I have a confession: I’ve enjoyed the COVID-19 lockdown.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t miss seeing my friends or going out for an evening. It’s just that I’m an introvert, so it’s been nice to be at home for an extended season.
I’ve spent more time with my wife and kids. I’ve done more writing and reading and have enjoyed more music. I get up later than I used to but have more time with God’s Word before I must start my day. I don’t miss my commute a bit, and I spend lots more time outdoors. Last summer, my family even planted a garden, complete with carrots, onions, potatoes, cucumbers, okra, peppers and, I think, 17 kinds of tomatoes. Well, maybe not quite 17, but it’s an amazing garden that I probably wouldn’t have had time to tend if I had been at the office.
I realize I don’t speak for everyone. There are many people hurting mentally, emotionally and financially because of the isolation, and I don’t want to imply for even a moment that this pandemic is in any way a good thing, because it’s not. But the slower pace has been a welcome change, though I know it (thankfully) won’t last forever.
These strange times have gotten me thinking about all the ways we connect with each other over technology. On the one hand, the internet allows many people to work from home. Without video conferencing tools, Slack and email, I don’t know quite how we’d do it. But on the other hand, I wonder if we’ve given up too much by putting so much of ourselves online.
In the “olden days,” social media was a way to keep in touch with people who lived far away. Today, it’s a personal platform for each of its users. Whether we realize it or not, every one of us has built a brand using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and every other site and app we engage. For the attention seekers among us, it’s a dream come true — a place to shine for all to see, with instant feedback in the form of clicks, likes and floating hearts.
But it’s not exactly harmless. Here are a few social media traps that ensnare even the best-intentioned users.
The comparison trap
Like any good public relations firm will tell you, it’s important to build the best brand possible. On social media, that means pictures of smiling couples, amazing vacations, and lifestyle shots that prove we’re living our best life now. You know what’s not posted? Anything that detracts from our brand.
The result is a false presentation of our true lives. In the extreme, the person who’s created that perfect life online becomes addicted to it. She’s much more comfortable influencing followers on the internet than engaging with the real world, which is just too messy. No one is allowed to get too close; they might discover the emperor has no clothes.
Even when it doesn’t go that far, the rest of us at the very least wrestle with a bad case of trying to keep up with the Joneses. Sure, it may not be one person in our newsfeed who makes us start playing the comparison game, but when we begin noticing that seemingly everyone has an amazing life with nary a problem to contend with, we start to wonder what we’re doing wrong — or worse — why God is holding out on us. The Bible tells us “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6), but social media by its very nature sows seeds of discontent in our hearts.
Besides, should we really be consuming a steady diet of information about others’ lives at the expense of living our own? And if we expend so much energy digitally chronicling our every movement, how can we be present in these daily moments? We think we’re busy and engaged — but perhaps we’re simply distracted and overwhelmed.
Flashing our virtue
Do you know who would have loved Instagram? The Pharisees. Long before social media was dreamed up by Big Tech, the Pharisees were all about being seen and heard. They nudged their way to the best seats at parties. They prayed long, dramatic prayers in public; they even made the tassels on their prayer shawls extra-large to appear more devout.
Jesus said of them, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5). It’s easy to read about the Pharisees and nod along as Jesus calls out their cold hearts and their hypocrisy; just imagine how the Pharisees would have flashed their virtue if they had had iPhones and a YouTube account.
Yet I can’t help but wonder if some of us are really all that different from them. It’s almost become something of a cliché — the picture of an open Bible, well-marked and highlighted, with a notebook and a cup of coffee off to the side. All are framed in the early morning sunlight and completed with the hashtag #blessed or #mymorningpickmeup or #dailywisdom. There may be some people who are inspired to pick up their own Bible by seeing these photos, but depending on the heart posture of the person posting, it could be the modern equivalent of those extra-large prayer shawl tassels.
This virtue signaling doesn’t even have to be overtly religious. Any way we can possibly love our neighbor (COVID vaccine pics, anyone?) or appear socially conscious gets a picture or a video up on social media for all the world to see.
Jesus was crystal clear about this sort of thing: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Or: “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (v. 3) and “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (v. 6).
Especially in Christian circles, it’s easy to score points by putting our devotion on display, but our devotion is supposed to be for an audience of One — and last I checked, He doesn’t have an Instagram account.
Hiding behind our screens
Have you noticed how people will do something in traffic that they would never do elsewhere? For example, people who would never think of pushing their way to the front of the grocery store checkout line have no problem cutting off an unsuspecting driver to avoid a long line of cars at an exit ramp.
The same sort of thing happens online. Most people would never dream of brashly announcing their political beliefs in a room full of people or starting a yelling match with a stranger on the street about a controversial topic. And yet, on social media that’s exactly what we do.
Here’s the worst part of it. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). When we lose sight of love in order to win an argument, we fail to live up to our calling as followers of Jesus. Ouch.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak the truth, either online or face to face. It only means that we can’t forget about love, which is always “kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Unkindness comes in many forms. It doesn’t always show up as a blistering rebuke laced with bad language. It can also be dismissive or intentionally provoking.
Connecting for the Kingdom
Unfortunately, stark and shocking statements get the most attention on social media. It shouldn’t be this way with those who love the Lord. So how do we turn the tide? How can we use social media for good in a God-honoring and others-affirming way? A few ideas:
Build community, not brands.
What if instead of building personal brands, you began building intentional community that includes your online experience but doesn’t stop there? Connect with people on Facebook, but also call them on the phone or grab coffee with them sometime. Discover new friends with similar interests online, and then meet up in the real world. There are lots of amazing folks already doing this, day in and day out. (If you’re into music, story or art and haven’t checked out The Rabbit Room yet, what are you waiting for?)
What if community became something believers were known for on social media? Imagine if your pages and stories and tweets didn’t just tell others what you want to say but invited them into a conversation. And what if, instead of arguing, we listened and then earned the right to respond?
Tag Jesus in everything you do.
In other words, before you post anything, imagine Jesus will get a notification on His phone and click to check it out. Remember, He sees everything we do on social media already. If you’re still in doubt, ask yourself these three questions about what you intend to post: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? This will help you clear out the clutter and keep your motives in check. Oh — and not everything you post needs to be about you. Remember to use your platform to point out the good you see in other people too.
Rethink who you follow.
They’re called “influencers” for a reason, so be sure you’re being influenced in all the right ways. Paul’s words to the believers in Philippi can be a help here: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
Stake digital ground for the Kingdom.
It’s easy to think of your online experience as somehow less real than your time at home or work, but the people you’re interacting with are very real. They were created in the image of God, and they’re loved by Jesus. What you do and say on social media matters, so extend the goodness, truth and beauty of the Kingdom wherever you are and wherever you click.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that life happens best in person. Our newsfeeds, stories and threads can’t replace the experience of actually doing life with other people in the real world. But social media isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s changed how we live.
That said, let’s make sure it doesn’t change how we love. In the end, people won’t remember the perfectly filtered photos you posted from your epic Hawaiian vacation, or that you won a contentious political argument; they’ll only remember how you treated them — and that has eternal value.
Copyright 2021 John Greco. All rights reserved.