Solomon wisely states that we should “let another praise [us], and not [our] own mouth; a stranger, and not [our] own lips” (Prov. 27:2). Across cultures, social etiquette embodies the wisdom found here. We simply don’t enjoy the company of the braggadocios who always speak about themselves. We expect others to show some level of humility—even if it’s not sincere.
Thanks to pervasive social media and instant messaging, more people today interact with others primarily from behind the screen of a laptop or smartphone. And as a result, many think Solomon’s wisdom can be ignored. Social etiquette doesn’t seem to apply to social media. For example, the Pew Research Center recently asked U.S. teens what they post online. At almost 50 percent, the overwhelming response was the sharing of their own accomplishments. For girls aged fifteen to seventeen, this number rose to close to 60 percent.
Why is this? I call it the digital deception. When we engage through a screen, something changes. Put an iPhone in people’s hands, and words they would not dare say in person they will eagerly tweet or post as a comment. Digitally mediated communication has led to digitally mindless communication. We don’t think before we speak online. We sit in front of a keyboard and deceive ourselves, suppressing the knowledge of God’s presence and assuming we are alone. But we are not alone on social media. God is there. And so is a potential audience of billions of people.
As a result of this deception, our words online are full of boasting. Our comments seek to tear down instead of build up; they serve self instead of serving others. If Twitter was a physical place, I don’t suspect we would desire to visit it or spend time with many of its inhabitants. In some ways, social media has become the worst dinner party you can imagine, full of uninvited guests complaining about the food and insisting that they could cook it better.
Is this really the pattern Christians should follow as they communicate online? Regardless of how the world acts and what it embraces, Christians have a higher authority. We refrain from boasting not because society frowns on it; we refrain from boasting because God frowns on it. The same standard that guides our behavior in public should guide our private lives and all our actions online. As Dr. R.C. Sproul says, “A fragmented life is a life of disintegration.” He exhorts us to “live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God.”
So why is boasting such a concern to God? Why does Scripture state that “everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 16:5)? The reason is simple: to boast is to reveal that you believe you have something to boast in, to elevate yourself over God and others. The reality could not be more different. Adam disregarded God’s command in the garden because he elevated his assessment of the situation above God’s. We choose sin whenever we elevate our desire for that sin over our desire for God. We say harsh words when we elevate our feelings above the feelings of others. And people reject Christ’s salvation when they elevate their moral self-assessment over God’s. Martin Luther described the essence of sin as a turning in on yourself. To boast is to turn in on yourself. To boast is to attempt to take glory that rightly belongs to God alone.
Since sinful boasting shouldn’t be the practice of Christians, is it sinful to share your achievements online as most U.S. teenagers do? Is it sinful to passionately debate your position in a long Facebook thread? Is it sinful to post images of that perfect meal and evening with your friends or spouse? The list could go on. The answer in each of these cases is no, it’s not necessarily sinful—but it could be. So as Christians, we should be cautious and prudent in what we post and share.
Here are two guidelines I encourage you to follow when it comes to your humble use of social media. First, remember that boasting begins in and flows from the heart. As we can’t read hearts, extend a judgment of charity to others and assume the best. Don’t presume a motive behind someone else’s social media update. Second, remember that Jesus summarizes the law of God with these two commands: love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:29–31). Sincerely consider both of these commands before posting anything online. Ask yourself if what you’re about to share will please God. If it will, then ask yourself other questions: Is this showing love toward my neighbor? Will it encourage them, challenge them, provide something of value, or deepen a relationship? The big idea is that for Christians, our focus should be external: toward God and toward our neighbor.
One of our greatest accomplishments may be our ability to boast. We are all boasters, and we come from a long line of boasters. In reality, social media is giving us a glimpse into the darkness that has existed in hearts since the fall. But the good news is that God so loved the world, a world full of sinful and boastful people, that He gave His only Son (John 3:16). Jesus died for the boastful so that they would boast in the Lord. Even as Christians, we say and do things online that offend others and offend God. So we must be quick to repent and trust that the Lord has cleansed us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). And then we should pray and ask for God’s grace to pursue humility and holiness online.
Perhaps, then, these strangers that Solomon speaks of praising us will instead give glory to our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16).