Social Media Sins

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Credit: Erik Lucatero on Unsplash

A new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that teenagers who spend as little as one hour on social media over what they normally would in a given year show increased markers for depression. According to the report:

Repeated exposure to idealized images [on social media] lowers adolescents’ self-esteem, triggers depression, and enhances depression over time. Furthermore, heavier users of social media with depression appear to be more negatively affected by their time spent on social media.

In an article for Christianity Today, Jeff Christopherson decries the dangers lurking in social media not only for teenagers, but also for society-at-large. He explains:

If the social media experiment was intended to connect and enlighten the world, it appears to have failed, and failed spectacularly. Our social connectivity has actually produced a more disconnected, isolated and polarized society. We have become more entrenched, angrier, and observably much, much dumber. Political, cultural, and – yes – theological echo chambers have only served to exhaust any semblance of critical thinking and extinguish any light for truth.

Mr. Christopherson’s sentiments are echoed by National Review writer Kevin Williamson, who, in an excerpt from his new book, describes how the memes we post on social media are often nothing but agents of attack on others rather than windows into an understanding of others. He writes:

We think in language. We signal in memes. Language is the instrument of discourse. Memes are the instrument of antidiscourse, i.e., communication designed and deployed to prevent the exchange of information and perspectives rather than to enable it, a weapon of mass intellectual destruction – the moron bomb. The function of discourse is to know other minds and to make yours known to them; the function of antidiscourse is to lower the status of rivals and enemies. 

All this is to say that there are plenty of dangers prowling around social media.

Sadly, Christians are not immune to these dangers. Mr. Christopherson, in his article, takes Christians to task for their sometimes reckless ways on social media. But even if we are not immune to social media’s sirens, we can fight against them. In a social media environment that feigns perfection in picture postings, we can point toward true perfection in Christ. In a social media environment that stupefies with anti-proverbs, we can teach with true wisdom from Christ. In a social media environment that inflames hatred, we can live out the love of Christ.

At the heart of many of our social media woes is a problem with comparisons. We either compare our lives to the idealized Instagram-filtered lives of our peers and find ourselves lacking and thus sink into despair, or we compare our opinions to those of others on Twitter and find others lacking and thus ascend into arrogance. But there is an antidote to the sins of despair and arrogance: humility. A humble person, instead of craving to compare, is comfortable in their own skin. They feel no need to measure up to others or to look down on others because their identity, worth, and world is not found in others, but in an Other – Jesus Christ. A humble person measures their self-worth not according to their own shortcomings or successes, but according to Christ’s death on a cross, which levels the playing field between all people as it reveals every person as a sinner in need of God’s grace.

In a social media ecosystem filled with comparison, perhaps we should post more about and point more to Christ. After all, whether a person is posting polished pictures on Instagram or vicious vitriol on Twitter, that person needs Christ, too.

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August 19, 2019 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Jeffrey Epstein and the Diminishment of Human Life

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As the evidence against Jeffrey Epstein continued to pile up, the circle of powerful men who counted him as acquaintances – or, depending on how one interprets the evidence, as close, personal friends – continued to expand. A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times published an exposé on Mr. Epstein’s nebulous business partnership with Leslie Wexner, of Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch fame. Questions abound. Who among Mr. Epstein’s social and business associates knew about his alleged sex trafficking crimes? Was there anyone among these associates who participated in his purported despicable sexual acts with underage girls?

Regardless of who was involved with Mr. Epstein, this much seems certain: Mr. Epstein himself used his power and wealth to exploit and abuse the vulnerable. He viewed women as sex objects to which he was entitled.

Mr. Epstein’s crimes were grizzly and his actions were egregious. His attitude, however, is all too common. When sex becomes something to which a person feels entitled, he will use – and yes, even sickeningly abuse – others to get what he desires.

A Christian theology of relationships reminds us that from Adam and Eve on, relationships are gifts of grace. Adam did not receive Eve as his companion because he was entitled to her or deserving of her, but because God desired to bless him. Eve did not receive Adam as her companion because she was entitled to him or deserving of him, but because God desired to bless her. This reality should shape the way we relate to each other – not as commodities to be used, but as gifts to be cherished.

Sadly, how we relate to others does not always reflect God’s created order. Some men speak of woman as “notches in their belt.” Some women speak of men as “sugar daddies.” But our relational disfunction goes far deeper than a smattering of vulgar slurs. Resentment takes root in marriages when one spouse feels as though their partner is not “meeting their needs.” Fights break out when one person feels another is not “pulling their weight.” All of these things are indications that we often use each other selfishly instead of cherishing each other lovingly.

