Let me tell you a little secret about myself. I used to be a gambling man. I loved the thrill of studying the odds, playing the odds, and beating the odds. I would stay up all night watching football games while tabulating my potential earnings. The World Cup became a gambling Grand Prix. Chinese New Year gatherings became poker showdowns. And casual meet-ups would turn into intense wagers.
Thankfully, I’ve been rid of that obsession. While I no longer play the odds, I am, however, willing to venture that most of us reading this fall into one of two categories.
You are either a player or a lurker.
I say this in relation to our participation with social media. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter; I name it, you probably have it.
Online personas: Player or lurker
Players are enthusiastic participants. They post a lot, comment a lot, and share a lot. They probably have a constantly updated Instagram feed, and they’re usually really good at sharing thoughts in 140 characters or less. On the other hand, lurkers are enthusiastic observers. They read a lot, watch a lot, but spend very little time in direct engagement. They probably have an Instagram feed that is a month out from its last update, and they’re probably really good at understanding thoughts in 140 characters or less. But whichever category you find yourself falling into, you know for a fact that you spend a lot of time on social media.
Social media is a really funny thing. Just two weeks ago, I was driving teenagers home from church when I realised (to my confusion) that they had been live-streaming themselves on Instagram ever since we took off. I tried to understand why they were doing it. I couldn’t. I tried to get them to stop. I failed. My pleas for them to engage me in face-to-face conversation instead of maintaining their online personas fell on deaf ears. In fact, one of their viewers glibly hollered back at me, “eh you go and get your own social life la!"
I was offended. But after thinking harder, I grew more confused than offended.
It struck me that their online personas were so thoroughly enmeshed with their persons that face-to-face social interactions could be valued beneath mass-marketed online interaction. It was now about amassing high numbers of viewers, hitting more shares, and getting that perfect filter. By virtue of the sheer amount of time that they spent online, their “online lives” had become more ‘real’ to them.
This reversal of how the “unreal” becomes the “real” is a scary thought. But I think, upon honest introspection, that we can all relate to it. The display of the spectacular that social media demands often becomes the standard by which we measure our lives. We are so immersed in an environment of carefully curated pictures and sensational headlines that we start viewing our lives through the same lens.
If you’re a player, you've probably engaged in the eager anticipation of watching likes accumulate on your posts, or felt the need to fine-tune every online representation of yourself. But it just isn’t enough. No amount of likes or shares or comments can truly satisfy the insatiable craving for more validation.
If you’re a lurker, you’ve probably dwelt in the quiet envy of lives seemingly lived to their fullest, or wished that you could just do something more to match up to all that you’ve been exposed to. And it never goes away. There is the occasional high, but the more time you spend lurking, the more you feel disillusioned with the present - either with how things are presented, or with how your own life tends to present itself.
Offline reality: bored and left wanting
In fact, the manner in which our online participation has intertwined with our offline thoughts and expectations has often left us in a state of self-pity. There is a certain languor that accompanies the continual witnessing of big lives and big shows; a certain longing for more of the spectacular; and a certain languishing at the end of it, when we realise that the spectacular alone will not suffice, yet crave for it because it is what we have taught ourselves to value. I’ve seen this play out in my life, and I’ve seen it take hold in many others. The self-pity that we are left with at the end of our participation on social-media is real, present, and pervasive. Continual exposure to the spectacular has left us discontented with how things are in reality.
True reality: hope that is a Person
The Bible has something to say about this. 1 Kings 19:1-18 tells the story of a man whose life has been inundated with the spectacular. Raising the dead? He’s got it. Fire from heaven to deliver his enemies a resounding defeat? He’s got it. Rain from above that brings his mortal enemy to a place of humble obedience before him? He’s got that too. But the man in the passage doesn’t look spectacular at all. Elijah is forlorn and depressed. He’s just witnessed one of the most spectacular victories over pagan worshippers ever, but he feels defeated, and definitely acts that way. Although he overcame Jezebel’s prophets handily, he turned tail and ran upon hearing her threat on his life. (1 Kings 19:1-3)
This is a picture of a man who has witnessed so much of the spectacular that he has forgotten how to respond to the harsh reality of life as it really is. Elijah is so overwhelmed with self-pity that he asks God to let him die! Does it shock you that the very prophet of God could be brought to such a place of abject disappointment and disillusionment off the back of some of the most amazing miracles? It definitely shocked me.
