On Facebook and the Incarnation

237H

We live in a unique age, where we are able to claim “knowing” people without actually building a relationship. By last count, I have 500+ Facebook friends and follow around 200 on Twitter. That’s not counting Pinterest or Instagram or LinkedIn. I am asking myself, “Realistically, how many of these people do I actually have the time or capacity to serve well?” And, “How is my ministry to those around me suffering because of the time I spend being ‘social’ online?”

When Jesus walked the earth, He had many followers. If social media had been around in 1st century Israel, He would have had quite the mob of “friends”. But though He showed compassion to the crowds, He did not spend the majority of His time and attention on them. Instead, He invested His life in 12 men every day, He had some women and men He spent extended time with occasionally (think Mary, Martha, and Lazarus), and He cared for His family.

Jesus did not come to be merely “God over us”–watching everything we do and keeping track of our every check-in; He came as “God with us”. As the omniscient Lord, He knows all the things we try to learn from stalking people on social media. He already knows how you take your coffee, the home you grew up in, and your secret desires and thoughts. Yet, He took the time and the pain necessary to come and live life among us. God didn’t just want to know about us, He wanted to know us, and He wants us to know Him. I believe that a relationship is built through conversation and through life, and God took the effort to do both. He gave us a Book telling us about Him, and He gave us Himself in Jesus–a person. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. While the Word communicates, the flesh dwells.

When Jesus called His disciples to “follow Him”, it was not a superficial connection He had in mind. He told one of his followers, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (John 1:42). When He says, “shall”, Jesus shows that He intended to build a relationship with Simon. He was going to be spending enough time with this man that Cephas (Peter) would become his name, not just among his small group, but also to all readers of the Bible for millennia.

Jesus also met a man named Nathanael. The Lord’s promise of a relationship with Him was even greater:

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:47-51)

Essentially, Jesus said, “I know everything about you, but I want you to know Me. I am going to befriend you and welcome you into my world–which is nothing like yours.”

In the prison chaplaincy, we often talk about “the ministry of presence”. As we go into the barracks and visit with inmates, a large part of our ministry is just being there. We seek to build relationships, pray with people, and try to provide answers to their questions. I do not visit often, but when I walk into the prison, they remember me. I am ashamed to admit that often I do not recall their names or even their faces. But they remember because I was there, with them. Many of the women there do not have often visitors and they do not have Internet access. So when they see a familiar face, even in a photograph, it means the world to them.

I often take for granted that I can “see” people whenever I want. With the click of a mouse, I can find out a person’s favorite movies, where they ate lunch yesterday, and whether they are single. Yet, in knowing those things, I have gained little knowledge of that person as a person. It is too easy. I become content in what I think I know and settle for a digital substitute for real friendship.

Yet, Jesus did not settle for that, so why should we? What if following Him led us to take the next step? What if instead of just “friending” or “following” the next person we meet, we did something with them in real life? What if instead of just building our network, we took the effort to have a deep conversation over coffee? I do have a friendship that grew out of an online connection. We had met once in real life, and often saw each other, but aside from being Facebook friends, we didn’t know much about each other. I noticed that we liked a lot of similar things online, so I reached out and asked her to meet. That first meeting led to another and another, and now I count her as one of my closest friends. But that never would have happened if online “connection” had been the boundary of our relationship.

A true friend (not the Facebook kind) is someone who knows you take your coffee – or if you drink it at all. He or she is someone who walks through the tough moments with you and knows how you will react when the next one comes. They are the ones you run potential mates by for approval and you call when you want to celebrate. Real friendship is a beautiful gift, but it doesn’t arrive easily. Friendship involves work. It can be painful. Friendship often demands letting down the walls, taking off the mask, and showing your ugly scars to another person without knowing how they will react first. The journey to true friendship takes risk, and risk is something social media rarely cultivates.

These days, I’m prayerfully seeking to build relationships the way Jesus does with me. I am convinced: if I am not talking with people or living my life together with people, I’m not ministering to people. Social media can be a tool for relationships, but I often confuse the two. Throwing memes, quotes, blog posts, and play-by-play updates out on the Internet without investing time and energy in the people around me is not ministry. It is noise. And we could all use less of that. I’ve taken several social media fasts before (including one this past month), and I’m always amazed to see how my real-life relationships thrive when the noise is taken out. Am I going to abandon social media entirely? Honestly, I have considered it. I am not there yet, but perhaps sometime I will be. For now, I am simply pursuing faithfulness in the relationships God has given me, while Jesus graciously speaks to and lives in me.