Clearly, what Mr. Epstein has allegedly done reaches far beyond the more mundane everyday disagreements and disputes people have in their relationships. But there are still lessons here for us to heed. First, diminishing the value of a person’s life may end with crimes like Mr. Epstein’s, but it can begin with something as simple and socially acceptable as a demanding spirit. So, be careful with your seemingly small selfish acts. Second, diminishing the value of another’s life ultimately degrades how you see your own life. This was certainly true of Mr. Epstein. He was found dead of an apparent suicide in his jail cell on Saturday. When justice came for him because of his lack of regard for the lives of others, he despaired of his own.

Now would be a good time, then, to say “thank you” and “I love you” to your spouse, your children, your relatives, and your friends. Now would be a good time to cherish them in their humanity rather than treating them like a convenient commodity. After all, this is what Jesus did for you. He did not use you. Instead, He gave Himself for you. You are precious to Him.

Who’s precious to you? Make sure they know they are.

August 12, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Kissing Dating Goodbye

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Credit: Colin Maynard on Unsplash

I remember reading the book in college. Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye defined what romantic relational purity looked like for Christian kids like me in the late 90s. And yet, even back then, I looked at the book with some skepticism. “Is this really what the Bible teaches about dating?” I wondered.

The man who once gave countless Christian college kids plenty to ponder has now given countless Christian believers plenty to mourn. Recently, Mr. Harris announced that he and his wife were separating. But that wasn’t all. Shortly after announcing the dissolution of his marriage, he offered an even sadder revelation about his faith in an Instagram post:

I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.

Martin Luther said that the entire life of believers should be repentance. There’s beauty in that sentiment regardless of your view of God. I have lived in repentance for the past several years – repenting of my self-righteousness, my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few.

A man who was once a prominent Christian author – and later also became a pastor – has now publicly declared he is no longer a believer.

The apostle Paul once admonished a pastor named Timothy to continue “holding on to faith and a good conscience” so that he might not, as some in his day did, reject Christ and suffer “shipwreck with regard to the faith” (1 Timothy 1:19).  There seems to be no other way to describe what has happened to Mr. Harris than as a “shipwreck.”

In an article for National Review, David French described the dangers inherent in Mr. Harris’s former view of sex and relationships when he explained that what Mr. Harris argued for:

…wasn’t wanton repression or cruelty. Many parents had entered adulthood wounded by past broken relationships. They regretted the mistakes of their youth and desperately wanted their kids to avoid similar heartbreak. Also – and this is crucial for understanding purity culture – they fervently believed in a specific earthly reward for their child’s youthful obedience. Courtship represented the best method of ensuring a healthy, sexually vibrant marriage to a faithful spouse. 

This is what writer Katelyn Beaty called the “sexual prosperity gospel,” an “if/then” transactional relationship with God that manufactures a series of promises from scripture and then creates a form of Christian entitlement and expectation. “I did what You asked, Lord, now may I see my reward?”

Mr. French’s analysis of the problems in Mr. Harris’s older teaching strikes me as precisely correct. Living legalistically before marriage does not ensure anyone a “happily ever after” sexually or otherwise in marriage.

And yet…

Perhaps, in our haste to highlight the problems with the evangelical purity culture of yesteryear, we have also managed to overlook a bit of its value. Joshua Harris once argued that a Christian should not date – or even kiss a girl – before marriage. Commanding such a thing is rank legalism. Holding up restrained and modest relationships as viable and valuable options, however, might just be okay – and even wise. We do, after all, live in a sexually obsessed society that, in many ways, despises just about anything that even remotely smacks of sexual self-control. In what other culture could a movie like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” be so self-evidentially funny? We love to spurn just about any sexual standard.

So, perhaps it’s not so bad to cut against the grain of our sexually licentious zeitgeist – not so that we can somehow present ourselves as especially holy or manufacture later sexual marital bliss, but because we know that inside of all of us lies a fair amount of sexual weakness. Recognizing that – and drawing humble boundaries in light of that – is not a bad thing.

Before Joshua Harris’s fall from faith, he had previously apologized for much of what he wrote in I Kissed Dating Goodbye:

To those who read my book and were misdirected or unhelpfully influenced by it, I am sincerely sorry. I never intended to hurt you. I know this apology doesn’t change anything for you and it’s coming too late, but I want you to hear that I regret any way that my ideas restricted you, hurt you, or gave you a less-than-biblical view of yourself, your sexuality, your relationships, and God.

