I’ve often wondered what the Apostle Paul would have done with social media. Specifically, I’ve thought about the many ways he might have used it for the advancement of the gospel among the nations, or the edification of the saints near and far. Do we consider the usefulness as well as the source of temptation that social media is? I know I personally have benefited from social media in several ways, such as learning of events, connecting with others on resources, communicating with pastors all across the globe. It is a helpful resource. But there are also temptations that come with the use of social media.
In full disclosure, I’m not a heavy user of social media. I use it, but I am not as plugged in as many others are. Recently, however, I spent a month or so completely disengaged from social media (Facebook, Twitter) and in many ways, it truly was a blessing. For a month, I was free from a lot of negativity. I was free from aspects of temptation that come with social media. In some ways, I was happier without it. But the break did give me some time to consider various temptations that social media users face.
In many ways, these temptations are just varied forms of temptations already existent in the Christian life. However, in some situations, these temptations lurk behind social media use in very subtle ways. How can a Christian seek to honor God, benefit from social media use and be aware of the temptations that may accompany his or her social media use? It is this question that we will look at briefly while considering five potential temptations for the social media user.
1. The Temptation To Create a False Identity
It can be so alluring can’t it? Presenting ourselves in exactly the way we want to, highlighting only our successes, and not having people see the parts of our lives that we wish to remain hidden. Social media “communities” can feel like a replacement for true, biblical community. With a few keystrokes, a person can see exactly (and only!) what I want them to see. However, they don’t live with me. They don’t see me in person. As active as I may be online, I’m not in full community with readers of my tweets and posts.
New Testament instructions for Christian community indicate a genuineness that can only most fully come from regularly gathering in person. The little lighted box I hold in my hand, or stare at on my desk or in a coffee shop, however, can be a tool I use to allow me to think I am being authentic, when really I am not. For the Christian, most of our coveted followers will not visit us when we are sick. They will not know when we sinned. They won’t join us at the Lord’s Supper table, and they won’t regularly be the recipients of a well-deserved apology when our sin is on display.
While having online “friends” and social media profiles is not sinful, it can lead a person to think that relational responsibility and accountability only goes as far as what he or she wants to share. Therefore, perceptions can seem to feel like a reality. One way to avoid this temptation is to ask yourself whether you are truly known outside of what you let others see of you on social media. A follow up question would be to ask yourself if people only knew you through your online persona, how accurate would their knowledge of you be? To be clear, I don’t advise sharing everything about yourself online. Far from it! Rather, I am saying that we can be deceived, or deceive others if our main identity with others is our “profile.” I’ve often counseled people who have tried to solve major relational issues, marital or otherwise, through an electronic device. It is a growing trend in our age. However, can we really reduce who we are and how we interact to devices?
It can also be so tempting to develop an idol of “likes.” I remember the first time someone “famous” liked something I tweeted. It felt good. Something in me shifted, and I felt in that moment I had arrived: little ‘ole me got attention from so-and-so. If we are not careful, this can become an addiction: Who likes me? Who wants to interact with me? Will they notice if I say this or that? In that moment, we take center stage, and the Lord of glory is forgotten. Social media can tempt us to create a false identity and/or an idolatry of self. Thus, careful regular self-examination can be helpful.
2. The Temptation To Break the 9th Commandment
Next, there is the reality that social media makes it very easy in some ways to be openly, or subtly dishonest. I was recently in a conversation where a person told me a pastor they benefited from listening to had used social media as an application when discussing the ninth commandment. It is so true. How many ways is the ninth commandment broken every day through social media? For some, typing out tweets, Facebook posts, blog posts, etc. make it easy to slander others. We can write whatever we wish about someone for the entire world to see without even having to look that person in the eye. At other times, social media provides an inadvertent outlet for participating in the trafficking of falsehood.
Here’s what I mean. Because of the brevity of our postings, it is nearly impossible to get or communicate the full truth about anything. We read someone else’s tweet, we “heart” it or “like” it, then retweet it, or respond favorably to it without even doing the research we need to do to know whether it is completely accurate. I’m currently trying to finish up my dissertation focusing on a particular area of church history. No scholar in the world would advise me to consult only secondary literature (what others say about the literature of the time period in question). No, it is expected that before I make any claims, I’ve consulted the primary source documents myself. However, in the social media world, I can participate in passing on information that may be ill-informed, incomplete, or otherwise inaccurate, and yet it becomes “fact.” I can hear of a church, or a minister, or a theologian online in 280 characters and pass judgment, and then share that judgment with the world. Do I really think that 280 characters shared among my online community is usually sufficient to judge a person’s intent, character, or even (in some cases), theology? We ought to ask ourselves regularly, “Am I using social media with a view towards the 9th commandment?” It has increasingly occurred to me that it is too easy to intentionally, or in many situations, unintentionally malign someone simply by assuming, based on a few words, that I know the sum total of another’s thoughts, such that I know enough to comment. As believers, we must rejoice in truth as we have a God of truth.
