These days, it is easy to create a new identity and pretend to be someone else online. Just sign up for a new free email account with Google or Yahoo or any of those, and use that free email account to make a new Facebook or Instagram or whatever else is needed. Or just use it to send emails with a new name.
In 1996, it was much more difficult to send an email without my real name on it. Free advertiser-supported email services were still a few years away. Someone wanting a new email address had three options: get a job with an employer that offered email, attend a university, or pay for it. However, if the only purpose was to be anonymous and not have a specific name on the message, I knew of one other option, a service called “anon.penet.fi.” This service was an anonymous remailer; a message emailed to anon.penet.fi would be forwarded to its intended recipient with all traces of the sender’s actual name and email address removed and replaced with arbitrary nonsensical numbers. I had no idea how to pronounce “anon.penet.fi,” but I thought that the “.fi” ending meant that the service was based on Finland, and “Penet” was presumably the name of the service. Last year, someone called “Publius” famously posted mysterious messages on the Pink Floyd Usenet forum about hidden messages in the band’s most recent album; Publius used anon.penet.fi to post those messages anonymously.
I used anon.penet.fi exactly once, and when I woke up on that Tuesday morning, I had no idea that I would require the services of an anonymous remailer. The day started out perfectly normal, at least as normal as finals week could be. My final for anthropology class, taught by the unfortunately named Dr. Dick Small, was in the afternoon, so I slept in until nine. That counts as sleeping in for a stressed light sleeper like me, and did a lot of last minute studying after that. About half an hour before the test was scheduled to start, I rode my bike to campus and parked next to the big lecture hall in Younger Hall, just east of the Quad in the old part of the campus. I walked inside and found an empty seat toward the back of the room, pulled up the attached writing desk, and got out my blue book, Scantron, and a pen and pencil. About a minute later, a girl whom I did not know, but had noticed in class before, sat next to me. She wore short shorts and a low-cut tank top over her firm, round breasts. I did not know her name.
“Are you ready?” I asked, the first words I ever spoke to her.
“I think so,” she replied. “Good luck!”
“Thanks. You too,” I said, the last words I ever spoke to her.
While I waited for the test to start, I turned my head so that I appeared to be staring off into space, but with my eyes still able to look at the attractive girl inconspicuously. I saw her write her name on the Scantron; her first name was Jennifer, but I could not read her last name. The test began a minute later, and despite the sexy distraction next to me, I managed to stay focused enough to do my best, and I felt fairly confident when I finished. The test was straightforward with no real surprises on what was asked or what I had to write about. I snuck a few glances at Jennifer’s long legs while looking down at the test paper.
I got home, not in the mood to do any more studying since I had no finals tomorrow. I wasted a few hours writing emails, talking on an IRC chat, reading a book, and eating. I lay down after I finished eating, and my mind wandered back to Jennifer from anthropology class sitting next to me during the final. I did not know her, but I wanted to caress her legs and fondle her breasts and kiss her lips. I began thinking about what that would be like, I found myself becoming aroused, one thing led to another, and ten minutes later I found myself making the Walk of Shame to the laundry room to wash my pants and underwear and sheets.
All I could think about was how I had failed as a Christian. Jesus said that someone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. I had let Jesus down, and I had also let down all my friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship who had prayed with me, and shared the truth of the Gospel with me, and led me in Bible study.
Furthermore, all of this tied up another hour and a half of my evening. I had not been planning to do laundry today, and I refused to leave clothes unattended in the laundry room after an incident a few months ago when a bunch of my clothes were stolen. I brought my textbook for combinatorics and used the time to study, even though my final for combinatorics was not until Thursday morning. I had a hard time concentrating; I kept thinking about how I had failed in my walk with Jesus.
When I got back to my apartment, as I made my bed with my freshly washed sheets, my eyes caught the bulletin board behind my computer. Last month, I was having a rough day, and I was talking to my friend Sarah Winters between class. She just silently listened to me rant while she wrote two Bible verses on a piece of paper, handing the paper to me when she was done. I had pinned Sarah’s note to my bulletin board, so it would be there to remind me of God’s Word when I needed it. And I needed reminders of God’s Word now.
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Just as God had a plan for the exiles of the prophet Jeremiah’s time, he had a plan for my life too. He led me here to Jeromeville in the first place, and by putting me in a situation where I lived alone in this studio apartment, he led me to seek out friends, which brought me to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, where I learned what it really means to know Jesus.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.” My life is not my own. I was created to serve and glorify God. I believed. But if I did, why did I have such a hard time trusting and acknowledging him? Why could I not just trust that he had something better in store for me than empty fantasies about Jennifer from anthro, whom I did not know and had no chance with?
Everyone around me seemed to have their lives together. I wondered if any other guys I knew dealt with this. Probably not. I felt so ashamed to struggle with this still. I wanted to talk to someone about this, but I knew that anyone I told would just scold me and remind me that what I did was wrong. I knew I was wrong. I needed help, and encouragement, and prayer, not more guilt.
I looked up again at Sarah’s handwritten Scriptures. Maybe Sarah could help me, I thought. She was a good friend, one of the nicest people I knew, and she really was living her life for Jesus. I would learn years later that many Christians would find it inappropriate for an unmarried man to talk to a woman about his struggles with lust, but at this point I just wanted someone to help me in my struggles and pray for me. I was not trying to hook up with Sarah. And, honestly, I found girls less intimidating to talk to than guys. I had spent too much of my life around guys who just wanted to be macho and intimidating.
No, I thought, this was not a good idea. I did not want Sarah to know my deep, dark secret. I did not know if I would ever be able to face her again. If only there was some way I could communicate with her anonymously, being honest about what I was going through without her knowing it was me… and I remembered that there was such a way: anon.penet.fi.