What illuminated this picture for me was when I read on to see how God tenderly responded to him with practical wisdom that reconnected him to reality. God sends him an angel (pretty spectacular, right?) who provides him with a miracle meal (spectacular still). This happens two times (double the spectacle)! But all of this nurturing is to direct him to what He truly needs - an encounter with the Source of the spectacular (1 Kings 19:4-8).
So Elijah traveled to Horeb (which is another name for Mount Sinai, where God first spoke to the people of Israel). It was an arduous journey, but he made it. After reaching the mountain, “the word of the Lord came to him” (1 Kings 19:9) and spoke to him. In the same spirit of self-pity, he melodramatically laid out his grievances in full. In the same spirit of supreme wisdom, the word of the Lord told him to go outside to meet God (1 Kings 19:10).
What happens next is a story that most of us are acquainted with. There was a great and strong wind that tore the mountains and broke the rocks to pieces! But God was not in the wind. There was an earthquake! But nope, not there either. Now there came a fire, but God was still not there. And then - there was the sound of a low whisper, or a thin silence, and God was there (1 Kings 19:11-13).
God speaks to Elijah again, and he laments in the very same way. But this time, God leaves him with practical counsel by telling him exactly what he is to do (1 Kings 19:14-18).
Reading this account always fascinates me. It fascinates me because it’s amazing how a prophet of God can be this petulant, or even defeated. It makes me feel much better about my many failings. It also fascinates me, because of the beautiful picture of a soothing, restorative, and divinely patient grace it presents.
Most of Elijah’s gripes were exaggerations or even outright falsehoods. We know that he experienced things much better than his fathers, and he definitely wasn’t the “only one left”. God definitely knew that too. But God did not respond with a swift dismissal of his melodrama. God listened, and then God spoke with authority.
What most fascinates me is how God used the spectacular to pinpoint the problem. The great and strong wind, earthquake, and fire would have left most of us prostrated and shaken to the core. But for Elijah the miracle man, it must have been just another day in the office. What was comforting for him, and remains comforting for us, was that God was not in the spectacular. What a reminder this must have been for Elijah! He was a man of zealous endeavors and impassioned victories, but the spectacular had swept him away and displaced him from its source. This explains his crisis of faith in the wake of Jezebel’s threat on his life. Being fixated on the spectacular, he was stumped by what was real. The spectacular meant nothing to him, and provided no comfort because he was displaced from its source. Elijah needed a hug, not a hurricane. He needed to know God in a deeply personal way, and God knew that he needed it. God met him there.
Social media gives us great pictures of the spectacular. We hear inspiring stories of triumph over adversity. We see precious pictures of beauty in life and memories cherished. We read of the many highs to be enjoyed in life under the sun. All of that is fair and good, but don’t let the spectacular displace you from its source. When you consider the source, you begin to trust in the victor and not in the victories. We need to connect the gifts to the Giver. We need a sustaining faith.
If you’re struggling to find a sustaining faith today, and if you find yourself often swaddled in self-pity, remember this: the root of our self-pity is often when we make the spectacular our source. Look past the spectacular. Look at its source. Remember that behind the spectacular is a God who speaks; a God who hears; and a God who sustains. Isn’t that far more spectacular than any spin that social media can have on our otherwise mundane lives? And isn’t it an amazing thing that we have an awesome picture of God’s faithfulness through His Scripture? Scripture put together over thousands of years, over thousands of years ago, that still speaks to us with crystal-clear clarity this very day. Scripture that still speaks to us when the buzz of the spectacular fades away, and we find ourselves in the quiet - a thin silence. Scripture that still tells us how God is here, how God is with us, and how His Word will sustain us.
Friends, let us cast off any romantic obsession we have with the spectacular. Let’s rediscover the truly spectacular: that we have a God who restores us, soothes us, and directs us tenderly even though we deserve the very opposite.
Written by Joshua Tay, who still uses Facebook, but does so wisely.