How do the dangers of social media undermine God's vision for healthy relationship? In this photo, a woman holds her phone in her hands.

Healthy Relationships and the Dangers of Social Media

I’ve spent the last three weeks recovering from a pretty serious four-month crush on a girl in California, and that recovery has led me into some deep reflection on the dangers of social media. I’ve come to see how social media confuses boundaries, allows us to escape the discomfort of what the Apostle Paul calls our “ministry of reconciliation,” and perpetuates the idol of self.

This girl and I met one Sunday morning about a year-and-a-half ago. I managed to secure a seat next to her in church and waited for that savory moment of precious opportunity. A prayer for the offering was prayed. Announcements were given. The pastor took the stage to deliver his sermon. “Turn to the person next to you and tell them your greatest fear.” God was my wingman, friends. It doesn’t get much better than that.

That day, I learned that her greatest fear was spiders, but she paid me no mind. She seemed far more interested in her phone and the friend sitting next to her than she did in me, so I dropped it. The next year flew by. I started seminary, wrote and published The Tale of the Elm Trees, and continued leading a ministry for twenty-somethings. If I’ve learned one thing over the last year, it’s that as a full-time graduate student enrolled in three graduate programs at two schools in two different states while simultaneously pursuing two separate careers, if you don’t make time for dating, it won’t happen. Other things will happily fill up your schedule, and fill up my schedule they did.

So, at the beginning of this year, I began to carve out the time to date, and I remembered the girl who had paid me no mind. I approached her best friend (the one she usually attended church with), and learned that she had since moved to California. After explaining my interest to her best friend, I sent this girl a Facebook friend request and a message to refresh her memory. She told me she remembered me (to my pleasant surprise), was flattered, and would hit me up the next time she was in Utah so we could get together. Score.

In the meantime, I began to study this girl’s presence on social media, and I was quite impressed. She seemed like a woman of substance, a girl with a rich, robust faith. In fact, she seemed like the perfect woman for me, and I fell for her. Hard.

I would do subtle things to pursue her from 700 miles away, like ambiguously commenting, “Beautiful,” on one of her pictures. She would respond by following me back on Instagram, several days after I’d followed her. We were making eyes at each other in a digital world, and all seemed well. That is, until I learned that she started dating someone else.

We’re all broken in one way or another, and I more than most. I’ve long been aware of my brokenness. It’s something that God and I have wrestled through over the course of many years, but just when you think you’ve sorted it all out, God throws you a curveball to spur you on to deeper healing and greater growth. This girl was my curveball.

When I was a wee little eight-year-old, I had said or done something to upset my mother, and in a fit of rage, my mother snarled at me, “Do you know what your future wife is going to do when you say/do something like that?” She gave me the bird, stormed into the bathroom, and slammed the door in my face. On that day, my mother embedded in me a deep belief that I would never be good enough, and rejection became my greatest fear.

So, when the girl who seemed like the perfect woman for me told me that she’d chosen another man over me, all of my brokenness reared its ugly head and I began to mug myself.

Fortunately, through the grace and kindness this girl afforded me, God healed my soul of some pretty deep wounds. This grace and kindness made it seem like she really was the woman I thought she was: a woman with a deep and robust faith who forgave in the same manner she’d been forgiven, who loved God and chased after him, even when it was uncomfortable, and I fell even harder for her—but as I discovered on a recent trip to California, the image I had of this girl was a false one, and I’d bought into it because I didn’t realize just how polluted our relationship was by the dangers of social media.

Confusing Boundaries

You can learn a lot about someone through social media. It took nothing more than a few simple deductions to figure out who this girl was dating. I surmised that if I were dating a girl, I’d likely be following her on Instagram, and that if she were to post a photo of us together, I would like that photo. So, when this girl posted a photo with the guy she was dating, all I needed to do was peruse the list of users who liked the photo, and bingo—I found the guy she was dating.

This is one of the dangers of social media. To those (like me) who are well aware of all that you can learn from a simple photo, this comes as no surprise. I know that everything I post has the potential to reveal a whole lot of information about me to those who know what to look for.

But like this girl, most people have no clue how much you can learn about them from a single photo. So even though everyone “Facebook stalks,” we never talk about it, because it’s perceived as creepy. But the only reason it’s so creepy is because we have no idea just how much information our posts reveal about us to our “friends” and those who follow us. So when we discover what those “friends” have learned about us through a few simple deductions from our social media presence, it seems like they’ve violated boundaries that we never articulated but somehow expected them to know and respect.