I had learned how anon.penet.fi worked from the Pink Floyd Usenet group, when Publius was anonymously posting cryptic messages. I had to send the email to a specific address in the penet.fi domain, and the first line of the message had to say “X-ANON-TO:” followed by the actual email of the intended recipient. This would signal the computer on the other end that this was an actual message intended to be forwarded anonymously to someone else. On Sarah’s end, the sender would appear as some long number followed by “@anon.penet.fi.” The server at anon.penet.fi would remember my email and assign me a specific number, so that any message sent to anyone from my email address would get labeled with the same number. This way, people using anon.penet.fi to communicate anonymously back and forth would at least know that the messages were always coming from the same person. I took a deep breath and started typing.
I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to, but I am too ashamed to use my real name. You may call me Joe.
I did not think I looked like a Joe; that should take the suspicion off of me if Sarah tried to guess who sent the message. As I started typing, I realized that Sarah might not be particularly knowledgeable of the dark intricacies of the Internet, so she may not know what anon.penet.fi was. When she got this mysterious message with a bunch of numbers as the sender, she might not read it. I changed the subject line to “please read, this is real, you know me,” and started typing over again.
I am using this anonymous email service because I am too ashamed to use my real name. I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to. You may call me Joe.
I continued typing, explaining to her in a couple of paragraphs what happened, and how I felt ashamed, like I was a failure, and I had let Jesus and my friends down. I concluded the message by explaining that she could reply to this message and I would receive it with all of the names removed. I took a deep breath and clicked Send before I could second-guess myself.
By now it felt too late to do homework. I got in bed with the book I had been reading, The Firm by John Grisham. I read for over an hour and tried to go to sleep around midnight, but sleep did not come quickly. I woke up in the morning with a headache after having slept for around four hours.
I had no finals the next day, Wednesday, and I did not go to campus. I went grocery shopping, I read more of The Firm, and I went for a bike ride through the Coventry Greenbelts. I made a cheeseburger for dinner, and when I was done, I put the greasy pan and my plate in the kitchen sink, which had been piling up with dirty dishes for a few days. I also spent about four nonconsecutive hours studying for my final in combinatorics tomorrow, even though I was getting an A-plus in the class and I felt comfortable with the material. During a study break that night, I checked my email and saw this in my inbox as the computer played the tone indicating that I had a new message.
firstname.lastname@example.org Re: please read, this is real, you know me
Sarah had written back. I opened the message and began reading.
You are not a failure, and you have not let me down. You definitely have not let God down. You said that your friends all have their lives together, but trust me, we really don’t. We are all sinners saved by grace. Jesus loves you, and he will never let you go.
I would suggest that you find something to get your mind off of those thoughts when they come up. Read a Psalm or your favorite Bible verse. Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t. Go for a walk. Clean your house. Do whatever it takes. But most importantly, don’t get down on yourself if you do mess up. Remember that Jesus died for sinners like us, not for perfect people who already had their lives together.
Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I will keep you in my prayers. Take care and God bless.
I was not feeling particularly aroused today, but I felt like I needed some time with God nevertheless, after all that had happened. I opened my Bible, having remembered something I had read recently about Jesus dying for us while we were still sinners. I thought it was in Paul’s letter to the Romans; I found it a few minutes later, Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Interestingly enough, that verse was just a few sentences past the first verse that I had ever memorized, the one about hope that Janet McAllen from the JCF staff had written when she drew the diagram explaining to me how Christ’s death worked. I spent some time just sitting there on the edge of my bed, praying.
I read Sarah’s email again. “Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.” I did not play an instrument. I knew songs we sang at Mass, and I was learning some of the worship music that the band at JCF played. But I had a stereo with a CD player on my shelf, and I had recently purchased two albums by Christian rock bands: the self-titled debut album by Jars of Clay, and DC Talk’s Jesus Freak album. I put on the Jesus Freak album and really listened to the words while I did dishes and cleaned the kitchen. The dishes had been piling up for far too long.
I sat down to answer other emails while DC Talk continued playing on the stereo. Track 10 on the CD was a song called “In the Light”; I had discovered this song two months earlier, when I took the road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove with Eddie and Haley and a bunch of other people. Sarah was on that trip too. I loved this song already, but the lyrics just hit differently tonight.
What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior
This only serves to confirm my suspicion
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior.
That was me. That was exactly what I had been feeling. Sarah had reminded me that we are all sinners saved by grace, and just because I was giving in to temptations of the flesh sometimes, my sins had been paid for with Jesus’ blood on the cross.
Lord, be my light, and be my salvation
‘Cause all I want is to be in the light.
Anon.penet.fi would shut down a few months later, after too many legal controversies caused by people using anonymous remailing for criminal purposes. I never attempted to use the service again. I did reveal to Sarah that I was Joe eventually, but not directly; we were in the same breakout group on a retreat, and this topic came up, so I told the story of sending the anonymous email. She could tell that I was a little uncomfortable sharing, and all she said to me about it afterward was “Jesus loves you,” along with a pat on the back.
I would go on to learn that many Christian men and women struggle with this, but I never completely resolved this issue in my mind. I have heard a lot over the years about this culture of sexual purity among Christians. Some Christians take sexual purity very seriously, refusing to spend time alone with a member of the opposite sex other than one’s spouse, committing to not kissing until the wedding day, things like that. Others reject purity entirely and brag about how they have had sex with many people they were not married to, but God loves them anyway. I do not agree with either of those views, and mostly I have just numbed myself to some of the guilt and shame that I used to experience. One thing is true, though; just like everyone else, I am a sinner saved by grace, and my salvation was bought with the blood of Christ.