I believe that in our day and age, it has never been easier to covet.
What do I mean? Well first of all, what does coveting actually mean? Few of us have this word in our mental dictionary, and so it is hard for us to see this as a ‘crisis’ if we do not actually know what it means. Simply stated, coveting or to covet is to yearn to possess. Another way that we can describe it in more common terms is to desire, to long for, or to crave. But more than that, covet is not just to yearn, desire, and long for in general, it is to yearn, desire, and long for something or [and perhaps even someone] that belongs to another. In other words, coveting is wanting what someone else has.
The Bible speaks volumes about the crisis of covetousness, and we see this perhaps most clearly in The Decalogue or the 10 Commandments where God Himself says:
‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour’ (Exodus 20:17)
As part of God’s moral (and therefore binding) law, Christians are explicitly told to not covet. And it is as a result of my reflection on this text that has caused me to notice that covetousness is a crisis that plagues the global church, and this is primarily because of the widespread use of social media.
To be clear, I believe that the power of social media can be and has been harnessed for good and Gospel proclamation. I do not need to spell out a full theology of social media here, and perhaps my convictions about it is self-evident by the fact that you were probably directed to this article via social media.
But for quite some time now, many (even non-Christians) have been noticing the damaging effects of social media. For example, this article by Forbes details 6 ways that social media negatively impacts its users, with issues such as addictiveness, triggering sadness, promoting mental unhealthiness, jealousy, delusion, and quite ironically, making us less sociable. Christians have similarly reflected on this issue, and I’d recommend 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke as a trusted source that you can turn to. However, apart from the general effects of social media, I wanted to use this short space to speak about how social media, and particularly platforms like Instagram, are actually causing us to violate the 10th commandment not only on a daily basis, but perhaps on an hourly basis every single day.
What I mean is this: how do most people use platforms like Instagram? It is primarily to showcase some of the things that we are excited about, proud of, and joyful over. Based on this, we can see that this is largely harmless and actually quite good. It has never been easier to share in the joy of the birth of a cousin’s child, in the graduation of a sibling who is studying overseas, or in the growth of a church plant on the other side of the country. Praise God for such a tool!
But one of the dangers with these posts along with those that are common across social media is that they emphasize someone’s highlight reels and fail to faithfully portray the 360 degree dimension of his or her life. Now this is understandable and natural, given that social media cannot always and fully show what is going on in someone’s life. But this is why I think we need to be careful, because it is all too tempting for us to compare our lowlights with someone else’s highlights, thereby breeding the sense of firstly jealousy, secondly comparison, and then thirdly covetousness. We move from thinking ‘this is nice’, to ‘why can’t I have that’ to ‘I want what he/she has’. This progress is very slow and subtle – you may not even realise it is going on. But it is.
And here is why this crisis is additionally scary: all of us have default heart idols, and these posts either reinforce our commitment to these idols or they introduce new ones into our hearts. For example, you may be someone who loves travelling. And this topic is taboo, I know, because even Christians use a myriad of ways to legitimise the travel bug: ‘I’m just enjoying God’s creation’, ‘I’m just trying to exercise more rest’, ‘I’m learning about new cultures to think how to best engage with culture’ – I’ve heard most of these. But I think that for many, our love and desire for travel is actually a reflection of how influenced we are by our culture than our actual theological assumptions. Like the world, we want experience because we believe that it will give us the joy that we want, the thrill we desire, and the escape we long for. Like the world, we want to live for now rather than the eternity that is promised to us through Christ. Like the world, we treasure pleasure, excitement, and thrill. Yes – we are very much like the world and the danger is, we often baptise it in Christian language and then we post things online with Bible quotes in the captions to make it seem like it is okay. Beware, brothers and sisters, that we do not become like the world. But apart from that, my fear is that our consumption of social media actually ends up reinforcing our commitment to these very idols. If I were to look at your Instagram profile and look at your ‘Most Recently Liked Photos’ category, what would I find? If I said ‘your idols can be found in your top 10 most followed pages and posts’, what would you say your idol is? Again, it is subtle. But every ‘love/like’ we give, every comment we make, every page we follow, slowly and subtly reinforces covetousness. And this covetousness will sap and drain us of our joy, and draw us further and further away from enjoying and delighting in our Saviour. This is the same with body image issues. Again, if I looked at your Instagram activity, would I say that Jesus is your God or would I say that a body figure resembling what we see on advertisements is your God? If your Instagram activity was broadcasted on TV right now, would the world say that Jesus is your Lord or would they say that picture perfect holiday destinations, new toys (like watches, shoes, clothes), or spending time at the gym is your Lord? What you follow reinforces what you worship.
