Selfies, Self-Deception, and Self-Worship

SelfiesIn 2013, the word “selfie” made it into the official Oxford dictionary. In fact, it was the “word of the year”. This little event reveals a couple of important things about our culture, or at least about what we value: 1) We value ourselves, which is not necessarily a bad thing when rightly focused (see Lev 19:18), but primarily 2) that we value what other people think about the way we look, especially in front of bathroom mirrors (#filtered). Our culture values what other people think so much, that many of us are willing to post regular photos or videos of our faces on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, the paragons of selfie-tech. I’m thinking of Instagram in particular since it promotes selfies more than any other application. After all, in the Instagram world the first day of the week is not the Lord’s Day, but “selfie-Sunday.”

The Problem

The ubiquity of an application like Instagram, an app that promotes the idea that the self is supreme (whether intended or not), reveals a basic but problematic characteristic within the culture at large. Like the Greek mythological figure Narcissus, we’ve seen our own reflection and we’ve fallen in love with it. We’re enthralled with our own faces, our own beauty. And we’ve been deceived. We’ve given in to selfie-social technology which claims to do one thing (connect people together) but actually delivers on something else. In truth, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that our iPhones are actually helping us stay in touch with people at all, even though the hook for using the technology is the “connection” you make with other people. The reality, however, is that you’re really just connecting with yourself: this is what I look like; this is what I do; this is my identity. The tech reveals that what matters most to us is, quite obviously, us. Indeed, many of our actions and decisions are now made on the basis of how they will be viewed or perceived in the social sphere. It is as if the lure of social technology has trained half of the world to say daily, “Look at my face! I’m here! I’m important! I matter!”

Our selfies are deceiving us. Hence, we’ve created a world of selfie-deception.

What To Do

Thinking honestly about selfie-deception is instructive for the church, and worship leaders specifically. Indeed, I would argue that the focus on the self is the basic temptation that worship leaders face each week. When I lead and plan the worship services, I can guarantee that on Sunday I will be looking out at a whole congregation that struggles with the rudimentary character trait of all humanity: self-interest. It is the sinful desire to promote oneself and elevate oneself above God, and the core temptation given in Genesis 3—”you will be like God.” And I can also guarantee that the focus of the congregation will be on me for much of the service since I’m on the platform for a lot of it. Therefore, my temptation is likewise to focus too much on myself as I lead the services where I attend. It is imperative, then (almost cliche since we’ve heard about it so often), that worship leaders practice selflessness and humility before, during, and after the service.

And here I want to encourage us to a way forward that is not often explored, which is to consider how the Bible portrays the notion of “face” in a few places, and how it might help us rethink our motives about self-expression, especially as it relates to our worship services. The emphasis in the Bible on the “face” should not be missed.

When the Bible speaks of God’s “face,” it is described as a lasting image of grace, blessing, and future hope for the people. In Numbers 6, for example, part of Aaron’s benediction (or, Aaron’s Blessing) is that the Lord would “make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you” (6:25). The prayer likely flows from a desire to receive what Moses received in Exodus 34:29-35 when he came down from Mt. Sinai. There, his face was teaming with the radiant goodness of God’s glory, the glory he experienced when God passed before him in 34:5-7. The “glory” on Moses’ face was, in short, an emblem of God’s grace and compassion on the Israelites—he was renewing the covenant with them in spite of their sin, which Moses’ shining face confirmed for them. In the context of Israel’s worship, the blessing in Numbers 6 expresses the hope that God will shine his face once more on the worshipers gathered in his presence just as he did with Moses earlier, and to impart his blessing of grace as they offer up sacrifices.

There is one potential problem, since God also says “no one can see my face and
live” (Exod 33:20; cf. Gen 32:31). How is it that God’s face can shine on Moses and the Israelites via Aaron’s Blessing if this is true? The restriction of seeing God’s face is actually a response to Moses’ initial request for God to show him his “glory” (Exod 33:18). So as the singular individual whom “Yahweh would speak face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exod 33:11), and as a prophet with whom “Yahweh knew face to face” (Deut 34:10), Moses is perhaps the exception to the rule. But actually, the answer is given in Exodus 33:22-23: “And while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I pass by. Then I will remove my hand, and you will see my back, but my face will not be seen.” Moses’ experience, therefore, as a unique prophet who knows God “face to face” is linked to him being a recipient of a beatific vision of God. Moses could not see God’s face—that is, the full manifestation of his glory—but he could still see it in part, which left a lasting impression, to be sure! The Aaronic Blessing in Numbers 6:24-26 reflects Moses’ experience with the hope that the Israelite worshiper may share in the same vision of the refulgent glory of God’s face.

Later in the OT, our future hope—the return of God to the earth in Jesus Christ—is also linked to the shining of God’s face on his people. In Isaiah 60, when God returns to Zion and establishes his eternal kingdom under his eternal rule, the people of God will be irradiated with his glory and reflect that glory on their faces as it “shines upon you” (60:1-5). Writing in the NT, Paul picks up on this image, converting it into a metaphor in 2 Corinthians 3-4. He says that in Christ, there is a greater and even more permanent glory in which we share.

These are only a few of the many verses in the Bible that speak about the glory of God’s face and its impact on his people. But this should be what we desire. It should be our earnest hope for our congregations as we lead them, when we pray for them, and when we care for them. And it should shatter our self-interest and our selfie-deception.

Indeed, it’s the natural result of focusing on God. Considering his work, his power, his sovereign will, and his grace to us in Christ naturally leads to rejecting the sort of self- expression that so sinfully pervades our culture, because in doing so we reject one glory (the glory of our faces) in favor of a far greater glory (the glory of God).

So with these texts in mind, is it too much to ask that we refocus ourselves and our selfies, to rethink how we think about our faces? Instead of dispersing our faces among so many selfie-factories, perhaps we should focus on a single point, or rather, a single person—the face of Jesus Christ. Selfies say, “I’m here! I’m important! I matter!” God says that he is what matters, and the only image that should concern us is the one in whom rests the image of the invisible God. God says that we should dwell on the light of his face, which, as Paul states, is so clearly seen “in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). We want glory. We desire it. We want the light on our faces. But in Christ alone is the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God.” (#nofilter)

Final thoughts

In reality, selfies can be just another form of self-deception (or selfie-deception, as I’m calling it), a way of telling ourselves that we are what is most important, that we matter, and that our self is supreme. There is irony here, too, because social technology is to a large extent an elaborate excuse to run away from oneself. Being human means social interaction, walking and talking and being part of the human race in real conversations and relationships. Social networks disperse that interaction into an array of focal points in cyberspace.

God’s response is that what matters most is him. My plea is that we think more clearly about how the scriptures portray God’s face before we plaster our faces all over the internet. Our identities do not rise or fall with how we are perceived in the social sphere. That’s practical narcissism. Our identities are in Jesus, and as Christians, we should desire above all that God’s name would be heralded, not our own. Indeed, Numbers 6:27 makes this abundantly clear. Aaron’s prayer is that God’s face would shine “on us,” but to the ultimate end that “my name will be upon the people Israel, so I will bless them.”

Would you walk in the beaming light of God’s face instead of the fleeting light of your own? We do not need the pedestal. We do not need the parade. It’s enough for us to be participants in the parade, to walk in his triumph.