In a recent episode of The Word on Fire Show (episode 263), Brandon Vogt and Bishop Barron had a conversation about a new Netflix documentary called The Social Dilemma. The film is about the darker side of social media, as 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 create 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 making their self-worth 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 a deep crisis. This dependency on the approval of others for our sense of self-worth 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.
In the Gospel account 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 from heaven said: “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you” (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 believes that the Father’s favor rests on him as the beloved Son of God. He trusts the Father completely, which leaves him free to serve the needs of people around him. He remains free from manipulation by others, because neither praise nor criticism control him. For Jesus, “human approval means nothing to me” (John 5:41). This unshakable belief in the Father’s love gives him strength when ridicule and violence rain down on him during his Passion. Jesus’ source of approval, the source of his strength and fidelity, comes from the Father, not from fickle people.
Jesus wants us to enjoy this same freedom. 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 his intimate relationship with 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 onto the person of Christ. Therefore, because of the gift of our Baptism, we can hear those words of the Father addressed also to us: “You are my beloved son/daughter; my favor rests on you.”
The constant awareness that we enjoy God’s favor is the antidote to an overdependence on superficial ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ in a virtual world where our need for approval is contingent on 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, and 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 dispproval—as we see with the young girl in the movie.
For those of 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 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, and that is ours if we want it. He knows us through and through and of what we are made (Ps. 139:14). He does not favor us more when we are good and less when we fail. He favors us because, in the words of St. Catherine of Siena, we have come to know that God is “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 (see 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 true freedom.
In a few weeks, we will 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.