Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
-Galatians 1:10 (NIV)
Like a lot of moms on the first day of school, Jill Falconer, of East Renfrewshire, Scotland, took a photo of her daughter, Lucie before she sent her off for her first day of Primary Two (like first grade in the States). Jill says Lucie “likes to be clean” and “loved having her new things on,” and she looks like it as she smiles cutely in the photo at home, perfect in the school uniform of black cardigan, skirt, knee socks, and shoes with a spotless white shirt and black-and-gold striped tie. She even has a black-and-gold bow in her perfectly combed blonde hair.
The photo looks like countless others I’ve seen on social media the last few weeks. Parents have always liked taking photos of their kids on the first day of school, I guess, but in the era of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. those photos get shared much more widely. Seems like a certain amount of competitiveness has grown up around it; parents feel the need to up their back-to-school photo game to keep up with the perfectly coiffed, styled, posed, and composed progeny of their social media friends.
One Facebook friend of mine even admitted recently in posting her daughter’s back-to-school picture that they’d staged the photoshoot a few days before the first day of school, to make sure they had plenty of time to create the perfect shot.
So first-day-of-school photos have joined the long list of things (including vacations, meals, workouts, style, weight loss, political opinions, church, work, and pet hijinks) that we “curate” for an audience instead of just living.
Even that word, “curate,” is new — at least in that usage. It implies a self-consciousness about the photos we post (and don’t post), the words we make public (and don’t make public), even the food that we want people to think we eat and the places we want them to know that we’ve visited. (Seems like no one on Facebook ever eats a bag of Cheetos or vacations in Pittsburgh…) The word suggests an intent to create a posed, scripted, and sanitized life that’s safe for display, a life that we think others might enjoy, admire, and maybe even be a little bit jealous of.
I know; not everyone on social media does it. But enough do that you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Maybe you’ve even thought about why it could be a problem.
Taken to an extreme, living your life for the admiration of other people leaves you empty, always searching for the next perfect thing worthy of sharing, always anxious that someone will see past the life you want them to know about and catch a glimpse of the less than perfect stuff in the storerooms and closets behind the scenes. We’re left forever looking for approval in the form of likes, upvotes, follows, and all the other ways we keep score. Beyond that, we start to lose the ability to distinguish between what’s real and what’s for public display, as seen most sharply in our tendency to compare our real lives with other peoples’ curated ones. (No one posts photos of a fight with their spouse or their kids’ behavioral problems or the way those pants fit after they’ve gained 10 pounds.)
That’s a perfect recipe for depression, anger, and despair. Especially for kids and teens who haven’t yet figured out that a convincing picture of reality isn’t the same thing as reality.
All that is why I love what Jill Falconer posted alongside Lucie’s “official” first-day-school shot. It’s a much more honest photo of Lucie at the end of her first day. She’s walking up to the house, it looks like, and let me tell you she doesn’t really look like the same girl. Her hair looks impossibly tangled and matted, sticking in all directions like it’s alive and trying its best to climb off her head. Her tie is coming unknotted, her cardigan is unbuttoned and sliding off one shoulder, her shirt is coming untucked, and her socks are “knee” in name only. (More like mid-calf socks…) Her unicorn backpack, hanging in the crook of one arm, has its eyes closed as if it’s exhausted.
When Jill asked Lucie what in the world she’d been doing to get her uniform in such a state, she simply gave the standard response to parental questions about what happened in school: “Not much.”
The photos have gone viral, ironically enough. Lucie’s response to millions of people seeing her at, ahem, less than her best — “Oh, I’m famous.” May she never worry too much about what others think.
The Bible tells us not to spend much time trying to impress others. In fact, Paul seems to suggest that at best it’s very difficult to be a servant of Christ and to please God if we’re preoccupied with the opinions of others. Those two centers of gravity will inevitably take us in opposite directions. If we get our self-image from what others think of us, we’ll sooner or later do what they expect instead of what God wants.
I’ve wondered sometimes how we’d dress at church if we came in looking like we really felt. Maybe that would be better because then we’d know. We’d know our brothers and sisters were hurting, and we’d know that the people we were trying to impress are as messy and unkempt as we are. We’d know that we have nothing to gain from putting on a front for each other. We’d know that the only thing to do is come together in our shared brokenness and love and help each other. Maybe that’s why the Bible says we should carry each others’ burdens — so we know that everyone has them and that none of us are really all that put together.
Like many struggles we have in our walk with Jesus, this one comes out of a failure to really grasp the gospel at heart level. Here’s what we have to know in our gut about ourselves, and about each other: “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags." Oh, we can make a pretty decent start of it. We can hold people at arm’s length enough that they don’t see much but the idealized picture we want them to know about. But by the end of the day, there’s nothing that looks too good about us. We’re a mess of conflicting motives, selfishness, weakness, and greed. That’s scary to admit, but it’s freeing. If anyone looks an inch below the surface when we’re tired, discouraged, angry, and afraid, they won’t see much there that’s admirable. Neither will we when we look at them.
But the gospel says that’s not where God’s approval lies. God sees right past our carefully-curated lives. He knows that what we pretend isn’t remotely true. He’s very clear about the real picture. He knows all the ugly stuff that we keep hidden — and he knows the pain and fear that makes us want to hang on to it.
Here’s the thing: he still loves us. He loves us when we get ourselves all cleaned up and pose with a happy smile. And he loves us no less when we’re shabby, filthy, bedraggled, exhausted, and unable to pretend.
The answer to the need we have to curate our lives is the wonderful news that God loves the real us, and that he loves us so much that he sent his Son into all our ugliness to save us — to save us by giving his life.
Put your confidence in his love, right where you are, as who you are, and you’ll never feel the need to impress anyone else ever again.