This was a much-needed apology. But what he wrote next is striking to me:

To those of you who benefitted from my book, I am so grateful that something I wrote helped you.

There were some blessings and benefits in what Joshua Harris once wrote in his now infamous book. In a world that idolizes sex and dating, his book offered a reminder – even if it was a broken and incomplete one – that the romantic relationship you have doesn’t define who you are.

Jesus does.

Sadly, Joshua Harris, in his recantation of his faith, not only rejected his Lord, but defined himself by his mistakes – by his wrongheaded guidance, by his failed marriage, and by the self-righteousness of his past. May I humbly remind him that none of that defines him?

Jesus does.

As Mr. Harris once wrote in his own book:

The world takes us to a silver screen on which flickering images of passion and romance play, and as we watch, the world says, “This is love.” God takes us to the foot of a tree on which a naked and bloodied man hangs and says, “This is love.”

God always defines love by pointing to His Son. This was the only way our sins could be forgiven. The innocent One took the place of the guilty. 

Which means the innocent One took the place of Josh, too.

I hope and pray Joshua Harris rediscovers this precious truth. And I hope and pray you, dear reader, hold fast to this precious truth.

August 5, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

A Cathedral of Crystal

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Yesterday marked a new day for one of the most famous architectural landmarks in the United States and, really, in the world.  Yesterday, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated its first Mass in what was once dubbed the “Crystal Cathedral.”

The Crystal Cathedral was the brainchild of famed televangelist Robert Schuller.  He moved to Orange County, California in 1955 to plant a church.  And oh, did he ever.  He launched his congregation at the Orange Drive-In Movie Theatre, where he preached from the roof of the snack bar to people as they sat in their cars.  “Come as you are; pray in the family car,” was his slogan.  From there, he went on to launch and build Garden Grove Community Church.  Though his new church building featured a more traditional sanctuary, it still allowed worshipers to remain in their cars in the parking lot and listen to worship if they did not wish to go inside.

By the 1970s, the church had outgrown its current facility.  Thus, in 1977, Robert Schuller joined with famous architect Philip Johnson to construct the Crystal Cathedral at a cost of $18 million.  What began as a drive-in movie theatre mission plant was now a world-famous megachurch.  During the 1980s, the TV program that Robert Schuller hosted from his Crystal Cathedral, The Hour of Power, was the most watched religious program in America.

But trouble and turmoil bubbled up when it was time for the church’s founding pastor to hand over the reins.  At first, his son was to become the new senior pastor.  Then his daughter led the congregation for a short time.  Then his grandson took over.  The tumultuous transition took a severe toll on the congregation, which had to file for bankruptcy.  What was once, arguably, the most famous worship space in America soon fell silent on Sunday mornings.  Yesterday, however, the Crystal Cathedral sprung back into action as a space for worship, although it has been remodeled and renamed by the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Orange as Christ Cathedral.

The story of the Crystal Cathedral is a cautionary tale of the kind of damage rocky leadership transitions can do to tender congregational ties.  It is also a cautionary tale, however, of the danger of having a larger-than-life pastoral personality displace the person of Christ in a congregation.  It doesn’t really matter whether the displacement takes place intentionally or unintentionally.  The effect is the same.  When the people in the pews become more enamored by a church’s leader than by the Lamb of God, when the leader leaves, the people will, too.

As a pastor, I know how difficult it can be to lead strongly while also pointing humbly to Jesus.  It can be difficult because people naturally tend to gravitate toward someone they can physically see, like a pastor, instead of someone they cannot, like the One who is now enthroned in the heavenly realms.  It can also be difficult, however, because there is a part of me that wants people to look at me and to me – to love me.  It is at these times that I must remind myself that the goal of ministry is not to get love for me, but to encourage love for Jesus.

John the Baptist once said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).  This is a statement of how to do ministry, yes, but it is also a reality of ministry.  If you’re a pastor, like it or not, you will eventually decrease.  No one’s ministry lasts forever – except for Jesus’.  So, point people to the Minister and the ministry that will long outlast yours.  His ministry will stand, long after our world’s cathedrals of crystal close.

July 29, 2019 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Do Children and Happiness Go Together?

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“Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from Him.  Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth.  Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (Psalm 127:3-5)

These ancient words from the Psalmist used to be fairly uncontroversial.  But more recently, a flood of studies and stories have been published questioning whether or not it really is good to have children.  A 2011 study by Thomas Hansen, for instance, found that parents without children reported higher levels of life satisfaction than parents with children.  A 2003 study by the National Council on Family Relations found that couples who did not have children reported higher levels of romance and closeness in their relationships.  Finally, a famous 2004 study by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman found that out of 16 activities, taking care of children ranked above only housework and commuting in terms of enjoyability.

