Are you there, God? It's me on social media.
Listening to a popular radio show recently, I heard about a poll that uncovered some common strange habits. For example, lots of people feel self-conscious about windshield wiper speed. When it rains, they compare the wipers on their car to those around them and increase or decrease their wiper speed. Another habit is sounding out “Wed-nes-day” when spelling the word “Wednesday.” (Glad I’m not the only one!) And then there was the one that I found most interesting. Many people, after scrolling through social media and getting bored, will close the app only to re-open it a few moments later and begin scrolling. Quickly, they think “What am I doing? I just realized there’s nothing ‘good’ on here?!” But continue scrolling anyway.
This phenomenon reminds me of the “restless heart” that St. Augustine talks about in his famous quote: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” We are restless, we are searching for meaning and purpose and something good. Ultimately, we are seeking God Himself. But we seek this good in many places, not realizing that it can only fully be found in Him. A major platform for this restless seeking is on social media and, like everything else in this passing world, it cannot fully satisfy us. So we get bored, only to find ourselves back in the same place searching again. While social media is not bad in and of itself, this ceaseless searching and posting, I believe, is a great indicator of our restless hearts and our search for God Himself. The quote ascribed to G.K. Chesterton, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God” could be re-worded to say, “Every person who scrolls aimlessly or posts obsessively on social media is looking for God.”
There are three particular ways that I have observed people (myself included) searching for God on social media.
1. Posting Instead of Praying – Cry for Recognition or Empathy
When something happens in our life – the successes or failures, joys or sorrows, emotional highs and lows – our first reaction is often to post about it. If it’s something sad or tragic, we post hoping for empathy, advice, someone to care. How many teenagers post an angsty picture or status in an attempt to be heard or as a cry for help? How many stay-at-home moms post about a rough day hoping that someone will see and relate? When something positive happens to us, again, our reaction is often to post about it. We share our joyful moments so that other people can share in our joy. (Or even so others will think we’re pretty darn great.) If we’re bored, we post that, hoping for some sort of interaction or entertainment.
These are all examples of constant reaching out. Of trying to be heard and understood. Of wanting our emotions and the events of our lives to be known and acknowledged. We’re hoping that someone will care about whatever we’re going through and listen and understand. In other words, we’re searching for God.
These declarations into the abyss of social media are often what should be a prayer.
My BFF, St. Therese, describes prayer as a “surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” In other words, prayer is lifting what is on our heart to God, whether that be the good or the bad or the bored. It’s about being heard and recognized by HIM right where we are. Knowing we are heard and loved by Him through prayer brings much more satisfaction than an understanding comment on social media. Maybe instead of instantly wanting to post on social media when I’ve had a rough day because my kids are being crazy, I should pause and pray something like, “Thank you, Lord, for the gifts of my children and the daily opportunities to grow in patience. Help me to love You by loving my children. I offer my frustrations, my impatience, and my selfishness to You. St. Zelie, pray for me.” THAT would do both me and my family a lot more good than any rant I post! Maybe a good motto could be, “pray before you post” so that our daily emotions and interactions are offered to Him before we seek answers anywhere else.
2. Desire to be Body of Christ becomes Comparison and Affirmation
“OMG, girl, why are you SOOOO pretty?!?! I hate you but I love you.”
“Stop! You know you’re WAAAY prettier than me!”
“You two are unbearably cute together! #goals”
These are just a few examples of comments that I regularly see when I’m scrolling through Instagram or Facebook. Posts and comments like this highlight our desire for affirmation and our constant tendency to compare ourselves to one another. I think, ultimately, they depict our deeper desire for connection and true community. Our need to be recognized makes us question how we measure up to others. If we seek to have our value and worth validated, but we think our value and worth come from the number of likes we get on pictures, we will have a nagging fear of not being good enough. Instead of dismissing this fear as silly, and reminding ourselves of our true dignity as children of God, we post a comparison or a backhanded compliment, hoping that someone will respond and validate us.
The answer to this nagging doubt and constant comparison? A Christian community that is united as the Body of Christ. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body… there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.”
We naturally compare ourselves to others, but in the Christian mindset, we should celebrate the gifts that others have – even if we don’t possess those same gifts. #TheStruggleIsReal for me when it comes to this. There’s a particular Catholic speaker that I have often compared myself to. She’s got GORGEOUS blonde hair and perfectly fashionable outfits. She sings angelically while playing her guitar. She is passionate about her Catholic faith as she speaks and sings to thousands of teens across the country. When I see her in person or on social media, I instantly compare and see all of the places that I don’t measure up. So then I try and find her flaws to somehow feel better about myself.
But what should I do? I should thank God for the gift that she is to the Church. I thank God that she is able to touch the hearts and minds of more young people than I can possibly reach. And then (this might be the hardest part,) I thank God that my ministry is smaller and that while I can’t sing in a microphone, I can build one-on-one relationships to journey with teens on their path to Christ. I can thank God for the gift of my motherhood and the opportunity to form children in faith in the “cloistered” domestic church of my home.
That’s the goal of a Christian community, to rejoice in and build up the gifts and talents of every person, knowing that we are building up Christ’s very body. Then be grateful for the gifts He gives us and resolve to cultivate them. It’s HARD, but it’s the answer to our constant comparison on social media and anywhere else.
3. Depicting (Filtered) Perfection – Online and Spiritually
When I first got Instagram, I discovered the addicting realm of picture filters. A picture, taken as it is, just isn’t worthy to be posted. The perfect filter has to be found and applied. The contrast has to be adjusted. And then the perfect, witty caption and hashtag must be crafted. After all, what good is a fabulous picture without a fabulous hashtag to go with it?! The need to post a perfected version of ourselves, of our friends, of our boyfriend or girlfriend, of our kids, of a place in nature, etc. can become damaging if we let it. I can’t tell you how many teens and young adults I’ve overheard discussing the exact wording of a photo caption! (If only they put as much effort in to writing papers!)
This desire to present ourselves as perfect can seep into our spiritual lives and hinder our ability to grow in true holiness. God doesn’t want us to come to him only after we’ve been “filtered” but exactly as we are. Why? Because that forces us to rely on His grace rather than our own willpower – and living in and through grace is what true holiness is really all about.
I recently started going to spiritual direction, and after a few meetings, I found myself worrying that I hadn’t become any more perfect since last month’s meeting. I felt like I had to present a quantifiably holier version of myself to my spiritual director if meeting with me would continue to be worth his time. But through our conversation, I realized that thinking of myself in this way removed any dependence on grace. I think it’s a tendency for all of us to present ourselves to God this way. We put off approaching Him because we recognize our weakness and want to find the right “filter” or we wait to pray because we don’t have the perfected, witty “caption” to offer Him. What He really wants is our weakness and our words, just as we are, so that He can apply His “filter” of grace. That is who He wants – each one of us in the often disheveled, bumbling, messy state that we are, so that in His strength we can be made strong.
So the next time that we’re mindlessly scrolling through a newsfeed or story stream, let’s ask ourselves what we are truly seeking and take a moment for God Himself. The next time that something horrible or something wonderful happens to us and we instantly want to post about it, let’s first offer it in prayer. And when we find ourselves stuck in comparison, or filtering ourselves to depict perfection, let’s ask God to help us see ourselves as He does – as His beloved child that He longs to hear from. Let’s seek FIRST the Kingdom of God and be careful not to put all of our time, emotion, and identity toward the kingdom of social media. I think that our restless hearts will be happy we did.