3. The Temptation To Be Idle
The book of Proverbs is a must read for the social media user. Consider the regularity with which that part of God’s Word speaks to idleness or wasting time: Proverbs 14:23, 15:19-21, 20:13, 24:30-34, 26:11-16 28:19, 31:10-15, 27. Is the amount of time that the average Christian spends on social media of true and lasting value? Does it build up? Is it a worthy use of the time that the Lord has granted us? “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty” (Prov 14:23). Of course recreation is good. Of course connecting with friends can be of value. However, if we tallied up the hours we spend in online “socializing” would it reveal that we in fact, had been idle or even online busybodies?
Social media can sometimes keep us from mental focus. Some scientific studies reveal we are becoming addicted to the pings, chimes and lights of our social media notifications. And we don’t just share our thoughts, we read others, and then the threads following on their comments, and then we begin to check out what those individuals said elsewhere, and on and on it goes.
Meanwhile, the sun is going down on our days. Social media use doesn’t automatically mean a person is idle. But it can certainly be a temptation. I fear many will get to the end of their days and wish that their device had not occupied so much of their time. The little girl who wants to crawl up in her daddy’s lap, the son who wants to ask his mommy a question, the Bible passage that is there to be read, and the evangelistic conversation with the neighbor over yard work are all much more important than my next Twitter glance…
4. The Temptation To Be Caught up in Narratives
#this. #that. We have reduced many complex matters to short hashtags. While often helpful and a quick way to collate information, what our short little hashtags reveal is that we are, among other things, increasingly susceptible to narratives. We read a post, like it and then participate in the narrative. Political narratives (they are really a thing), ministry narratives, and ideological narratives abound. And a temptation is to boil ideas, or even people, down to a narrative. (i.e. If they say this, or don’t say that, they fit this narrative that I’ve adopted.) Are image bearers of God really reducible to simple tag lines and hashtags alone? Are complex ministry situations really able to be defined by a simple narrative (not to mention whether our narratives are honest, intentionally or unintentionally)? I don’t want to reduce someone to a narrative, a hashtag, or write off a brother or sister based on a few tweets.
A person’s view of his or her own local church may suffer as well from this temptation. Often, as a pastor, I have seen narratives (and good, well meaning ones at that) become an expectation. For instance, a local church member spends time on social media, hears what a church across the country is doing, and then automatically assumes that their own church should be doing that project (again, could be a great project) as well. This can become an unspoken way of judging a church, and all the while the Scripture’s spoken expectations for the church become marginalized. No longer is the focus on the local church on the ordinary means of grace (2LCF 14.1). Rather, a new panoply of narratives can be adopted that a biblical church must be a “mercy ministering, city-touching, race-reconciling, relevancy-considering, culture-touching, gender-highlighting, poverty-changing, justice-seeking, multi-ethnic” church. Aside from whether these foci are the biblical mandates for the church, it is simply not possible for every context to take on all of these issues. However, social media tempts us into potentially downplaying what the Scriptures advocate regarding the local church, and instead adopting every new ministry narrative that comes our way. It also causes us to focus more on the state of the church in the world than what God may be doing in our own local church – the church to which He has specifically called us. A helpful question here is, “are my expectations, communication patterns and interests the result of sifting through the Scriptures or are they narratives of the day?”
5. The Temptation to Overvalue Our Own Words
Lastly, social media can tempt us to overvalue our own words. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov 18:2). We live in a day when the platform of social media tempts us at every turn to “have something to say.” We are constantly speaking our minds. And social media can make it awfully difficult to be a maturing listener. A temptation in our usage of social media is to assume that we either need to say something about everything, that what we say is not only important, but of equal value (even if it is a subject of which we are ill-prepared to speak), or that our words are necessary. There is wisdom in restraint: “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Prov 17:27). In many ways, social media is a great tool and blessing. We can connect easily with so many. At our fingertips, we can have access to so much. And yet, if we are not discerning of ourselves, we can tend to think that everything we think or say is necessary to put out on the Internet.
So is the answer to not use social media? Maybe for a few it is. But for most, a better approach would be to regularly ask ourselves good questions about our own usage, and about how we are fighting the temptations that come with having the world at our finger tips.