Question: "How should a Christian respond to chain letters?"

Answer: A chain letter is a form of correspondence in which the recipient is urged to forward the letter to a number of others on promise of reward or misfortune for breaking the chain. Chain letters have been around for nearly a century. The oldest known example comes from 1935—the “Prosperity Club” or “Send-a-Dime” letters. The recipients were to tape a dime to a dozen letters, including the sender of the original, and mail them. They would then supposedly receive a windfall of dimes in the mail as others followed suit.

With stamped mail rapidly becoming antiquated, chain letters through the postal system are not as prevalent as they once were. However, their first cousins have shown up on the internet through email and social media. Chain letters may appear in private messages, Facebook posts, tweets, or group emails. Many of them have a Christian slant, and believers may wonder, how should Christians respond to these chain messages?

The foundation for most chain letters is superstition. Social media is swamped with memes and little stories designed to elicit emotion, most ending with a challenge to “re-post if you love Jesus” or some such instruction. Some go further by promising “ten blessings in the next ten days” or “God will reward you” for sharing the post. Others are not so gracious and imply a lack of spiritual devotion in anyone who fails to forward it, type “Amen” in the comment box, or validate it in some other way. Unfortunately, thousands of otherwise solid, sincere people fall for these silly threats on a daily basis, which causes one to wonder why. Do some Christians truly believe God is typing these things and crossing His fingers in hopes we will all forward them? Do people believe they are “standing up for Jesus” by sitting behind a computer screen or an iphone and hitting “post”?

One danger in this type of Christian chain message is that it greatly trivializes the power and majesty of the Lord and makes Christians appear weak-minded and superstitious. Many of the fluffy, Christian-sounding sentiments expressed through these chain messages are not even scripturally accurate and are nothing more than wishful thinking or prosperity teaching. The ones that do include Scripture often take it out of context and apply it to anyone who happens to read the post. For example, Isaiah 54:17 (“no weapon forged against you will prevail . . .”) has become wildly popular, although it is truncated and taken completely out of context. Even unbelievers can post this on Facebook and get a hundred “likes” for their spirituality. But this is a blatant perversion of God’s promise to His people. This verse does not apply to everyone who happens to read a meme. God is promising vindication and protection for Jerusalem. But chain letters and chain messages rarely convey that truth.

There are different types of chain letters that elicit different responses:

1. The Hoax: Hoaxes float through cyberspace like dust particles, clouding the internet with lies. No one knows who starts these things, but millions of social media users leap at the possibilities they appear to offer. The hoax is often in the form of an official-looking letter, supposedly signed by a recognizable icon, which lends it legitimacy. For example, “Bill Gates has announced that he will be giving away $1,000 to the first fifty people who forward this email.” The unsuspecting don’t bother to validate this claim but propagate it on the outside chance that, perhaps, it might be true.

2. The Dare: Daring chain letters have a warning tone, implying negative consequences for not obeying their instructions. The warning may hint that you are “disappointing Jesus” by not forwarding, but some of the more aggressive ones escalate to the promise of “death and destruction within ten days.” Certain chain letters may qualify as fraud, and the instigators can face legal penalties for pushing pyramid schemes or lottery chances.

3. The Heart-breaker: Social media is awash with tender, emotional stories, usually involving a sick child or brave animal and always including a pitiful picture to tug at the heartstrings. It is rarely possible to validate the claims made by such chain messages, but, when people’s emotions are stirred, they tend to act before checking anyway. Pleas for money, get-well cards, or services can classify these heart-breaker stories as scams if they elicit gifts from the recipients.

Jesus warned His disciples to be as “wise as serpents and as gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16). A proper response to any claim that seems too good to be true is to do some checking before participating. Fact-checking does not imply a hard heart or a lack of faith. In fact, Christians who are careful about what they believe are emulating the Bereans who heard Paul’s “too good to be true” gospel message and “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

If we ask ourselves a few simple questions first, we can make wiser decisions before passing on that chain letter:

1. Is it true? The question is not “Do I wish it was true?” If you cannot personally vouch for the accuracy of something you are about to send or re-post, then don’t re-post. You don’t want to be part of spreading a lie.

2. Is it coercion? Coercion is a form of lying, and God hates any form of it (Proverbs 12:22; 13:5; Revelation 21:8). When we coerce people to do something, we are manipulating their decisions through force or threats. To imply that someone “does not love Jesus” because he or she does not comply with the demand of an anonymous meme is wrong.

3. Is it superstition? Many times, the power behind chain letters is a superstitious fear that, if the chain is broken or the recipient does not obey its demands, something bad will happen. This superstition also promises supernatural blessing for obeying its instructions, as though God were selling cheap lottery tickets by mail or social media. Superstition is a form of witchcraft, as it attributes to inanimate objects or to the “Universe” a power and respect that belong to God alone (Micah 3:7; 5:12; Deuteronomy 18:10). Superstitious chain letters prey on the spiritually immature and uneducated. They also propagate a false view of God and His real blessings.

4. Is it a substitute for true spiritual devotion? In this day of digital connection, it has become easy to hide behind our devices, toss some Bible verses or cheery sayings into the public arena, and feel satisfied that we have “witnessed for Christ.” But what are our posts accomplishing? How many people have been led to repentance and salvation by a chain letter claiming to offer God’s blessings for passing it on? How many souls have been won to Christ from a meme with a drawing of Jesus and the challenge “I’m a believer in Jesus. If you’re not ashamed of Him, then re-post. I’ll bet only one in a thousand will”? Being obnoxious about our faith is rarely effective, and chain messages are one way we can offend rather than draw the world to faith in Christ.

Discerning Christians will think twice before hitting “post,” “share,” or “send” on chain messages that cannot pass the tests above. Living as “lights in the world” (Matthew 5:14; Philippians 2:15) requires much more than being a willing link in a chain of superstition. When we pass on a message because it speaks truth and encouragement to our hearts, we are sharing our faith. But when we do it for superstitious reasons or because some anonymous meme-maker dared us to, we may be only hiding that light under a basket (Matthew 5:15).