Four friends of mine have recently deleted their social media accounts. No more Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. They’re done. Of course, they continue to read and write blogs, answer email, and engage online here and there. But they’ve come to believe their use of social media hinders their spiritual growth.
Whenever someone tells me they’re cutting out social media for spiritual reasons, I applaud. The cultivation of personal virtue matters far more than the cultivation of a public platform.
Still, we recognize that the people leaving the world of social media are far fewer in number than the people joining every week. Our generation and the next will be increasingly formed — for good or for ill — by this constant connectivity.
So, as Christians who want to be faithful to Jesus in this era, we need to consider what our online interaction is doing to our hearts. How do these online habits shape us? What are the benefits, the promises, and the dangers?
Pursuit of the Mythical “Like”
I’m encouraged to see new books from Andy Crouch and Tony Reinke providing wise counsel on new technology. Because our phones are such a big part of our lives, I devoted the first chapter of a new book to the idea that the phone is a “myth-teller.” With us at all times is a device that is tailored to our needs, reinforcing the myth that we are the center of the universe. And social media can seduce us into finding our approval and satisfaction from the attention we receive.
Some younger social media users sometimes refer to their online presence as a “game.” And, for sure, you can spot an element of social competition at work in their online habits. Like any game, the social world has winners and losers, fame and shame, scorecards and setbacks. On Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat, you can see the social world of your high school or college mapped out. Popularity and peer pressure can now be measured — based on likes and comments in social media contexts.
What’s more, this game extends its reach into the business world and into our personal lives once the educational years are over — when we are pursuing our careers or starting out as parents. Which means, this isn’t just a world for adolescent angst. All of us have the potential for being affected.
Seen in this light, a “like” on a Facebook post or an Instagram picture is a symbol of social status. It represents much more than a simple nod of affirmation. To gather “likes” or increase “followers” or elicit “comments” is to build up social significance in public. On the flip side, the absence of likes can make us feel like we are being silently judged, or that we are not as popular as we think we are.
What happens when we invest likes and comments with this mythical power of determining our social status?
On the one hand, we fall for the myth that, unless something happens in public, it is not as real, or important, or enduring. We transform our phones into cameras because we think capturing a moment on film and posting it online is the way to prove that this event happened and it matters! It’s a way of proving our worth and putting ourselves out there in public. Unless we are seen, we fear we do not matter. Or as Os Guinness has said, “I post, therefore I am.”
On the other hand, we hide ourselves by creating an online persona we want others to see and admire. Even being “real” about our struggles and sins can be a way of eliciting support and admiration. We hide the parts of ourselves we worry would bring rejection, while we promote the parts of ourselves we hope will bring glory.
Put these two practices together and we are left with a paradoxical conflict: online, we hide in full view. Adam and Eve—clothed in fig leaves, taking a selfie.
In this environment, “likes” maintain their hold over us. We check in and count likes and comments and blog stats because we hope to be affirmed in the way we have presented ourselves. The phone becomes an IV dripping the drug of “likes” into our hearts, until we find ourselves turning into affirmation-craving addicts. To maintain our control over our image, we become the person we think others like instead of the person we know God calls us to become.
Leveled and Loved
God has prepared a remedy for this problem. For some, it may mean following my friends who have deleted their accounts in order to focus more on pursuing Christ. But leaving Facebook or Twitter doesn’t immediately deal with the heart — whether we stay or go, we need to let the truth of the gospel shatter our lust for “likes.”
Whether it is pride that drives our social habits or a sense of inferiority, the answer is the same: God’s climactic work for us in the sacrifice of his Son:
At the cross, we are fully exposed and fully leveled.
At the cross, we are fully known and fully loved.
No social hierarchy stands before the judgment seat of God. Lord, if you were to count iniquities, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3). Answer: None of us. Our sin list far outweighs all the likes or online metrics we could ever win in the social game.
The cross also reminds us that the God who fully knows us is also the God who fully loves us. He knows everything about us, not just what we choose to present online. We do not earn his approval. In Christ, we already have it. Our good works flow out of his acceptance, not for it.
Pursuit of Likes or Pursued by Love?
If you feel the downward pull of the social game, talk to others. Take time away from the online world. Monitor your online habits. Soak in the Scriptures instead of scrolling through a timeline. Resist the urge to practice your righteousness online, in order to be seen by others.
This all may seem trivial, but remember, we’re talking about some of the deepest issues of the heart: whose approval we value and whose judgment we fear. God is not glorified, and we are not truly satisfied, with the shallow affirmation of more likes, follows, and shares.
Being faithful in our day means giving up our pursuit of likes and living as the people pursued by Love.