I love using emojis in my text messages. Most of us do these days. They serve as a quick way to respond, with or without any accompanying words. Maybe the added whimsy, humor or emotion is what helps us feel a little more connected to the person on the other side. But it's easy to falsely assume we know someone through texts and snaps and give them the impression they know us through the smiling, laughing emoticons we use.
Those emojis, like the Instagram and SnapChat accounts we scroll through, have a way of convincing us that everyone else is doing great; fully succeeding in life, love and happiness. Of course, this is often not the case at all. But when we compare our reality to what we see to be true elsewhere (Satan's original strategy dating back to the garden) we feel worse about ourselves.
In 2015 I created and conducted an online anonymous survey that showed the majority of responders believing they were the only ones struggling with feelings of inadequacy. In their minds, all their friends were perfect while they were failing to measure up. Moderate to high stress, anxiety and depression characterized over half the respondents, with additional mental health issues also common. Not surprising, among these same respondent's social media use was also high.
While this survey data is reflective of teenagers ages 13-18, research show similar data collected from college students and young adults on up into their early 30's. Depression on university campuses is reported to be at an all time high, and according to Mashable ("a go-to source for tech and digital culture") the mental health struggles of one out of every five millennial results in diminished productivity and absenteeism in the workplace.
If this has been your experience, you are definitely not alone. But all the smiling emojis and selfies we see beg us to think otherwise, which is why we must go behind the scenes (and screens) for a deeper look at the contradictory reality of what is really going on.
My survey pointed to discontent driven by comparison and striving for perfection as an underlying reason. In our culture, it's not enough to be successful in one realm. Perfection requires being the best in every realm. This means along with always bringing your "A" game, you have to look the best (skinniest, prettiest, most muscular, best dressed), maintain the most exciting social life with pictures to prove it, and be in a relationship with someone as equally spectacular.
It's easy to see in a social media, selfie-centered world how feelings of failure or not measuring up can overtake us. But, for the real issue at hand, and the only true fix we must dive deeper under the surface.
Let's start by asking these probing questions:
"What are you hoping in?"
"How are you trying to find 'life'?"
"Where are you looking for identity and worth?"
How you answer will reveal who or what you worship. If it's anything other than God, you have turned to a false god looking for significance, meaning and life.
A false god or idol, as we tend to think, may be love of money and material goods, but it can also be our appearance, acceptance, performance, perfectionism, status, success, desires, and control. It can be anything and everything. In fact, the root of all sin is idolatry because something else other than God is ruling our hearts.
We turn from God and toward something else to fill us, to satisfy us, to give us an identity and worth. But they can't give us these things – or at least, it doesn't last. Sure, it may meet a need or seem fulfilling for a little while, but eventually we will need something more. Think of it like this: When we wake up we are hungry, so we eat and are full. But a few hours later come lunchtime we are hungry again. It's time for more food. In the same way, this is what happens when we turn to an idol to give us what only God can.
Consider then why the highest number of "likes" you received on a picture last year (or even last week) is probably not enough now. Or, why you have to capture the most perfect picture with the wittiest caption. There is no staying power. To know your worth now you crave more. But the more we try to stuff the emptiness in our souls with something other than God the more expansive the emptiness and the more intense our drive to fill it.
Could it be then the emptiness and desperation you feel, the depression even, may stem from placing your hope in false sources? From tying your identity to your own effort and constantly searching for something better, something more to feel your worth?
In Mark 8:34-35, Jesus gives a better way – the only way — to find life and satisfaction.
"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." Mark 8:34-35
Contrary to what many think, Jesus is not demanding we give up worldly things, or trying to motivate us to obedience out of guilt. What Jesus is teaching is what it means to truly follow him as a disciple. And, to be his disciple means finding life in him. Another way of saying this is to find our identity wrapped up in his.
Trying to find an identity in anything else will lead to constant disappointment. The happiness, success, security we chase after in counterfeit gods will always be fleeting. Therefore, Jesus calls us to deny seeking an identity in false sources because true life can only be found in him.
But is it not the desire for affirmation and acceptance that leads us to chase after those things, and strive to meet the always-changing standard of perfection?
What needs to hit our heart then is who Jesus is for us. It was his worth and work in life and in death that secured our right standing before God; his perfect performance that matters, not ours. Because he measured up to God's standard of a sinless life, those who are in Christ have been given his spotless record. God now looks upon us as he sees his son – perfect, holy and righteous.
Therefore, in him you are fully and forever loved, accepted, and redeemed. That means you can stop trying to be perfect (or pretending and presenting yourself as if you are) as the means to validation and worth. In him you are filled, so take off the mask and live loved.
When you do by God's grace may you be free of the narrow lenses of self, the constant striving and things of this world. May you stand secure in Christ as your identity and as that becomes more your reality may you be filled with true joy and the perfect peace found only in him. And for that, there is no emoticon.