One of the points I make in This Is Our Time, in the chapter devoted to the smartphone, is that much of our social media use stems from the desire to know and be known (and fully affirmed).

Faithfulness in the age of social media will require Christians to understand why we are drawn to these spaces (what’s the longing behind our desire to cultivate our self-presentation online?), to recognize the futility in our attempts to find affirmation and satisfaction online, and to find (in the gospel) freedom from the snare of self-justification. In Christ, we are already fully known and fully loved by God. In Christ, we have the affirmation that matters most. Therefore, we don’t have to live for likes but can live from love.

Self-Righteous Activist

It is encouraging to see others taking this line of thought further than I have. Not long ago, Duke Kwon laid out some of the heart motivations behind political engagement on social media: the desire to be seen as righteous.

When our basic identity (our life’s “confidence”) is rooted in ourselves, our hearts are essentially unstable and insecure. We’ll do anything to fortify our self-image, including tearing down the public image of—and the image of God in—others. That’s why the self-righteous heart is always condemning. It’s never satisfied with being “right”; it also always needs to prove that others are wrong.

Kwon’s essay is profound and personal, revealing some of the biggest temptations that anyone with an activist bent might grapple with as they engage online.

But self-righteousness, virtue signaling, and the desire for self-justification go well beyond the politically minded among us. Facebook has made it easy for all of us to seek online affirmation, in all sorts of ways.

Self-Justification: Vertical and Horizontal

A recent essay from A. Trevor Sutton, “Inclined to Boast: Social Media and Self-Justification,” from the winter 2019 issue of the Concordia Journal encourages us to respond to the rise of social media (Facebook in particular) with deeper theological reflection. Viewing social media use through the lens of Lutheran theology, Sutton argues that the “like” on Facebook is “emblematic of our modern pursuit for self-justification.”

What does this modern pursuit of self-justification look like? It differs from the manifestation of self-justification in previous generations. The classic doctrine of justification by faith alone championed by Luther and the Reformers was articulated in a society filled with people who felt the dread of impending death. The vertical dimension of justification by faith provided an answer to people who lacked assurance regarding their future, specifically—on what basis an individual could possibly hope to stand before God.

In contrast, our society today has pushed death to the side. Without the dread of death, the vertical dimension of justification has been diminished. Sutton writes:

“Death is not a daily fear for most people in modern industrialized nations; the vast majority of people in developed nations begin each week assuming that they will survive to see the weekend. This deferment of death has diminished the urgency of the vertical realm and produced a greater regard for the horizontal realm. Contemporary culture says there is plenty of life standing between now and eventual death; being in right relationship with the world is far more pressing than being in right relationship with God.”

So, there’s a craving for justification still among us, but this desire to be seen in “right relationship” has moved more to the horizontal level. People are concerned more about being affirmed by others than about receiving the affirmation of God.

“Self-justification in the Late Middle Ages was about producing good works that one might offer to God in order to be deemed righteous; self-justification in the modern age is about producing good works that one might offer to oneself or the world in order to be deemed righteous.”

Sutton quotes New Testament scholar John Barclay, who describes how the fear of judgment (on a horizontal level) has pervaded our current cultural moment:

“In an age when people fear the judgment of their peers far more than the judgment of God, we have become increasingly petulant, critical, even cruel and it’s proving hard to take. . . . Our contemporaries are not now primarily trying to win the favor of God; they are trying to win the favor of one another. The judgment they fear is not the last judgment, but humiliating comments on social media.”

Sutton and Barclay are right. When the craving for justification morphs from the vertical to the horizontal, we find not peace but anxiety. (Last year, I was intrigued by how many TV personalities on New Year’s Eve wished everyone a “judgment-free” year. Why this fear of judgment in a supposedly tolerant society?)

Self-Justification and Facebook Likes

The longing to receive affirmation and the desire to escape judgment is at the heart of self-justification. Sutton thinks our social media habits confirm and enhance these desires. Collecting “Likes” and “Favorites” has become a primary way for people to confirm their righteousness.

“New media and designed technologies are at the forefront of individual user-experience, enabling and expediting the human pursuit of self-justification.”

Sutton then turns to Lutheran theology to diagnose the heart:

Luther described the human penchant for sin as incessantly building a case for our own righteousness while rejoicing in the deficiencies of others: “But the carnal nature of man violently rebels, for it greatly delights in punishment, in boasting of its own righteousness, and in its neighbor’s shame and embarrassment at his own unrighteousness. Therefore it pleads its own case, and it rejoices that this is better than its neighbor’s.”

Sutton sees social media, and the like button on Facebook in particular, as emblematic of the human propensity to plead for our own righteousness.

The Like button on Facebook is not there by accident. The Like button is there because of our deep longing to be liked by others, celebrated for our accomplishments, and deemed righteous in the horizontal realm. This affordance was designed, wittingly or unwittingly, with this kind of user in mind. The one-click affordance of the Like button on Facebook is a good example of technology designed for self-justification: it provides visible confirmation and affirmation from other users. Users post a picture or text while other users are able to like what has been posted. The amount of likes a post receives is visible to other users. The Facebook platform is a public forum for determining what is deemed good, right, and salutary by other users.

Good News for Chronic Self-Justifiers

The good news is, we have good news. The gospel speaks directly to this longing in the human heart, and it offers something greater in response. Sutton quotes Thesis 28 of the Heidelberg Disputations: “The love of God does not find, but creates, what is pleasing to it. Human love comes into being through what is pleasing to it.” He writes:

Social media invites us to find that which is pleasing. We like good pictures, tweets with which we agree, and shared articles that affirm our views. These platforms are a virtual exchange of human love; people seek, find, and confirm their love of self and others. In order for human love to exist, however, that which is loved must be pleasing. These online spaces invite us to endlessly prove that we are in fact loveable. Pleasing the unpleasable, however, is a fruitless endeavor that will inevitably lead to despair.

The love of God is different. God does not find something loveable; rather, God creates that which is loveable. . . . Before God, our standing is not based on the sum total of our likes, favorites, or retweets.

Sutton concludes his essay with some suggestions on how pastors may care for people in the digital age. He doesn’t condemn social media spaces or urge Christians to go offline. Instead, he believes pastors can help church members remember the unmerited grace of God in Christ and slowly untangle the cords of self-justification. Further, pastors can aid people toward constructive engagement and help them become more aware of how one person’s post could lead to a “self-promotion-envy spiral” for someone else, and so on.

I recommend Sutton’s essay (his website and other writings are here), and I hope to see more Christians from various traditions bringing their theological perspective to bear on how we can better be salt and light online, standing out in a world of self-justifying spin.