Social Media: The Thumb is a Fire

On our way out of the house the other day my youngest daughter caught sight of her friend who lives next door. Skylar ran right over to her and—without a question, without a greeting, without so much as a pause—launched into a grand announcement of all the fun things she had done the day before and all the fun things she anticipated doing that day.

“Yesterday we went to my grandma’s house and we got to go swimming! And then we got to have ice cream, and it was the biggest ice cream I’ve ever had! And today we’re going to the beach and we’re going to see my best friend Cali and then I’m going to watch a movie and eat popcorn and drink soda and stay up really late!”

Upon finishing her catalog of events, without so much as a “Bye!” or follow-up question about her friend’s day, Skylar ran and jumped into the car so we could take off to our next activity. And it hit me: my daughter had just personified Instagram.

Later that evening as I checked my Facebook feed I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I was taken aback when I realized just how much of my feeds (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) were some form of self-congratulatory lifestyle boasting.

It led me to a question I’ve been asking for years now: What are the hallmarks of Christian social-media engagement? This is a question we tackled in our Gray Areas Conference last year, where we discussed a number of guiding principles (which I would highly recommend). There’s one principle I want to take a closer look at: beware of boasting.

Beware of Boasting

Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips. -Proverbs 27:2

First, we have to remember that social media is a new medium, but it has not created a new entity. Social media is simply a form of communication and public information delivery, both of which have existed for as long as humans have walked the earth. Therefore, whatever biblical principles should guide our communication and our public speech should guide our social media posting. Just because “the thumb” has replaced “the tongue” as the primary body part we use to communicate doesn’t mean the principles are any different:

Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the [thumb] is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the [thumb] is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The [thumb] is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.
-James 3:4-6, replacing “tongue” with “thumb”

The thumb is a fire. It can be a powerful tool for love and building others up. Or it can be a powerful tool for boasting and for (even inadvertently) tearing others down. If you’ve read your Bible at all (or if you’ve at least read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians) you’re probably well aware that boasting is not a godly trait. Paul identifies it explicitly as the antithesis of love.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast;… -1 Corinthians 13:4

But I’m afraid that most of us don’t think of our social-media posting in these biblical categories. To make this practical I’d like to offer a few suggestions that could help us to avoid boasting (even unintentionally) on our social media platforms.

1. Always post with your full audience in view.

Social media is a public form of communication, which means you need to remember all the different people in the audience. In my seminary preaching class they repeated this point over and over:  a preacher must make sure he is communicating to everyone in the room (rich and poor, old and young, men and women). He must recognize that what he says can be heard differently by different people and preach with a sensitivity to the diversity of his audience.

Unfortunately there is no such training prior to being given a social medial account. But the need is just as real. Although you may not be speaking (at least through social media) with the authority of a pastor giving a sermon, love still calls you to consider your hearers (or viewers) and to communicate with their sensitivities in mind. Social media is not the place to be “unfiltered.” It is a public forum where unfettered “authenticity” is just foolishness.

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. - Proverbs 10:19

2. Avoid “Charmed Life” Posting

On-line boasting often comes in the form of what could be called “charmed-life” posting. These are the posts that display a highlight reel of your life. They stem from that inner compulsion that an event is not complete or fully significant unless it has been documented and shared. Make no mistake; this compulsion is fundamentally self-focused.

Of course the desire to share a moment with a friend who wasn’t able to be there can be a perfectly loving desire. But if that's what you want to do, just tell the story to that one person (which can be done in person, or even over text-messages). Of course there are also moments that may be beneficial to share publicly. But the question is: do you know that to be the case? How might your on-line acquaintances who could never afford such an experience feel? How is this post impacting those whose spouse isn’t as thoughtful? What potential idolatries in others’ lives might this post promote?  Social media is rife with the temptation to feel like you need to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Now I recognize you may disagree with me, but I think that this is especially true of vacation posting. Vacation is a time to rest and be away either alone or with family. Displaying the events of a vacation on a public platform not only has unintended impact on the audience but it also subtly changes the shape of the vacation. The truth is, we vacation differently when we know others are watching. In addition, I can’t help but consider the impact vacation posting has on the culture of a local church when our social media feeds are filled with one another’s vacations instead of one another’s mission trips, loving exhortations, and reminders of the greatness and grandeur of our God.

3. Post about God and others

This leads to our third principle: instead of posting about yourself (or your kids), post about God and post about others. You may wonder how you’re supposed to post about God on Instagram when he’s invisible, but plenty of people do an excellent job of it.

My favorite example of this in my Instagram feed is an old friend named Megan.  Megan regularly publishes fun, silly, and thought-provoking posts.

·      A picture of a sunset is captioned with: “Have you ever in your life commanded the morning, and caused the dawn to know its place…” – God (Job 38:12)

·      A photo collage of a silly weekend away with her daughter is captioned with an encouragement for moms to find ways to spend one-on-one time with their daughters because “children are a gift from the Lord”

·      A picture of a book she’s reading on a patio is captioned with a piece of what God is teaching her from that book.

In addition, how might our posting look different if we were committed to making others look great (beyond our own spouse and kids)? How might encouragement and exhortation be multiplied if the beauty and sacrifice of others was the story we were most compelled to tell? And how might our social media choices change if we were more captivated by the Giver than the gifts?

For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
- 1 Corinthians 4:7

4. Boast in Christ

Finally, if we must boast, let us boast in the glory of Christ. This is similar to the last point, but I want to make it distinct for a reason. I believe that God’s call in our communication is not just to talk about Christ, but ultimately to boast in him alone. As James writes:

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. - James 1:9-11

Everything we post about will perish and fade…except the glory of Christ. I’m afraid that, while we can find numerous things to post about that bring glory to ourselves, some of us may go days or even weeks without identifying something in our lives that brings glory to Christ.

If there’s nothing in your weekly life to post that demonstrates how glorious Christ is, there’s a good chance the problem may not be with your posting, but with the shape of your life. For it is out of the abundance of our hearts that our thumbs speak.

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his [thumb] speaks.- Luke 6:45, edited.


Now you could tell me that the easiest way for me not to be bothered by this is to simply not follow my most boastful friends. But that’s like trying to solve the threat of terror in the world by turning off the news. My concern is not for my own jealousy or discouragement, but for the impact of our collective boasting on the lives of others and the culture of the church.

God calls us to make him great, and to put his glory on display, and one of the most significant mediums we have for doing that in our world today is social media. Social media was not created to be used for your own desires or passions, it exists for the spread of the glory of God!

Of course, you and I both fall short of this. I’m sure that if you were to survey my own social media posting over the years you would find much to criticize. But, as we’ve been talking about on Sunday mornings, the fact that the problem is worse than we knew simply means that God’s grace is greater than we ever imagined. His grace covers all of our self-focused, inconsiderate, unfiltered speech. And he can redeem even the worst offenses of the thumb.

It’s in light of his grace that he calls us forward to use our freedom from sin and shame for the good and love of others.  And I hope you will join me in pursuing that call together as a church family.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
- 1 Corinthians 1:26-31