The North Shore runs along the north half of Minnesota, along Lake Superior. From Duluth to the Canadian border, 150 miles of shoreline feature giant cliffs, massive rock formations, and refrigerator-size boulders scattered across the landscape like dice.
To the east, the lake itself is so large, the water takes on qualities of an endless ocean stretching into the far horizon. It was in the middle of this majestic landscape, high upon a hill, our family rented a cabin to mark the end of one summer together.
This North Shore landscape produces dozens of beautiful waterfalls, cut into the rock. The hills of boulders and the pine woods slope down to tall cliffs that plunge in some places over 100 feet straight down into Lake Superior. Along the 150 miles of the North Shore are more than 130 documented waterfalls — including one 300 yards down the hill from our cabin: a gorgeous, loud, thundering, 25-foot-tall waterfall — a tight cascade of water dropping into a big bowl pond, maybe 80 feet across.
Down in the pond, dark basalt walls horseshoe under the waterfall and around the sides, and the pool opens up to a little river on the other side. The plunge pool is made of dark stone carved out by water and ice. The water itself is slightly red, rusted by iron ore, but it’s so deep the shaded pond appears ink black.
Over this pond, opposite the falls, a gnarled tree grew out of the boulders. And from one of its thick, old branches hung a rope swing.
Here we spent the morning, alone.
With the sun out, the day grew warm, and our (at the time) 15-year-old son explored the place more fully, and returned with enough mustered-up courage to make a bold request: “Let me jump off the 25-foot waterfall!”
My wife and I looked at each other, looked at the falls, looked at the rock face that bulged out, and we said: “No way. No, you cannot. You’ll break your neck! It’s way too dangerous to jump.”
To be fair, at this point we don’t know what, if any, submerged boulders lurked in the dark pond.
So, he went off and preoccupied himself climbing little footholds in the horseshoe walls, jumping in at five or eight feet up.
An hour later, at the heat of high noon, three guys appeared suddenly at the top of the 25-foot falls — road workers scuffed with black asphalt. They stripped to shorts. The first man stepped to the edge of the waterfall, launched himself off the cliff, and dropped feet first, nose plugged, into the black pool below, just as naturally as if he’d been doing this for years (which he probably has). A second guy followed. By that time, the first guy had climbed back up and on to the waterfall edge to jump in again. Cooled off, they re-dressed and left, taking little notice of us.
All the momentum (and now all the evidence) swinging firmly in his favor, our 15-year-old son returned to repeat his plea — our case now gone.
“Okay, so you want to jump,” I said, getting a sudden sense that a sermon illustration was about to be born. “I’ll let you jump off the 25-foot waterfall under one condition. We’re not going to video it. Not on your phone. Not on my phone. Not on mom’s phone. But you can jump, and experience the thrill of it for yourself! And we can enjoy the moment as a family.”
Well, you can imagine what happened next.
‘What’s the Point?’
On this condition he threw his arms up in the air and said with exasperation, “Well, then, what’s the point?!” And looked off in disappointment, as if the whole reason for making the jump was now gone!
Now, was I simply emotionally torturing my teenage son? Maybe. But I know him, and I knew this moment was evoking a strong motive inside him. It offered me a parenting opportunity I could not pass up.
Now, in itself, our social media sharing is not inherently wrong. But our sharing is now a prime motivation for why we do what we do in the first place. It’s instinctive. And that’s the danger — the not thinking about why we do what we do.
But first, because I know you’re all wondering — yes, we let him jump off the 25-foot waterfall. Yes, he lived. Yes, we recorded it. But we made an agreement that he could share it online with his friends only after we returned home a few days later. Until then, he had to voluntarily give up his phone for the last two days of the trip, which was the unplugging we wanted him to enjoy.
Three Backstories to Trace
Now, there are three quick backstories.
Life’s a Stage
First, there’s a technological backstory to this waterfall moment. Once upon a time in the life of social media, we could share things we had already accomplished. You’d be at home at your computer and you’d remember: “Oh yeah, I was on this family trip, and I have some pictures on my digital camera, so now a week later I’m going to share a picture on Facebook.” Those days are gone. Now, while on vacation, we’re thinking of what we can stage, shoot, and share immediately to let other people see and know what we’re doing at that very moment.
