmed on their silicon chips. Do we really want the reality of our lives to become a point on a computer screen?
Perhaps the defining glimpse of privacy in the Bible is found in Matthew 24:42: “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.” When we come to the realization that the most important date and hour in the history of mankind has been kept secret by an omnipotent God, then we may come to realize the importance of privacy in our own lives.
© 2013. John Morgan. All Rights Reserved.