The sociologists, it seemed, had spoken.  Having kids was not all it was cracked up to be.  But new research suggests that what the sociologists once took away in their studies might be best given back.

In a recent story from The Economist, Letizia Mencarini of Bocconi University explains that “a new generation of research…suggests that children are more likely to make parents happy than was once thought,” though parents’ ongoing happiness is not merely based on the presence of children themselves, but on a multiplicity of factors:

Whether parents are married is one.  Single parents are usually less happy than married ones.  The age of the child is another.  Children under ten seem to bring more joy than those over that age.  And money matters a lot.  David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew Clarke of the Paris School of Economics managed to isolate the financial strain of raising children as an influence on parental happiness.  They argue that it is the cost of raising kids, rather than children in the abstract, that reduces pleasure.

But the most important influence seems to be the pressure of work.  It has long been known that the difficulty of balancing the demands of work and home life increase exponentially when children arrive and this results in a significant amount of stress…

This research is interesting, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly surprising.  All of these findings seem to correspond to pretty traditional views on marriage and family.  Married parents are important to the rearing of children.  The teenage years can be difficult.  Financial stability allows families room to enjoy themselves.  And family is to be prioritized over work, even if your workplace disagrees.  All of these things I already knew – not because a sociologist told me, but because my own parents did.

Sometimes, there’s a reason common and classic wisdom is common and classic.  In this case, sociological research pointed to a lot of what a lot us already knew.  The question, however, is not whether we knew this, but whether or not we will live according to this.  Our society is rife with deadbeat dads, self-absorbed parents, and financial instability on the one hand juxtaposed against workaholism on the other.  No wonder we’re so vulnerable to being miserable.  The problem, it turns out, is not really our kids.  The problem is us.

The solution to our unhappiness, then, is not to adjust our fertility rates downward.  It’s to adjust our values, our decisions, and our commitments heavenward.  For when we do this, we might just find that even though the Psalmist was no sociologist, he was right.  Children are a blessing from the Lord.  May we be willing to address our own brokenness so we can receive them as such.

July 22, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Is the Internet Replacing the Pastor?

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A new survey finds that fewer and fewer Americans are seeking guidance from clergy.  According to a poll released last week by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research:

Three-quarters of American adults rarely or never consult a clergy member or religious leader, while only about a quarter do so at least some of the time … While the poll finds a majority of Americans still identify with a specific faith, about half overall say they want religious leaders to have little influence in their lives.

According to Tim O’Malley, a theology professor at Notre Dame, part of the reason behind the reticence to speak with a clergy person can be traced to technology:

In American life, there has ultimately been a broad rejection of “experts” apart from the person searching for the answer on his or her own.  Think about the use of Google.  You can literally Google anything.  Should I have children?  What career should I have?  When should I make a will?  How do I deal with a difficult child?  In this sense, there has been a democratization of information based on the seeking self.  You can find the information more easily through a search engine than finding a member of a clergy.

Professor O’Malley’s observations are not only true culturally, they are also true for me personally.  When I have felt ill, I have Googled my symptoms to see what I might have, which according to my searches, usually turns out to be a dreaded and deadly disease.  When I have needed to fix something around the house, I have Googled how-to guides to walk me through a project step-by-step.  It is not surprising that many people would do the same thing on issues about which they used to consult clergy.

And yet, this trend away from clergy consultations is not necessarily always beneficial, nor is it inevitable or irreversible.  This same poll also notes:

Nearly half say they’re at least moderately likely to consult with a clergy member or religious leader about volunteering or charitable giving.  About 4 in 10 say they’re at least moderately likely to consult about marriage, divorce or relationships.

There are things for which people still seek out clergy.

As a member of the clergy myself, this research certainly piqued my interest.  For those reading who are also clergy, this poll should serve as a reminder that we must be faithful, biblical, caring, and compassionate in our callings.  If we are sloppy in our pastoral care, distant in our conversations, theologically vacuous and trite in our comforts, or harsh and unsympathetic in our guidance, we can and will be replaced by a search box and some algorithms, which may or may not turn up good results.  For those who are reading who are not clergy, my plea to you would be to remember that the Church is not just a dispenser of information, but a place for conversation.  The value of sitting down with a pastor is that he may invite you to ask questions of yourself you may not think to ask if you’re just typing terms into a search box.  He is also commissioned to share with you not just his wisdom, but God’s Word.