Social media turns our lives into a stage. We set the scene. We frame the camera. The people around us become actors and actresses. We become the director and the producer — even the starring actor (and the stunt man) if we want to. Social media and smartphone cameras and mobile web and real-time sharing is a part of life now.
There’s a social backstory to this waterfall moment. High school popularity contests have always been happening — reserved mainly for school hours, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday to Friday, nine months a year. In a previous generation, the home was a low-key place for teens to exhale and relax from the peer pressure comparison market. And family vacations were the ultimate buffer to push back the onslaught of peer pressure and popularity seeking.
No longer. Teens now carry in their pockets a 24/7/365 popularity contest and comparative culture with their peers, even on family vacation.
‘Sharented’ from Birth
There’s a parental backstory to this waterfall moment. In that moment, the story with my son exposed me. The sad reality is that my son is living out a pattern that I unconsciously instilled in him. For the last ten years, he has been an actor in front of my iPhone. It’s called “sharenting” — a term for parents who have shared lots of things about their children online over the years. We posted their birth photos, and shared their baby pictures, and their first steps, and their first smiles, first words, first games, first performances, first this, first that — they’ve all been documented and shared on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter.
In other words: Teen selfies emerge from parental sharenting. We’re a generation of parents who raised our children with a constant camera in their faces. We trained them to do this.
Extreme Social Needs
All of this is driven by new, extreme social needs. In the words of one dystopian novel of the digital age, social media pioneers are manufacturing new social needs inside of us. “It’s like snack food,” says one character to a technologist. “You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating. You’re not hungry, you don’t need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you’re pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.” The character goes so far as to say these new apps of connection “actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying” (Eggers, The Circle). It’s a futuristic novel but the reality is true now. We are living off new neediness, unnaturally extreme social needs created by social media. It’s junk food. These are “manufactured, unnaturally extreme social needs.”
The merging of our tech-wonders has fundamentally shaped our self-perception, our self-projection, and everything between. And the question for us over these two days together is: Why? What is it that drives tweens, teens, and adults of all ages, compulsively to our phones in order to post and refresh and watch ourselves being liked? Why is social media part of our daily ritual of self-grooming? Why are we hungry for online self-affirmation? Why do posts slighted and images unlinked feel like a personal diss?
Quest for Self-Glory
How did we arrive at this point of unnaturally extreme social neediness?
For answers we turn to God’s word and the Gospel of John — specifically John 5. Things around Jesus are falling apart fast. Jesus is breaking the Sabbath, they say, “even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” Thus, “the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him” (John 5:18). For our time, we will zero in on John 5:30 and following. Jesus is speaking directly to religious leaders. Jesus says,
I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. You sent to John [the Baptist], and he has borne witness to the truth. Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. (John 5:30–36)
Now Jesus draws attention to himself, as the Messiah, to expose these religious leaders. Buckle up!
And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. (John 5:37–41)
That verse boggles the brain. In this text Jesus says to the religious leaders, “Glory from men is not what I seek.” Here’s why: Jesus is the Word, and as the Word, he is the Creator of the universe. That’s what the third verse of this book says: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). The Creator does not need creation; therefore, the approval or rejection of the creature does not add to, or subtract from, the Creator. That’s why the glory of man doesn’t woo Jesus’s heart. Jesus isn’t going to launch a YouTube channel to tabulate his mass popularity. He doesn’t care, for reasons we will soon see.
But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. (John 5:42–43)
And then the verse we will focus on most, verse 44:
How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
The immediate context is religious people — religious people feeding on the glory of man, seeking after self-glory.
This is one of the most shattering quotes from the mouth of Christ spoken to our digital age. These words still reverberate. Faith is a gate that opens us to a whole world of invisible, eternal realities. But self-glory shuts and padlocks that gate and confines us into this visible world, this world that’s expiring and passing away as we feed ourselves on Twinkies of self-affirmation.
In other words, says Jesus: To be consumed with self-glory is to be blind to the glory of Christ.
Clash of the Ages
Let me step back a moment. Because perhaps this was all just a localized dustup, one that has nothing to do with the digital age at all. Maybe Jesus is just confronting some over-protective, territorial religious leaders who have been offended? A jealous, “good ol’ boys” network of religious leaders now getting their toes stepped on? For years I read over this text as that — just a localized dustup.
