Fr Billy Swan
In a recent episode of ‘The Word on Fire Show’ (WOFS 263), Brandon Vogt and Bishop Barron have a conversation about a new Netflix documentary called ‘The Social Dilemma’. The film is about the darker side of social media explained by Silicon Valley innovators behind the new technology and former employees of ‘Big Tech’ companies. These are people who have either left the industry for good or added their weight behind the push for ethics to regulate a more humane technology.
In one scene from the movie, a young girl is on some social media platform where she has uploaded a picture of herself. Soon after posting it, a number of ‘likes’ come flowing in. The reaction on her face shows her gratification for the instant approval. But then, a negative comment arrives about her appearance. Her reaction this time is one of deep concern. She has a sudden loss of confidence and begins to question her own body by turning immediately to look in a mirror. You can see the worry in her face as she appears to ask herself: ‘Is this person right? Do I really have this imperfection in my appearance? And if so, how can I fix it?’
The scene is disturbing for it shows how some people, especially the young, are vulnerable to their self-worth being dependent on the approval of others. As the scene in the film shows, all seems well when the approval flows but when it stops or when a criticism comes our way, suddenly we are in deep crisis. This dependency of our self-worth on the approval of others is not good and the problem is made worse by this darker side of social media and the virtual world. Thankfully, this Sunday’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord offers us an antidote and a way out of our addiction to approval and fear of criticism. How so?
In the Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river, we are told that when Jesus came up from the water, the voice of the Father came from heaven that said: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you’ (Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:11). At this moment, Jesus is revealed as the Father’s beloved Son from eternity, now made visible in space and time. He is the Son on whom the Father’s favor rests and who enjoys that favor at every moment of his existence. Throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, He believed that the Father’s favor rested on him as the beloved Son of God. He trusted the Father completely which left him free to serve the needs of people around him. He remained free from manipulation by others because neither praise nor criticism controlled him. For Jesus, ‘human approval means nothing to me’ (John 5:41). This unshakable belief in the Father’s love gave him strength when ridicule and violence rained down on him during his passion. Jesus’ source of approval came from the Father, not from fickle people. This was the source of his strength and fidelity.
Jesus wants us to enjoy this same freedom as he did. He wants us to be so convinced of the Father’s love for us that we too will not be controlled by our desire for approval or fear of rejection by others. The way God gives us access to this gift of freedom is through our baptism. Our baptism is not just a historical event but the door to a constant and living relationship with our merciful Father who gives us a share in the same intimate relationship to his Son. As Jesus is Beloved by the Father, so are we. Because of our baptism, we too have become his beloved sons and daughters, grafted on to the person of Christ. Therefore, because of the gift of our baptism, we can hear those words of the Father addressed also to us: ‘This is my son/daughter the beloved; my favor rests on you’.
The constant awareness that we enjoy God’s favor is the antidote to an over dependance on superficial ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ in a virtual world where our need for approval can be controlled by others. For the Christian, prayer and communion with God’s unconditional love become a real experience where our need for affection and affirmation is truly met. If we do not allow ourselves to be affirmed and cherished by God, if we do not consider ourselves worthy of accepting his love or if we have never experienced his unconditional love, then the risk remains of seeking this affection and approval in our relationships, online and elsewhere.
In this regard, the advice of St Gregory the Great to priests is relevant to all of us: ‘Let the pastor avoid the temptation of wishing to be loved by the faithful instead of by God and being too weak for fear of losing men’s affection’ (Pastoral Rule, 1, 2, 8). If we are driven by a desire to be accepted by others, then we become weak and prone to be controlled by their approval and displeasure – as we see with the young girl in the movie.
For us who use the tools of social media to evangelize, there is an important lesson here. We should beware of paying too much attention to likes of a post or an article we upload on to social media or any negative comments that it might draw. The most important thing is not who or how many people react to it and what they say. What matters most is that it comes from the heart of the Gospel, that it’s true and that we share it with charity because we want others to know the joy and freedom of the Father’s favor too.
Because of our baptism, the only approval that ultimately matters is that of the Father that we enjoy all the time. He knows us through and through and of what we are made (Ps. 139:14). He does not favor us more if we are good and favor us less if we fail. He favors us because, in the words of St Catherine of Siena, we have come to know that ‘you are in love with the beauty of what you have made, since you made of me a new creation in the blood of your Son’ (Dialogue 167).
The whole spiritual life could be described as living with the conviction that this is true. Here is the ‘rock’ on which to build one’s life (cf. Matt. 7:24) and the ‘one thing necessary’ (Luke 10:42). This is what we call faith which leads us, time and time again, back to our true identity, our royal heritage and the gift of freedom.
To conclude. In a few weeks we celebrate the feast of St Thomas Aquinas. In his wonderful prayer for ‘The Wise Ordering of One’s Life’, Thomas humbly asks the Lord: ‘May I not desire to please or fear to displease anyone but you’. This prayer captures the human weakness that can be exploited by social media and points us to the antidote – the grace of God’s favor that we enjoy from our baptism. May we make this prayer our own and bask in the approval we long for and already have from our loving Father.