In this way, social media confuses boundaries and undermines healthy relationships. By allowing people to be our “friends” and see our posts on social media, we define a boundary for them. But because we don’t realize how much information one can glean from the things we post, it seems like a violation of our boundaries when one of our “friends” or followers actually uses the information we’ve happily provided to them, even though it was our choice to give them that information in the first place.

Hindering Reconciliation

Through our back-and-forth messages, this girl had revealed to me that she had high hopes of marrying the guy she was dating and having a family with him. So you can imagine how she responded when I told her that I not only knew who she was dating (effectuating the aforementioned perception of a boundary violation), but that he had asked out another woman (on social media) while claiming to be in an exclusive relationship with her.

She freaked out, axing me on every social media channel and asking me to leave her alone. No surprise there, and for two months, I did. I knew her pain. I understood her anger. The first prayer I ever prayed was that God wouldn’t let my parents get divorced. Seven years later, my mother did her first stint in rehab, and thus began a ten-year decline in my parents’ marriage.

For most of my adult life, the greatest desire in my heart has been the desire for the family I never had. I knew how badly she’d hoped to marry this guy. I knew her pain and understood her anger. I didn’t care about whether I was right to do what I did. I only cared about this woman who I (quite literally) thought to be the most extraordinary woman I’d ever known.

So, I left her alone for two months, still believing this girl to be the woman who abounded with grace and kindness, who forgave like she’d first been forgiven, and who would be open to reconciliation in the future when the time was right.

Early last month, I thought that time had come. I was heading to Pasadena for twelve hours a day of intensive classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. I sent her a message telling her I would be in her neck of the woods, and invited her to get coffee with me, free from pressure and expectations. She went out of her way to tell me that she wouldn’t be there, ensuring that I could not miss the “screw you” embedded in the subtext of her message.

This brings me to the second danger of social media. Aside from the moment where a divine Wingman facilitated my introduction to this girl, our entire relationship had been through Facebook Messenger (despite my repeat attempts  to move our conversation to video chat or a phone call). There, I’d learned some of her deepest desires, hopes, and dreams. I had sinned against her and asked forgiveness. We had a relationship, and that relationship had been broken.

Paul writes that ours is a “ministry of reconciliation,” and of all the processes necessary to establish his Church, the only process that Jesus spells out for us is the process of reconciliation. Jesus doesn’t tell us how to do communion or how to baptize new believers. The only process Jesus gives us is reconciliation. It’s that important. But it’s by no means comfortable.

Sitting down with someone who hurt you, however right or wrong they may have been, is awkward. It’s not easy. It means you might end up shedding tears in front of them. It means you might end up yelling at them. You are, in a very real way, entering back into some form of intimacy with that person who hurt you. It’s not at all comfortable, but Paul and Jesus make clear that of all the Christian practices, reconciliation is the most important. It is the ministry that Jesus himself effectuated on the Cross, and it is the essence of the Church’s mission. It’s the very means by which we live out our love of God and love of others. Reconciliation is at the heart of the Christian faith, but one of the dangers of social media is that it makes it far too easy to avoid reconciliation and the butt-load of discomfort that comes with it.

Because I have no face-to-face relationship with this girl, she’s able to simply ignore me, to turn off the notifications on her phone or even block me if she so chooses. Social media allows us to ignore those who’ve hurt us in a way that we couldn’t do otherwise. If you work with someone, go to church with someone, or live with someone, you have no choice but to face the hurt they’ve caused you (or that you’ve caused them) and to seek reconciliation. Social media allows us to ignore those who’ve hurt us and those we’ve wronged, undermining healthy relationships and delaying God’s restorative work in us and in the world around us.

Perpetuating the Idol of Self

When I reached out to this girl to tell her I’d be in her neck of the woods and would like to get together for coffee, she went out of her way to tell me “no,” making her “screw you” unmistakably clear. I told her I understood that I’d blown to hell whatever trust she may have had in me (through the aforementioned perception of a boundary violation), and offered to do whatever it took to earn her trust back, even if that meant we were only ever friends. I fought for reconciliation, but was met with nothing but, “Screw you.” She wanted nothing to do with the ministry of reconciliation, and not only was I hurt, but I wondered where the woman I’d fallen for three months earlier had disappeared to.