But there’s a much different way to read Jesus’s confrontation with the Pharisees.
Another way to see this is that: All of human history has led to this moment in time. Christ, the Creator, stands face to face with his creatures. One theologian puts Jesus’s conflicts with the Pharisees like this: “Here for the first time in the history of the world the fight between the glory of God and the glory of the world reaches its uttermost severity” (Ethelbert Stauffer, New Testament Theology, 93). This is a clash for the ages. This is the core human battle between God and sinners. The glory of God and the glory of the self has been the tension of the entire universe since the fall.
The whole demonic realm is built around Satan’s desire to be God — his pursuit of self-glory. And then he tempts humans toward self-glory. This was true in Eden. Eat this fruit and you will glorify yourself, becoming like God, no longer in need of God (Genesis 3:1–7).
At root, all sin is to live for the glory and praise of human beings instead of living to please the one and only true God. Sin is the hunt for self-glory.
This was certainly true at Babel. The first major technological fail was mankind collectively trying to make a name for itself. We do not want our glory to be forgotten — so we build a temple into the sky to worship human progress. We showcase the glory of man (Genesis 11:1–9).
The entire story of idolatry is a grab at self-glory. We’d rather have a god we can readily understand, easily appease, and instantly command (Habakkuk 2:18–20). Idolatry is all about self-glory, as much as it’s a rejection of God’s glory (Psalm 106:20).
So, don’t let the bit apple icon on your device get lost on you. Social media addiction plagues us because every day our device keeps holding out to us the same apple of self-glorification as in Genesis 3. Take another bite! And we do. Every day we bite. Instead of seeking God’s glory, we chase after human glory — all facilitated by our gadgets.
And now, Christ the King over creation, the King over technology, has stepped into human history for this long war to reach its consummate battle. He will usher in the battle to end all battles. That is the cross. But here in John 5, the incarnate King stares into the face of the world’s glory! And he draws a line in the sand to divide. Christ says, “You must choose. Are you seeking your own glory? Or the glory of God? Is your life going to pander to the flattery of your peers, or is it going to be about the glory of God in Christ?” This is the very heart of Jesus’s conflict with the religious leaders. And it’s the conflict inside each and every one of us in this room; it’s a war we each must fight in the digital age.
Five Ways We Seek Our Own Glory in Our Gadgets
Where specifically does cyber-narcissism manifest today? I’ll suggest five areas.
1. The self-glory of peer approval.
The Pharisees relate to one another like the worst high school emo-drama you can imagine. They want to be seen and loved. Jesus says their self-glory reciprocates. I give you glory, you give me glory. We feed off the glory we give one another. To be embraced by our peers is an incredibly alluring temptation. David Foster Wallace, in his novel Infinite Jest, writes,
For kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. . . . We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone” (694).
Something drives us, from the inside, to be Unalone. Which is why we so readily embrace new, manufactured, unnaturally extreme social needs. You ping your peers, your peers ping you — every waking moment filled with texts, DMs, Snaps, and throwaway selfies.
Selfies are not necessarily narcissistic. They are a way to say, Here I am. But they can also expose this 24/7 peer-hunger. We’d rather send a thousand throwaway selfies every day than be unseen. We’d do anything to escape the cage of loneliness. Smartphones prick the primitive human impulse for appreciation, the form of an image of myself — a self-replication in order to be seen, known, and loved — through constant contact with other seekers of affirmation. This is cause #1 for smartphone abuse. We crave admiration from one another, so we cultivate an inordinate desire for human approval through our social media platforms.
And Jesus’s warning couldn’t be clearer: “Whoever loves [his social network] more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Because when you seek your glory from your social networks, you are, in effect, discarding Christ.
2. The self-glory of tribal alliances.
This is a similar game. Like the Pharisees, we all want to be approved and accepted within a sub-group. We dress certain ways. We drive a certain car, live in a certain home, and try to fit into a specific social group. So, it’s no surprise, this bleeds into our online habits. We want an online sub-group or peer group to welcome and accept us. And we quickly learn what to say to be embraced by that sub-group.
One marvel of the digital age is how quickly groupthink codifies consensus on every issue. A viral moment or event happens in time, a political headline breaks, and within seconds, each tribe sets the boundaries of what you must affirm if you plan to appease the tribe you aspire to belong inside. An event breaks, the tribes solidify. You are left only to choose what you are going to like or retweet or say to preserve the apparent glory we get from inclusion into our chosen tribe.