But related to that, these sort of social media platforms also introduce new idols into your heart. John Calvin is right that the human centre is a factory of idols. Because of our default rebellion against God, we want to keep producing cheap substitutes and imitations of the One True God. We are desperate for idols because that allows us to declare our autonomy over and against Him. The problem is then amplified when our eyes are so easily drawn to aesthetics, and this is what Instagram and similar platforms (like Tumblr or Pinterest) are full of. And all these pretty pictures work together to tell us: this is the new thing you should worship. So you may not have thought about becoming obsessed with body image, but now all these pictures that you are scrolling through is singing a unified chorus: this is worthy, this is valuable, this is where you will find joy. And again, subtly, slowly, but surely, we will buy into that, leading us to want what someone else has.
This is why I think we are going through a crisis of covetousness now, because no longer do we have to look over our neighbour’s fence to covet their spouse, servant, or donkey – we can do it with the very device that we are reading this article on. We can (and we do) covet as the very first activity we do in the morning right after we wake up. We can (and we do) covet as the very last activity we do at night before going to bed. We can (and we do) covet on our commutes, during our Bible studies, at work, at uni, and every possible situation and scenario. It has never been easier. Consequently, this is why I think we need to be even more alert, aware, and on guard. And we need to do this together. We cannot do this on our own. Any sin that we battle with cannot be won by ourselves. And so here is a humble threefold proposal for how we can do it in our community.
- Keep each other accountable regarding our social media activity. And this is a two-way street. You need to both welcome input and offer output. In an ideal situation, I would love for two girls to be conscious of how they are each using a platform like Instagram, so that when one of them follows a new page or likes a new post, the other is willing to just have a conversation about that. Now of course, this doesn’t always mean that every follow or like is necessarily an act of covetousness. But having conversations like these would be helpful. Asking questions like ‘what do you think has motivated you to follow this or like that?’ or ‘do you think excessive following of this would end up poisoning your spiritual walk with God?’ These are not easy answers to have, but they are necessary because we do not tend to have these conversations with ourselves. In contrast, having someone speak to us will help. In the same way, in an ideal situation, I would love for two guys to be conscious of what they are liking and following, because it may well be that whatever they are liking and following is feeding an ungodly desire. We must remind ourselves that in the Christian life, nothing is out of bounds. It is not like we can only pull someone aside for staring lustfully at a girl in person but we can’t do the same if it is online. Our social media activity is an extension of our lives, which means that picking each other up on how we use it is ‘fair game’. So if you’re meeting up with someone 1-1 to read the Bible (and if you’re not, you should be), maybe set an agenda for your next get-together to consider this. I know it won’t be comfortable but this is your permission to do so. Do it for the health of your soul.
- Do a ‘following list’ cleanse. If you’re like me, then you’ve followed heaps of random pages over the years. And every single day, what they post pop up on your screen and it reinforces or introduces our heart idols. If you want to take this crisis seriously, then it will be worth pulling your phone out right now, go through the list of things you follow, and then unfollow pages or personalities that you know are damaging to your spiritual health. I suspect that as you read this article, you know the pages and personalities that cause you to covet. If you want to take this seriously, then today might be the day you do a cleanse or detox of your ‘following list’ so that these things that call on the affections of your heart will stop having the hold that it has on you right now.
- Discipline and control your use of social media. You see, even if you’ve done steps 1 and 2, I think we are still in a crisis of excessive use of social media. What makes things even harder is that social media has so integrated our lives that we make plans (think Facebook Event), we converse (think Messenger or Instagram chat), and we stay connected through all these platforms. Nevertheless, I think that it is worth asking yourself and even having a conversation with your discipleship partner and evaluating: am I actually becoming too reliant on social media? If you’re like me, the answer is probably ‘yes’. And if it is, I think bringing more discipline and control over your use of it will actually be healthier. It’ll give you more time to engage with things that are actually in front of you, it’ll guard your heart against temptation, and it might even give you more space to interact with people who are standing before you rather than behind a screen.
However, what is perhaps more important than the proposal is this: our covetousness is actually a desire for something too small. You see, we think that our neighbour’s spouse, servant, donkey, holiday, body figure, or possessions will give us the delight, joy, pleasure, and satisfaction that we’re after. But they won’t. They are but a drop in a vast ocean, leaving us wanting more and more, leaving us feeling less and less. Covetousness is actually remarkably silly especially since Christ has promised to and has fulfilled and given us all that we ever need. Why settle on cheap thrills and imitations when we’ve got the real deal?