When we were little, we used to play ‘Let’s pretend.’
Let’s pretend we are princesses, being rescued from the evil witch’s tower by the handsome prince.
Let’s pretend we are knights, slaying fire-breathing dragons. Let’s pretend we are cowboys and Indians.
Dressing up and pretending were encouraged during childhood play time. The dress up box of sparkling crowns, gaudy feather scarves and cardboard swords would sit in the corner of the room constantly inviting us to enter a world of imagination and creativity.
We all knew it wasn’t real. When the crowns and scarves came off, and the swords were packed away, we re-entered the real world. The world of sibling rivalry, chores, teeth brushing and reluctant bedtimes.
For decades the distinction was limited to childhood. We grew up.
We embraced the real world and tucked our childhood
memories safely away in yellowing photo albums.
The dress up box of pretend personas, however, has been replaced by a handheld device. A device that wields great power to lure us into a make-believe world of digital personas. A dress up box of sepia edits and vintage filters.
A world of ‘let’s pretend.’
A world of illusion.
Social media enables us hide behind screens, allowing others to judge us for the online lives we choose to portray – the lives we want them to believe we live. A carefully scripted life.
Facebook and Instagram have reinvented our identity. Social media profiles have become our digital self.
R.C. Sproul comments on this: ‘I sometimes wonder if the devil doesn’t take great pleasure in irony; in watching us turn ourselves inside out while missing the point.’
Our ever-changing statuses and profile pictures on WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram are attempts to portray to the watching world a picture of a normal, acceptable and beautiful life. It is a front, a mask, covering the hidden stories of our actual normal everyday life realities; our hurts, disappointments and failures.
Social media distorts our perception of reality. It is a manipulated screen. It is not the real thing. It is not normal. It is an illusion. It is all a facade.
That is what an illusion is: something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality.
A photograph, as we all know, is not real at all.
It is a representation of a one-time moment. But behind every photograph is a story, a context, a hiddenness. What is seen in the photograph or picture is not necessarily the truth. It is an illusion, merely a suggestion of a normality or reality. But on social media we have come to believe it is reality.
We cover our loneliness with photos and status updates which show how much fun we can have. Let’s pretend our hearts are not breaking behind well-practiced selfie smiles.
Photographs are no longer for capturing memories.
Photographs on social media are for developing an identity.
An online reality that we believe is real.
We have taken the bait and bought into the lie.
I think the narrator in Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, articulated this beautifully:
‘He had first been excited by Facebook, ghosts of old friends suddenly morphing to life with wives and husbands and children, and photos trailed by comments. But he began to be appalled by the air of unreality, the careful manipulation of images to create a parallel life, pictures that people had taken with Facebook in mind, placing in the background the things of which they were proud.’
Take the stunningly beautiful model on the billboard:
Her flawless beauty is an illusion. That is not what she normally looks like. It is not real. Her wrinkles and imperfections have been airbrushed away. Her figure has been reconfigured by Photoshop and digital technology. Yet we strive to be her.
Take the smiling family portrait. The image of normal family happiness is an illusion. The smiles could be hiding the reality of misery, dysfunction, abuse and brokenness. But we want to appear normal. Let’s pretend.
I think Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes captured this well and his voice of wisdom is not outdated. ‘Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.’ In modern English: ‘Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless.’
Had Solomon lived in the 21st century, he would probably have had a Facebook page and Instagram profile. He would have filled it photos of his life of wine, women and song.
We are just like Solomon. We look at our manufactured lives on social media and we realise the emptiness of it all.
Instead of the photographs reflecting true memories; the perfectly filtered and edited images stare back at us with the hollow recognition that it is all an illusion. We hide behind this carefully constructed pretend reality.
Similarly, WhatsApp groups, (especially in Christian contexts), entice us into a ‘safe’ microcosm where we can display in words, photos or posts the very image we wish to project. It can easily become the playground of the modern Pharisee, complete with an approved list of spiritual jargon and cliches.
It is a forum where we can project an outward righteousness. We can so easily join in promoting spiritual superficiality that satisfies as much as candy floss.
Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp groups tend to expose hearts like never before. They show up a yearning for acceptance from the world. Are they trying to replace a true yearning for fellowship with Christ?
We have exchanged the truth for a lie.
This is where the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 139 gently shatter the illusion and we can no longer hide behind our make-believe constructs. The inspired truth brings relief to the exhausting emptiness and pretense.
'O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, and are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O LORD, You know it all. You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it. Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me.’
It is futile pretending before the eternal all-knowing God. He formed us. He knows us. He sees behind the posed smiles to our hearts. He knows we are but dust. He searches our souls.
We cannot fool Him.
Jesus disarms our make-believe realities with the loving reality of truth.
He sees behind Martha’s facade of over achievement and busy perfection to her heart of worry and insecurity. He calls her to sit at His feet.
He sees behind the indignation and loneliness of the Samaritan woman at the well to her heart of fear of rejection and meets her need. He accepts her.
He sees behind Thomas’ wall of scepticism and doubt. He lovingly reassures him.
He sees behind Judas’ apparent loyalty to his deceptive heart. He sends him away.
He sees behind the rhetoric of the Pharisees to their hypocritical and self-righteous hearts. He rebukes them.
He sees behind the well-practiced and eloquent prayers of the Pharisee to his proud heart and rejects him. He sees the humble and heart-felt prayer of the broken and messed up tax collector. He grants him mercy.
He sees behind Zaccheus’ corrupt heart and guilt to his need for forgiveness. He forgives him.
He sees behind Peter’s heart of shame and remorse. He loves him.
That is what Jesus does. He exposes our hearts. He meets our need. He offers us life. Abundant life.
He says, ‘Come to me, you are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.’
He tells us to stop trying and pretending. That is meaningless to Him.
What is behind our incessant need to pretend to be something we are not?
It is pride.
We want others to think of us more highly.
We want to pretend we have everything figured out. I am guilty of this.
We think a single like on Facebook will fill our longing and make us happy.
We want acceptance from the temporal.
Is the ‘you’ you present on Facebook the real you?
‘Social media has an insidious capacity to both hide reality and fool us into thinking we are both showing and seeing it.’ [R.C. Sproul]
We are living illusionary lives. We are living the fantasy of who we want to be.
Worldly, humanistic logic tells us that the ‘better’ we are and the more ‘perfect’ we strive to be, the more we will be ‘liked’ and accepted by others.
God’s word tells us that ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners [imperfect, ugly and unlovable], Christ died for us.’ [Romans 5:7.]
‘BUT GOD, being rich in mercy and abounding in love, even when we were dead in our trespasses and sins, [imperfect, ugly and unlovable] made us alive - by grace we have been saved - and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…not as a result of works, so that no-one may boast.'[Ephesians 2:4-6,9]
That is incomprehensible. That is beautiful. That is Grace.
So, just as words are not neutral, and we need to think before we speak, so too with photos and pictures we post on social media. They are a means of visual communication. I am not saying we should not post photos - that would be like saying we shouldn’t speak.
I am saying we should think before we post. I am saying we should search our own hearts. I am saying we should have the mindset of John the Baptist: ‘I must decrease and Christ must increase.’
Let us run to Jesus’ open arms of grace and eternal acceptance.
Let us find our identity in Him.
Accepted. Loved. Adopted.