3. The self-glory of moral outrage.
One thing becomes clear in the Gospel of John: the Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders trafficked in moral outrage. It was their stock and trade. It was their power. It was what bound together the guild. If you share the moral outrage, you’re in; if not, you’re out. Religious tribalism is a huge form of self-glory seeking. Moral superiority was the glory of the Pharisees. Blinded by their own religious indignation, the most religious people in Jerusalem were blind to the glory of the Messiah (see John 8:48–59).
We’re talking morality as self-glory. And it happens today. In his article titled, “My Outrage Is Better Than Your Outrage,” one journalist writes about how moral outrage spawns other outrages, until you see an escalation of outrage, or as he calls it, a “superiority-outrage bandwagon . . . a bandwagon of outrage one-upmanship.” In other words, “The Internet launders outrage and returns it to us as validation, in the form of likes and stars and hearts. The greatest return comes from a strong and superior point of view, on high moral ground. And there is, fortunately and unfortunately, always higher moral ground” (James Hamblin). This is a plague of all social media — of those on the right, the left, the progressives, the conservatives, the religious, and the orthodox. The highest moral ground, and the loudest moral outrage, wins the greatest glory. (And eventually magazine covers.)
It is good to have convictions and to voice those convictions. But escalated outrage is also where a lot of adults go to launder moral indignation and turn it into validation to get applause and to feed their own self-glory.
4. The self-glory of shamelessness.
Just when you thought social media couldn’t become more addictive, along comes a new video app called TikTok. And with it, says journalist Nicholas Carr, a new plateau in digital media: “infinite media.”
“The media business has always aspired to endlessness, to securing an unbroken hold on the sense organs of the public. TikTok at last achieves it,” Carr writes. “More than YouTube, more than Facebook, more than Instagram, more than Twitter, TikTok reveals the sticky new atmosphere of our lives.” In the end, “TikTok achieves endlessness. It is endless horizontally, with each video an infinitely looping GIF, and it is endless vertically, with the videos stacked up in an infinite scroll. There is no exit from TikTok’s cinema. One college student I know, having recently downloaded the app, told me that she now finds herself watching TikToks until her iPhone battery dies.”
TikTok is, like many social media apps, great fun when your aims are silly or harmless. Humans are endlessly witty and creative, and short-form video apps showcase this. Our phones can capture our playfulness, and I don’t want to disparage that.
But the dangers of all our media emerge when we use apps to woo popular appeal, to go viral. Because you’ll soon discover three shortcuts to grab eyes and go viral on TikTok, or on any social media platform: (1) put yourself forward in ways that flaunt sexual immodesty, or (2) celebrate worldliness, or (3) embrace crude joking — the very things Paul says should not be named among Christians (in Ephesians 5:3–4). These also happen to be things that grab our eyes as consumers, too.
In other words, Carr writes, “TikTok shows us what a world without shame looks like. The old virtues of restraint — prudence, discretion, tact — are gone. There is only one virtue: to be seen. In TikTok’s world, which more and more is our world, shamelessness has lost its negative connotations and become an asset. You may not get fifteen minutes of fame, but you will get fifteen seconds.”
Yes, but at the cost of your own dignity. Those are immoral forms of self-glory. Here’s another moral take on self-glory.
5. The self-glory of personal piety.
These same religious leaders trying to kill Christ are already hypocrites. Why? Because they took what should be their private devotional life and broadcast that life into public view. Pharisees pray on the street corner to be seen by all. Jesus says, when you pray, close the door and do it “in secret” (Matthew 6:5–6). Social media comes along and says, “Set up your devotional setting just right — open Bible, hot coffee, nice mug, specific pen, light streaming in from the corner — and Instagram it!” But when your digital door is flung open on your piety, whose glory are you seeking?
Do all those things. Make your morning devo spot beautiful. And close the door, Jesus says. Your devotional setting is not Instagrammable. Your charitable deeds are not a backdrop for your selfies. Period.