After accepting that reconciliation wasn’t going to happen, I told this girl that I had a birthday present for her that I’d had for a while and couldn’t really return. (Her birthday had come and gone over those two months that we weren’t talking.) I offered to drive about an hour-and-a-half (each way) to meet her at a place of her convenience, promising to take no more than five minutes of her time to give her the gift.

Her answer? No. She couldn’t give me five minutes of her time to receive a gift. I was honestly dumbfounded, struggling to reconcile this behavior with the woman of substance and robust faith I thought I’d seen just three months earlier, but after quite a bit of reflection, I realized that the only reason I believed this girl to have such a robust faith was because her Pinterest told me so.

Our relationship, mediated as it was by social media, had offered me not an actual picture of who this girl was, but a false image, and this is the third and greatest danger of social media: it perpetuates the idol of self. Social media allows us to craft a false image of who we are and project it to the world for validation through likes and follows.

This girl was not the extraordinary woman I’d been led by her Pinterest and Instagram to believe. Her behavior told me that she was not as selfless, gracious, and forgiving as I thought, and when I arrived back in Salt Lake, a conversation I had with her best friend confirmed that what I believed was indeed a false image. Through her social media, this girl had perpetuated the idol of self, and I’d bought into it.

Social media allows us to craft a false image of who we are and project it to the world for validation through likes and follows.

But the idol of self does much more than deceive those around us into thinking we’re better people than we really are. It deceives us into thinking we’re better than we really are. When things were going her way, this girl conformed much more closely to the image she projected on social media, but when God stopped giving her what she wanted, the false image that she projected on social media became even more false.

This girl had made an idol of her desire for a family (something I myself have done, far too many times to count), and as long as it looked like that desire was going to be satisfied, she seemed to be the extraordinary woman I thought she was. But the real danger of social media is this: as long as she continues to give more weight to the false image perpetuated by social media, she never has to confront the deeper idolatry in her heart. With every like and follow, this girl is able to continue believing that she isn’t who she really is, that she doesn’t have the issues she really does. The false image is perpetuated, and the idol keeps us from seeing who we really are and opening ourselves up to the God of truth to give us the healing we really need.

Where Do We Go from Here?

I realize that it may seem like I’ve beat up on this girl. Not only is my brokenness scattered throughout this relationship as well, but these realizations are just as applicable to me as they are to her and everyone with a Facebook account. Being a writer and blogger means that social media is an unavoidable part of my life, and although this girl in California opened my eyes to see what I couldn’t see before about the dangers of social media, those dangers are just as real for me as they are for her—perhaps more so, given the profession I’ve chosen.

Watch Your Weight

But it seems to me that where we go from here and what I’ve learned from this comes down to a single word: glory. As it’s used in the Bible, glory is a word that’s often misunderstood. To glorify someone or something means simply to assign it weight, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this girl, it’s that I need to be extremely careful about where I’m putting weight. Am I giving more weight to what God thinks of me, or to what people think of me? Do I judge my actions in a given situation by how many likes the post describing those actions gets on Facebook, or whether my actions align with the practices Jesus lays out for the people who call themselves his disciples?

In light of what I’ve learned from this girl, practicing healthy relationship means that I must carefully guard my heart in the “glory” or “weight” of God, judging my actions by what he thinks of me instead of by likes and follows.

Avoid Social Media Altogether

I think this has a few practical implications. First, we should avoid social media altogether, but especially in new relationships. When Facebook and Instagram get in between us, we not only run the risk of believing in a false image, trusting in that idol of self crafted by the other person, but we run the risk of delaying what God wants to do for us and in us.

Don’t Post About Your Actions

Second, we should avoid posting about our actions on social media. So you confronted a woman about leaving her dog in a car on a hot day. Great. Don’t post about it. Go home and ask Him about it. Did your actions conform to His way of doing life? If so, you did well. If not, then talk with him about it and let him transform you from the inside out. But don’t post to Facebook about it, where you risk feeling as though your actions were good because the post got 30 likes.

Have the Difficult Conversation

Third, go and have that difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding. Unblock the person you’ve blocked. Respond to the message you’ve been ignoring. Fight for reconciliation. That’s the mission of the Church. That’s what it means to love God and love others. Relentlessly forgive those who hurt you. Meet them for coffee or lunch and allow them to apologize. Be open to the possibility of restoring that broken relationship. Step into what God’s already doing in the world, and you’ll make tomorrow just a little better and a little brighter.

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