The concept of privacy dramatically impacts modern life and human spirituality. Personally, I enjoy my privacy. I have a privacy fence in my backyard and tend to keep the window shades down rather than up. However, I have been thinking about pondering lately the origin of privacy and the reason for our visceral reaction whenever our privacy is challenged or breached. What does our passionate defense of personal privacy say about us?
Legally, privacy was first recognized as a constitutional right in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965). This was a case about laws regulating contraception use by married couples. Though never expressly stated in the Constitution, privacy as an implicit guarantee was derived by the Supreme Court from the Bill of Rights: the right to free practice of religion (I), the right to refuse quartering of troops in a personal residence (III), the prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures (IV), right to refuse to self-incriminate (V), and the understanding that rights not enumerated by the Constitution were retained by the people (IX). Later, the concept was applied to abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1971) and same-sex relationships (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003).1
Medical information was legally protected by HIPAA in 1996, and the electronic data of children were protected by law in 1998. Financial records were similarly protected in 1999.2 More recently, the tech industry has been under scrutiny for possible invasions of privacy. Over the last twenty years, nearly every major social media giant has appeared before Congress, explaining how they do and do not make use of user data.3 In the last couple of years, privacy has resurfaced in questions about vaccination history.
Privacy as a Modern Invention
Stanford Law Professor and legal historian, Lawrence Friedman, argues that privacy as we know it is a creation of the modern age:
In an important sense, privacy is a modern invention. Medieval people had no concept of privacy. They also had no actual privacy. Nobody was ever alone. No ordinary person had private space. Houses were tiny and crowded. Everyone was embedded in a face-to-face community. Privacy, as idea and reality, is the creation of a modern bourgeois society. Above all, it is a creation of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century it became even more of a reality.4
I would argue that this is a bit of an overstatement. Anywhere you encounter an honor/shame culture, as prevalent in the ancient world, you will see a desire to hide shame and display honor. As I hope to demonstrate below, the craving for privacy dates back to Genesis.
However, the expectation of privacy in so many components of life is definitely modern. Charles Taylor agrees that privacy as a modern concept emerges when “people of breeding and education come to insist on privacy, which begins to transform living arrangements in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”5 The concept trickles down to the rest of us over the next two centuries until it is a middle class right and expectation in our time.
The British government issued a report in 1972 stating that “the modern middle-class family … relatively sound-proofed in their semi-detached house, relatively unseen behind their privet hedge … insulated in the family car … are probably more private in the sense of being unnoticed in all their everyday doings than any sizeable section of the population in any other time or place.”6 The isolation and seclusion has only escalated since that time.
Privacy as a Human Reaction
While the seductive appeal and expectation of privacy has deepened in the late-modern era, its origins are as old as human sin.
It’s important to note that privacy is not the natural, created state of the human creature. “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). I am not prepared to suggest that this utopian openness is actually a model for modern society, especially as the Bible has some rather unpleasant things to say about people who run about naked. But I would point out that privacy and personal hiddenness were not necessary for our original state of happiness.
Instead, privacy and the instinct to hide a portion of ourselves from view came in direct response to sin.
“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:7-8).
Specifically, in Genesis 3, the human desire to hide was the first indicator to God that something had gone horribly wrong (Genesis 3:9-10).
The search for privacy was a reaction to a new sensation—shame. Sin produces shame, and the most immediate human response to shame is to hide it, just as the normal response to honor is to show it.
Christ expresses the same idea. Nicodemus had visited Jesus by night, presumably to secure a little privacy and avoid the shame he might receive from his peers among the Jewish leadership for visiting the controversial Rabbi (John 3:1-2). Jesus responded with a meandering discussion of the themes of new birth and the mission of the Son of God. Near the end, Jesus states, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:19-21).
The fact is, there are not many of us out here hiding our good deeds. We use privacy because we do not want to endure the scrutiny of others.
Privacy as a Dangerous Myth
If we accept that our most common use of privacy is to hide our shame, we can at last observe that privacy is not only a myth but a dangerous one.
Essentially every privacy-themed story in Scripture is negative.
In the days of Joshua, Achan hid banned war spoils in his tent, resulting in the judgment of God against Israel until the sin was exposed and punished (Joshua 7).
Jonah hoped to evade his prophetic call by simply going somewhere God would not find him, resulting in a humiliating journey by way of fish vomit back to his responsibility a chapter later (Jonah 1-2).
Ananias and Sapphira sold a property and lied about the details of their financial gift to the apostles, resulting in their exposure and death (Acts 5:1-11).
These are not stories specifically about privacy, but in every case, privacy plays a negative role in the narrative. Even if these individuals had hidden their shame from men, they did not hide from God. “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7)
Neither in the Garden of Eden nor in all the cosmos will we find a place of privacy from the Creator.
Instead, the healthy response to the seduction of privacy is the reversal of it.
David confesses and acknowledges his sin: “my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:1-3). Rather than attempting to hide his sin from God, he asks that God would hide his divine face from looking at David’s sin. “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities” (51:9). The answer to sin and shame was not finding a deeper hiding place, but rather finding forgiveness before God. Instead of hiding from God, David pleads, “Cast me not away from your presence” (51:11).
Too often, privacy is a tool we use to hide what needs to be forgiven. Sin prefers to keep itself hidden, and there it has power over us. Bonhoeffer wrote, “Sin demands to have a man by himself. … The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him … Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person.”7
Sin whispers to us that the very real shame of sin has made us unlovable. We cannot believe that we could ever be loved either by man or God. As Bonhoeffer again warned, “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.”8
Instead, confession is the reversal of the myth, sin, and shame. Confession reverses the myth by acknowledging that our sin was never truly hidden to begin with. It had always been before God, and more often than not before man. We do not hide as well as we think.
“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:6-8).
When we confess, it reverses our sin as we put our trust completely in God to forgive and to love. Confession is only sensible if a person believes the secret confessed can be forgiven. Otherwise, it is just the publication of a personal flaw. It is by trusting fully in God that sin’s power is emptied. Confession is the direct result of remembering that God loved us and died for us in the full knowledge of our sin (Romans 5:6-11)
Finally, confession reverses the shame of sin by finding honor in a source other than the self. As long as honor must arise from myself, sin must be hidden and accomplishments must be trumpeted. But what if my honor is to be found outside of me, in the saving gospel of my Lord?
“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying” (2 Corinthians 11:30-31). “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
I confess that I myself am not ready for full confession and universal transparency. Some of the above,even to me, seems like an overstatement.
I believe there is still a place for confidential protection and intimate privacy in personal relationships. Intimacy requires hiddenness from others in order to privilege someone else with openness. It is a gift, not a sin.
That being said, I must confess that more often than not I crave privacy so I can hide my shame rather than to protect my relationships. I do not trust that God will forgive me, and I am certainly not confident that you will. So I keep up my guard, build higher fences, and generate better passwords. I am not wise enough to know which secrets I keep wisely and which secrets I harbor to my shame.
So let us at least admit this much—our obsession with privacy is not built on our desire to keep our goodness a secret. Our hiddenness is not constructed to protect our virtues, but rather our vices. We prefer the shadows because we fear God and do not trust him.
“Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10).
4. Lawrence Friedman, Guarding Life’s Dark Secrets: Legal and Social Controls over Reputation, Propriety, and Privacy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 258.
5. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press, 2007), 540.
6. As cited from the Younger Report (1972) in https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2021/02/04/invention-of-privacy/ideas/essay/
7. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: HarperOne, 1978), 112.
8. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: HarperOne, 1978), 110.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.