One of the people interviewed as a part of this study, Timothy Buchanan, notes that the move away from consulting clergy is part of a broader trend:

People don’t know how to have personal communications with other folks when you need to ask questions or need to get help.  For instance, we’ve got some issues with our health insurance plan, so I spent an hour today Googling … instead of just picking up the phone and calling somebody.

This is keen insight.  As access to information on a screen becomes increasingly easier, reaching out to find personal interaction can feel cumbersome and burdensome.  But even if googling stuff is faster and easier, this truth remains:  we need each other.  Internet searches cannot fix real world loneliness.

As a member of the clergy, then, my invitation to anyone who needs a pastor is this:  a pastor would love to be able to love and care for you.  That’s a big part of what got many pastors got into this business.  So, if you’re in need, don’t just read a blog – including this one – pick up the phone and schedule an appointment with your pastor, or, if you don’t have a pastor, with a pastor who is part of a biblically-based and Christ-centered congregation.  Your struggle or question or grief is important – because you are important.

Google may be able to tell you that.  But it can’t show you that.  So, reach out to a person who will.

July 15, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Depression, Mental Health, and Spiritual Health

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The statistics are scary.  U.S. suicide rates are on a steep incline.  Writing for Bloomberg, Cynthia Koons explains:

So many statistics say that life in the U.S. is getting better.  Unemployment is at the lowest level since 1969.  Violent crime has fallen sharply since the 1990s – cities such as New York are safer than they’ve ever been.  And Americans lived nine years longer, on average, in 2017 than they did in 1960.  It would make sense that the psychic well-being of the nation would improve along with measures like that. 

Yet something isn’t right.  In 2017, 47,000 people died by suicide, and there were 1.4 million suicide attempts. U.S. suicide rates are at the highest level since World War II, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on June 20, when it released a study on the problem.  And it’s getting worse: The U.S. suicide rate increased on average by about 1% a year from 2000 through 2006 and by 2% a year from 2006 through 2016.

While life may be getting better materially, suicide rates are also climbing precipitously.  Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 34.  Ms. Koons goes on to conjecture why this is.  In her mind, the problem is rooted primarily in a lack of public funding for mental health resources to help those struggling with and suffering from depression:

Most people are at the mercy of their company’s health plans when it comes to seeking care; a person with fewer benefits simply wouldn’t have access to the best resources for either crisis care or chronic mental health treatment.  Even for those fortunate enough to be able to pay out of pocket, availability of providers ranges wildly across the U.S., from 50 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in Washington, D.C., for example, to 5.3 per 100,000 in Idaho, according to research from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health Behavioral Health Workforce Research Center.  And despite laws requiring insurers to offer mental health benefits at the same level as other medical coverage, many make it difficult to find appropriate treatment and limit residential care.

Although I am certainly open to the idea of making more resources available for depression, it should also be noted that one of our most publicly preferred paths of care – that of medication – seems to be not only ill-equipped, but virtually non-equipped to handle our current crisis.  As Ms. Koons notes:

The use of antidepressants in Australia, Canada, England, the U.S., and other wealthy countries didn’t lead to a decline in the prevalence and symptoms of mood disorders despite substantial increases in the use of the drugs from 1990 to 2015. 

In light of this, perhaps we need to consider not only the clinical causes of depression, but the cultural ones as well.  Here’s what I mean.

21st century Western culture has sacralized the values of achievement and freedom.  Achievement is a value that can look virtuous – stories of self-made people impress us to this day – but can often lead people to trade what is truly virtuous – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – for what is merely selfish – the lust for things like riches, success, and fame.  Likewise, our culture’s vaunted value of freedom often collapses into its dark twin of individualism as people begin to engage in personal licentiousness instead of being devoted to their community’s liberty.  Instead of living together in a free society that respects and learns from disagreements, we demand agreement with and celebration of our individual choices and proclivities, even if they are manifestly immoral and damaging to our social fabric.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many people wind up deeply depressed.  Emptiness is the inevitable end of every self-obsessed pursuit.  We simply cannot fill ourselves with ourselves.  We need something – and, really, Someone – outside of us to fill us, which is why the apostle Paul writes:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him. (Romans 15:13)

In our frenetic search to find medical preventions and interventions for depression, let’s not forget the spiritual voids, which our culture often willingly creates and celebrates, that also contribute to the depressed state of our society.  Yes, people who are depressed need a good doctor.  But they also need a Savior.

Let’s make sure we offer both.

July 8, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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