The Social Image of God

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This was written by Jake Jacobson and Jonathan Storment, preaching intern and preaching minister at the Highland Church of Christ.

“The Internet is a Gift from God” –Pope Francis”

“He [Pope Francis] apparently hasn’t scrolled down to the comments yet.” –Steven Colbert

A few years ago the head of the Catholic Church in England took a stand against the next wave of sin. 
It wasn’t homicide, abortion, or drugs. The sin this time was something far more innocuous.

He took a stand against Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and all the other ways that we can connect to one another virtually. He said that too much communication via technology is dehumanizing. We lose the social skills that are necessary to interact face to face. Or even worse, we lose the desire.

His main point was that real friendship is hard work that involves sacrifice, time, and serving one another. The danger of our social networking is that the emphasis seems to be on quantity of relationships above the quality of them.

How many times have you been sitting at a table in a really good conversation when your pocket starts to ring, or your conversation partner starts to text someone else? Are we losing the art of being fully present anywhere by attempting to be present everywhere?

This is not to be nostalgic, or to say that we should just go back to the good ole days of candlelight and ink pens. But when was the last time you turned off your phone? Or went to visit someone instead of sending an email?

There’s one Saturday Night Live character who often has some fairly insightful commentary on social media and how it is used today. The problem, he says, is that kids today don’t understand how to show respect to other people because all they care about is their social media profiles. They only care about the way people view them based on how funny, pretty, intelligent, or fill-in-the-blank-here that they are. It’s all about image.

But I think that problem belongs to more than just kids.

Many adults are catching on to the benefits of social media as well. Facebook and Twitter are picking up steam in the business world; sites like LinkedIn allow professionals to become connected with one another. The problem with these sites is that it’s all about image. How do you present yourself? Who are you?

These are questions most of us ask throughout life. Who am I? What is my purpose? How do others view me, and what do they think my purpose is?

These are good questions, but they can also be dangerous ones.

They can become consuming questions. Like Narcissus, we can find ourselves in love with our image, and find a crushing need to keep it up.

We want to appear as people have (or haven’t) defined us. And what’s worse is that we will do anything to sustain that image of who we are or of who people think we are.

In a word, it can become idolatry, only this time we aren’t bowing down to a golden calf.

Now, we are simply looking in the mirror (or more likely, at the computer screen).

I like the way that John Ortberg talks about this:

“Technology is always a doubled-edged sword, because it reflects the wonder of the Imago Dei and the wickedness of the fall. The printing press which brought the Bible to the masses did the same for pornography.”

Is Social Media good or bad? Yes.

It puts on full display the human condition for better or for worse. But we’ve been doing that for thousands of years without the Internet, and so maybe it’s time to learn how to plug some ancient ethics into how we live in a very new era.

The apostle James has an important word to say to the church that had grown and spread all over the ancient world, and it can be helpful for this discussion about social media as well. He writes about the tongue in chapter 3, about how it has all this potential for good but the trappings of evil too. The tongue is capable of doing things like offering words of encouragement or thanks to men and women who serve other people. It is capable of complimenting our spouses, children, co-workers, or friends on something well done. It is capable of telling that inspirational story of a man or woman who beat the odds of cancer and is able to go home to their family.

It is capable of great good. But the tongue is also capable of great evil.

As if we didn’t know that already.

Sure, it’s capable of blessing the Lord, but it can also curse human beings who are made in God’s likeness (James 3:9). It’s with our words that we are capable of bullying, gossiping, and many other words of violence, hatred, and division.

In Genesis God speaks a world into existence, and then God creates humans in His image with that same ability. The tongue is capable of creating our identity, of presenting an image—an image of who we may or may not be—of ourselves to others. This image tells other people that we are funny, pretty, intelligent, or better on social media.

And what’s dangerous is that we recognize bullying, gossiping, violence, hatred, and division as much worse than fibbing about who we are. If we are caught up in our use of social media in the number of “likes” or “favorites” that we have, we probably have forgotten something about who the Bible says we are, something about who God says we are.

I think social media tells us something very true about ourselves: that we are social beings. But I also think it misses what God tells us about who we are: created beings who represent the image of the creator himself.

And that means that we are already “liked” and “favorited” by the one we worship.

So we must bear the weight of the image of God well, even in the virtual world of images, or maybe especially in the virtual world of images.

As James says later in chapter 3, our tongues proclaim (or fingers type) the wisdom that comes with knowing who we are: words that are pure, peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.

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