Stuxnet and holiness

I spent this morning having a much longer than expected debate about holiness with Greg Sharples, leader of Pip n Jay’s student work and co-leader (with me) of Pip n Jay’s intern programme.

We’re totally agreed that we’re called to be holy – special, set apart, owned by God. We know that our life is really in Christ, not in our own schemes and efforts to be good (see “Who are we?”). So what is there to debate?

What we need to do, practically, in order to live a holy life is a big question. What makes us sin and need forgiveness is another. We know people who are much more radical than we are in how they deal with this by isolating themselves from bad influences. I am convinced that God works in us to deal with bad influences in various ways so, like Jesus, we can live in a broken and corrupt world without sinning ourselves. In Mark 7, I believe that Jesus’s point is that sin comes from our desire, not from our surroundings or even our consumption (directly). 

But Greg was also right to express some alarm if that was our whole teaching, because we also need to be mindful of how our consumption can corrupt us and lead us towards sin.

I think it’s difficult to arrive at an answer about how to live in a holy way purely by regulating our consumption or by assuming we can deal with anything bad which enters our minds.

The problem is that our decision making processes, our very minds, are corrupt and in need of fixing. God wants to do this, and it’s possible because our life is in Christ. We are not consigned to struggle alone, but are being transformed. We’re also not to be self reliant, but to help each other, be open and accountable with one another, and take advantage of other people’s ability to see our blind spots.

During the day, I found an odd example to illustrate – I’m not sure how helpful it is for the non technical people, but here it is anyway – I’d welcome your thoughts!

Stuxnet. A self replicating computer program (technically a worm, not a virus, because it’s self reliant, not part of another program), and probably the cleverest and most damaging one ever made. When it was discovered last July, it shocked experts with the audacity of what it seemed to be designed for, and how subtly it achieved its designers’ aims.

It seems that it was designed to make its way into a particular system no-one expected could be infiltrated – Iran’s uranium enrichment machines. When it eventually found its target – the system software which controlled these machines – it embedded new code into the system programming which did three things:
(i) It made the machines work in a way which, rather subtly, damaged the machines (making them spin too fast and slow down abruptly, causing physical damage) and at the same time made the product useless.
(ii) it disguised the fact that this was happening by delivering false feedback to the machine operators, who relied on the screens to tell them everything was fine, as well as to sensors which monitored operations for safety.
(iii) it hid itself, so that in the event of discovery, clear up would be extremely difficult, if not impossible without junking the machines and everything else connected to them.

It’s hard to estimate the cost of all of this and, although the machine manufacturers initially denied the could be significant physical damage, they later admitted that this was the case. Iran’s nuclear programme has probably been put back at least three years as a result.

What’s the link with holiness? This looks like an example to me of how something can be corrupted by what it takes in, and how that ends up causing damage and spoiling the product (or the fruit God expects us to yield) while at the same time the operator thinks everything is fine, because the corrupted system is outputting lies. If we’re the operators of our body machines, we have to pay attention – not just to what “the screen” says (our conscious thought and non-conscious instinct?) but also check the health of our bodies and the quality of our fruit. But that’s not all…

Stuxnet was not discovered by the Iranians, but by computer security experts in Belarus. In other words, it could have gone on working for longer without some outside intervention. The alarm was triggered by people who spotted SOMETHING was going on with certain types of systems, and they worked out that the problem was corrupted programming. The fix – to renew the correct programming.

Guarding against future infections is very much non-trivial – now that this kind of attack has been recognised, they can’t simply disconnect machines from each other which need to be connected in order to do a job. No-one was browsing the internet on these machines, but someone, somewhere probably used an infected USB thumb drive somewhere in the building. It’s likely that no matter how careful people are about the environment of an industrial machine, if it needs to connect to anything, it’s vulnerable. The smart thinking is going into how to protect, check and, if necessary, renew the programming. It strikes me that this is only possible if there’s a trusted, secure reference point which we know cannot be corrupted.

And that is where there is some good news for us in Jesus. We have a reference for good life, and we’re connected to it – in fact, Jesus should be defining and refining who we are. We can’t do this alone, or even with a set of rules we’ve come up with in our best intentions. We can’t define holiness through our best efforts to regulate our conduct or check our desires – we can still be deceiving ourselves because our minds are corrupt. It has to be a God-driven transformation process, renewing our programming.

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2 

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