In these and many other temptations in the digital age, we are surrounded by temptations to vainglory. All of us. The religious and irreligious. Kids, tweens, teens, adults, mid-lifers, boomers, the elderly. This impulse to self-glory lives inside every one of us. In Spurgeon’s words, “It is hard work to keep from glorifying self. If anyone were to say, ‘I have no ambition for self-glory,’ he would be lying. He would deny that which is his very aim in life. For in every man there lurks some love of self-glory.” Spurgeon, again, turns to a mushroom metaphor: “Our life seems at times to run all into puff balls and bloated fungi of self-glory. We think that we are something when we are nothing. Then the Lord must prune us back to reality.”
We’re mushrooms, trying to make the substance of who we are look as big and impressive as possible.
Death to Self
And yet, dying to the praise of man is at the heart of what it means to take up our cross and follow after Christ. To follow Christ, we must die to the praise of the world. Jesus goes so far as to merge the desire for wealth and the desire for praise into essentially the same battle. Desire for wealth; desire for praise — linked. We see this in Mark 8:34–38. Check this out:
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul [possessions]? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels [praise].”
- Verses 34–35: Deny yourself; take up your cross.
- Verse 36: That means: die to the love of worldly possessions.
- Verse 37: That means: die to the love of worldly praise.
If your heart is courting the possessions of the world, you will turn from Christ as you forfeit your soul. If your heart is courting the praise of the world, you will turn from Christ and be ashamed of him. Suicidal possessions. Suicidal praise. At stake are our souls.
Both battles rage inside us. And those battles are not ending any time soon.
“I face temptations with stuff at age 73,” admits John Piper. “I need all the help I can get to be free. You do too. Free from the main idols in the world: possessions and praise. Whose approval do we crave most? Whose praise are you most desperate not to lose? In whose presence do you fear most being ashamed? Which relationship is most precious to you? The way to heaven is in the birth of a new self, a self that looks at Jesus — his suffering, his rejection, his killing, and his rising from the grave — and then looks at possessions and praise and says: ‘Possession-loving self, praise-loving self, I deny you. I kill you. I reckon you dead. You have no dominion in my life. And you possession-loving self, you praise-loving self, if it costs me my life to deny you, I die gladly to be with Jesus forever.’ That’s a new man! That’s a miracle!”
That’s the point of Mark 8:34–38. Death to worldly wealth and possessions. Death to the glory of the world. It’s one in the same battle against the two main idols of this world. Possessions and praise.
Faith in Greater Glory
And yet — here’s the kicker — expelling vainglory from our lives is not the end of the matter. No! We must have glory.
So, what is glory? Have you ever stood inside the oval office? That feeling is glory. Have you ever met a celebrity? That’s a taste of glory. Have you ever been in a dreamy wedding? That’s glory. We all know what glory is, even in little glimpses that pass away in a moment. Here’s the thing: We were made with an insatiable desire to find ourselves drawn into glory. We want to be inside the stadium for the walk-off homerun, or the game-winning touchdown as time runs out. We want to touch our celebrities. We want to be close to presidents. We were made to touch glory. It’s what our hearts are created for. But we ourselves are not the center of glory. Self-glory won’t cut it. And even our greatest celebrities and athletes won’t cut it. A greater glory must satisfy us!
And in a million ways we can seek after self-glory. But Jesus cannot be clearer when he tells us that these pursuits of self-glory render true faith inoperable. Look again at John 5:44: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”
Jesus was not motivated by popularity or the approval of man. He was dead to it. When the crowds seemed to love him, he doesn’t care. When the crowds turn on him, he’s not surprised. When the crowds chant his execution, it all seems inevitable. Human popularity is fickle and vain. Even religiously motivated popularity is futile and vain. Jesus understood this 2,000 years before Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and TikTok, and long before America’s Hollywood celebrity culture and British royal celebrity culture. The drama of fallen humanity is one huge, man-centered popularity contest. It’s a sickness that infects even the most religious. So, Christ rejects YouTube fame. He rejects Instagram fame. He rejects social media celebrity prominence. He knows that you can go viral for all the wrong, selfish, vain reasons.
Every day we stand on the proverbial lip of a waterfall. Daily we find ourselves in places where we can grab at self-glory or relinquish self-glory. We seek a glory to satisfy us forever, and our social media platforms let us down over and over. And yet, a life without glory is not an option. So, what are we to do? That’s where we pick up in the next message.