It’s an all-too-familiar scenario. I feel bored with my life, or my house, or my clothes, and so I check Instagram or Facebook. Perhaps I think I’ll find affirmation or connection in how many likes or reposts I’ve received. Maybe I pop over to Pinterest to get inspired with a DIY project for my home or with my kids. I’ll then see how many Twitter followers I have, and whether my blog stats are booming (or not). The result is that I either feel temporarily elated, or in a state of deeper discontentment than before. The pull of social media is strong, not only because it is always accessible, but also because it seems to promise what we are all craving: a place to belong.
We all want to be included, welcomed and accepted - in a word, to belong. It’s written into our DNA, and it’s a theme of each of our stories. We were created with a desire to belong because all of our stories begin with a social Creator. The theological term is the Trinity, meaning one God in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From this Trinitarian God, we were created as social beings, thriving in relationship with God and others. Yet the longing we crave for a place to belong seems elusive in our increasingly fragmented and individualized societies.
I have lived in four cities since leaving for college when I was 18. I have been involved in many more communities within those four cities. My parents and siblings live in two states that are each about 7 hours’ drive away from me. Social media allows me to connect with these places and people who have meant so much to me over the years. Yet at what cost?
Too often, it’s at the expense of engagement in my day-to-day life and here-and-now responsibilities and community. I find I’m “too busy” to visit a neighbor; it’s easier to connect with a friend via Facebook who lives across the world than the person who lives two doors down from me. It can feel more convenient (to my schedule) to scroll through Instagram for quick updates on friends and family rather than picking up the phone to call (or text) them. With my Facebook or Instagram or Twitter account, I choose when and with whom to relate, and I can shape my place to belong around what seems best to me.
Social media is built on the premise that we all want to belong, and it offers an appealing promise that not only can I belong, but that my belonging can be measured and quantified. Just how much do I belong? Well, there are 200 people who follow my blog, so that’s pretty good. And I got 50 likes on my latest Facebook status, so I matter to that many people. Social media seems to offer what I’m longing for: connection on my terms, with minimal fear of rejection.
But oh the danger to get lost in the virtual relational worlds created here! The problem is that the “cure” of social media and the “refuge” it promises only increase my experiences of rejection and exclusion. There’s increasing evidence that these virtual worlds create more loneliness rather than fulfilling their promise of more connection and more relationships. (For a fascinating video, check out “The Innovation of Loneliness” at https://vimeo.com/70534716)
In a TIME interview with Kim Stolz, she observes: “…as quickly as I might scroll through Instagram and see 100 people liked a photo of me, and that makes me feel good, the next moment I might see all of my friends hanging out the night before and wonder why I wasn’t invited and feel extremely lonely about that. Now more than ever there are some major highs and really depressing lows, and they come so close together. ”Isn’t this all too familiar? I go to check Instagram or post to Facebook, and an hour later, I extricate myself from the downward spiral towards discontentment when I see how much better everyone else seems to have it. Their kids are all smiling in their Easter pictures, and their homes are beautiful, and their clothes are stylish, and their vacations seem luxurious. I turn away and my faded Target wardrobe and hand-me-down couch pale in comparison.”
Social media promises belonging, but it delivers disappointment and discontentment. So what can you do? I’ve tried minimizing time spent on what I have playfully termed “Jealous-gram” and “Fake-book,” and this can be a helpful beginning. But it doesn’t answer the desire of my heart for a place where I know that I belong. I was made to belong securely in relationship with the divine, with God himself. Each human disappointment or rejection (in real life or virtually) serves to remind me of how large a gap there is between my desire to belong and the times I’ve known belonging. Jesus fills this gap perfectly. Jesus sees my discontentment - the times when I wonder where I belong, and I think Facebook can tell me - and he promises a better status than 3K “likes.” He promises an eternal love, a gaze that is never for a second turned away from me, and a place to belong that isn’t dependent on my efforts but on his grace.
When I turn toward what his “status” is about me, I find promises like Romans 8:38-39, that tell me nothing can separate his love from me. When I feel unsure of my own belonging, I am reminded by Hebrews 11 that my true home isn’t meant to be here, but that my sojourn on earth is one of longing as I journey towards my forever place to belong. Jesus is better than social media because his love never disappoints me, and he offers an eternal, unshakeable place to belong with a permanently elevated status as “holy and beloved.”
Heather Davis Nelson, is a writer, counselor, and retreat speaker, regularly blogging at "hidden glory" (heatherdavisnelson.com). She has been a featured writer at The Gospel Coalition, iBelieve.com, and OnFaith. She loves coffee, reading, front porch conversations, the beach, and story time with her daughters. Through over eight years of counseling, she has walked alongside many through questions of faith, anxiety and depression, relational conflict, grief, and discovering identity and calling. She is passionate about connecting the hope of a Redeemer to the broken fissures of life.