One of the great promises of social media is its implicit pledge to make its users well-known. Friends and followers, likes and retweets all whisper to us that we are being seen and known. And as our digital audience grows, we feel affirmed, important, influential, and maybe even powerful. It can be intoxicating, and social media companies know it.
Christians often find ourselves in serious pursuit of more online followers and influence. Sometimes, it’s because we are rightly seeking to embrace the call to spread the gospel that’s been entrusted to us. Yet, the very nature of social media means users are encouraged to increase their notoriety. And while this may create a unique opportunity for us to share the gospel, it also presents us with a dangerous temptation that Jesus warns us to avoid — “practicing our righteousness before others to be seen by them” (Matt. 6:1).
So, while God may be calling some believers to use social media platforms for the sake of the gospel, what if the way of faithfulness for most of us is more akin to serving in obscurity? In a culture that seeks notoriety at all costs, one of the most important ambitions that some of us can choose to adopt is to embrace a quiet life, where we serve and share the gospel with those around us and recognize that our God-given desire to be seen and known will only be fully met by Christ himself.
Practicing our righteousness to be seen by others
Why do we sometimes do the things we do on social media? It’s a basic question that we often fail to ask ourselves. Our feeds can frequently turn into kitschy Christian tropes, self-aggrandizing photos of our religious activity, and faux humility that spotlights just how earnest and spiritual we are. And, why? It’s because social media is one giant marketplace that makes it easy and “normal” for us to show off without even realizing it.
What’s so addictive about our public displays of righteousness, as Jesus tells us, is that they promise and produce a reward that our flesh loves. Public displays of our piety — like Jesus’ examples in the Sermon on the Mount of praying and fasting or a punchy, well-timed religious quote meant to “own” one of our detractors — undoubtedly gain the applause of our followers through likes and retweets, giving us the dopamine hit that we’ve grown so addicted to.
In giving ourselves over to this use of social media, we have contented ourselves with and even preferred the reward that comes not from the Father but from our crowd of followers. “Truly,” Jesus says to us, “they have received their reward” (Matt. 6:2).
Gain followers, lose your soul
One of the interesting things about social media is that, regardless of which platform is being used, it has become our culture’s most prominent stage for acting out its most prized virtue: self-expression. It’s where we go to express ourselves and rally others to our cause. But following Jesus is not chiefly about expressing ourselves, as much as our culture may recoil at the thought. Instead it’s about denying ourselves (Matt. 16:24). It’s not about adding to some ever-growing list of followers, but about following Jesus with a cross on our back.
Jesus assures us that he will return one day “with his angels in the glory of his Father,” and when he does, he says, “he will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matt. 16:27). At his coming, will we be those who have “gained the world” of social media, having forfeited our souls in the process, or will we be those who value self-denial above self-expression?
Your Father who sees in secret
Social media, though it can certainly be used for good, is often the trumpet blast that Jesus condemns in his sermon (Matt. 6:2), the loud invitation for onlookers to clap their hands with “likes” and shout their approval with “retweets” at the righteousness that we have publicized for them. But Jesus tells us, “Beware.” And not because our desire for reward is inherently bad, but because we’re settling for a lesser reward!
We do not have to practice our righteousness before others to be seen and rewarded. Our Father sees our acts of faithfulness, and he will reward us. He sees when we give and pray and fast in secret (Matt. 6:2, 6, 17). And he sees when we read his Word without posting a photo on Instagram, when we share a meal with a brother or sister without tagging them and announcing it on Facebook, and when we refrain from disparaging an image-bearer on Twitter. Even if no one else ever sees these “acts of righteousness,” our Father sees in secret, and he will reward us.
Lead a quiet life
Paul’s words to the Thessalonians are worthy of our consideration in a culture that has made an idol of celebrity and self-expression: “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs” (1 Thess. 4:11). Our society rewards those who are loud and bombastic; those who are pugnacious, insolent, and “omnicompetent”; and those who parade their righteousness around for all to see. But God calls us to embrace something different — a life of self-denial; a life of unheralded, unseen acts of faithfulness; and a life content with obscurity.
As St. Augustine and others have said, all of life is lived coram Deo, before the face of God. Therefore, we don’t have to fear that our effort to follow in the way of Jesus will go unnoticed, even if our peers never acknowledge it. And we don’t have to worry that the cups of cold water we give in Jesus’ name (Matt.10:42) or our hidden day-to-day faithfulness will go unrecognized, even when there are no “likes” or “favorites” to reward us. We can be content with praying behind closed doors (Matt. 6:6), giving anonymously (Matt. 6:3), serving and sharing the gospel with those around us, and quelling the impulse to practice our righteousness before our audience of social media followers because we are waiting for a better reward.
May we be countercultural — happy to live a quiet life, hungering and thirsting for the righteousness that doesn’t need to be performed before others, and finding our joy and satisfaction in the approval of God alone.