Death by Selfie
In 2015, stories about famed Australian “Instagram star” Essena O’Neill, went viral. Ms. O’Neill had achieved what many teenage girls would regard as social media world dominance by posting provocative images of herself online. Almost overnight, she became an Internet sensation with over half a million Instagram followers and more than 250,000 YouTube subscribers. Her platform was so significant that by the time she turned eighteen, she was able to support herself financially and was offered modeling opportunities in several major cities. Then, with the world at her fingertips (or so it seemed), Ms. O’Neill announced to her fans that she had had enough. She had grown tired of fame, which had enslaved her in an addiction to being liked:
I fell in love with this idea that I could be of value to other people. (It was a) snowballing addiction to being liked by others…Yeah 16-year-old Essena would have been like “WTF girl you have the dream life.” So why did I feel so lost, lonely and miserable? Social media had become my sole identity. I didn’t even know who I was without it.
I can’t tell you how free I feel without social media. Never again will I let a number define me. IT SUFFOCATED ME. Not because I had 500,000 followers, I felt the same as a young girl, I would just spend hours looking at everyone else’s perfect lives and I strived to make mine look just as good… Guess I succeeded. It’s totally stupid.
In the world of social media, most would say that Essena O’Neill was winning. But after only two years of fame, her own words revealed that hundreds of thousands of likes, followers, and fans do not necessarily equate to an emotionally happy and secure life.
Our souls are not wired for celebrity or for ego-inflating self-advancement. We were not created to stand on top of pedestals. Rather, our best life is the one in which we decrease, become less, and leave the pedestals and the awesome to Jesus alone.
What Ann Voskamp wrote about the odd phenomenon of “Christian celebrity” really says it all:
(I’m) humbly grateful here for every pastor, teacher, author, who sees platform as altar, as a place to come and lay down their lives in utter and complete sacrifice for Christ—knowing that the only platform Christ ever had was a place to come and die…naked and exposed and small and entirely God’s…(We must not turn) a platform given by God to lift high the name of Jesus—into a pedestal praised by men. God alone gave the platform for His name to be exalted, for them to decrease, for man to be invisible and clear glass to God.
I believe that Amy Carmichael, missionary to India and orphan advocate, was a beautiful reflection of what Ann writes about here. After Ms. Carmichael died, a loved one went through her collection of photos and discovered that she didn’t have a single picture of herself. Every photo was instead a memorial to the good things that God was doing in her world, and to those whom she loved. Though her platform was, like the platform of Essena O’Neill, quite sizeable, Ms. Carmichael stewarded her platform for the love and flourishing of others. God had given her a platform for His name to be exalted and for her to decrease, and in this she became an “invisible and clear glass to God.”
The business writer Jim Collins calls this the “Level Five Leader.” According to Collins, organizations with sustained improvement and growth over fifteen or more years all have this kind of leader, whom he describes as the humble CEO. Words used to describe the Level Five Leader include quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, and understated. These leaders didn’t believe their own press, but were “a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” (Jim Collins, Good to Great).
Like Amy Carmichael, Level Five Leaders do not have inflated egos, and yet they are emotionally full. They are confident, and yet they don’t exude self-importance. They are more interested in others than they are in getting others interested in them. They have very few “selfies” yet have hundreds of “pictures” of the people whose livelihoods depend on them, and whose flourishing they have undertaken as their personal mission. It is precisely because they don’t seem interested in drawing attention to themselves that you want to give them your full, undivided attention. When you are around them, you sense that they are interested in you, that you are important to them, and that they like you. You sense that they are not in it for themselves or for their own glory and advancement, but for the greater good. They give you confidence that when it becomes best for the greater good for them to step down and to hand their “throne” over to another leader, they will readily and humbly do so. In Level Five Leaders, we see very little of Saul and a whole lot of Jonathan.
Do you remember Jonathan, the son of Saul and friend of David? This was the young man who, like Ann Voskamp and Amy Carmichael and the Level Five Leaders, learned to overcome envy and the “rival spirit” through the self-giving act of laying down his life for his friend.
The study of Saul and Jonathan is one of contrast. When Israel’s attention shifted toward David after the Goliath event, when they started singing songs about how David had slain his ten thousands, Saul wanted to eliminate David in order to protect the façade of his own supremacy. In stark contrast, Jonathan wanted to exalt David by giving up his own stature. His posture toward David was, “Come hell or high water, my brother, I am always going to be with you and I am always going to be for you.”
Saul was jealous of David. Jonathan was jealous for David. Saul was ready and eager to sacrifice David’s life for his own gain. Jonathan was ready to sacrifice his own life for David’s gain.
If anyone had the right to feel threatened by David after the slaying of Goliath, it was Jonathan. Jonathan, after all, was the assumed heir to the throne of his father Saul. But, knowing from the prophecy of Samuel that God was going to hand the kingdom over to David instead, Jonathan surrendered to God’s will for David with the same level of zeal that Jonathan’s father, Saul, resisted it.
Wanting to make himself great in comparison to David, Saul becomes small. Wanting to make himself small in comparison to David, Jonathan becomes great.
Saul clings desperately to the status of king, and as he does this, the less of a king he becomes. Jonathan lays down his right to become king, and as he does this, the more like a king he becomes. Although he never ascends to his father’s position, Jonathan’s faithfulness and character make him a better leader than his father will ever be.
How does Jonathan do this? He takes off his robe, his royal garment signifying his royal status, and gives it to David. Then, he hands David his sword. In this, Jonathan makes himself vulnerable because whenever the seat of power transferred from one family to another, the new king would execute each and every descendant of his predecessor. In handing David his sword, Jonathan is saying to his friend, “I will even lay down my life for you, that you might ascend to the throne that is rightfully mine.”
What gave Jonathan the inner resources to do such a thing? I think that, at least in part, it was his memory of something that his father, Saul, had long forgotten:
As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love (literally, the hesed or “covenant love”) of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him (Psalm 103:15ff.).
David and Jonathan are not only powerful but safe and approachable. They are the Level Five types whose photos aren’t dominated by pictures of themselves, but of others. At their best, they give their lives up for the flourishing of others, they command attention by not seeking attention, they become kings by refusing to act like kings, and they are not boisterous and boastful, but rather are quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, not believing their own press, and a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.
David and Jonathan are this way through their union with the greater King and the greater Friend, Yahweh, the Lord of all.
Later in history, Jesus, “great David’s greater Son,” would come into the world as Yahweh in human form. Jesus would become the King who conquered by making himself small, and the Friend who sticks closer than a brother and who, because of a covenant, lays down his life for the sake of his friends.
King Jesus, whose Kingdom is forever and whose Government will always increase, who looks at every square inch of his universe and declares, “Mine!” (as Abraham Kuyper says) won this right by sacrificing himself. He gained exaltation by taking the low position. Jesus, the Prince of peace, took off his royal robe and placed it upon us. He handed us his sword, making himself vulnerable to us, and we used it against him. But he did not strike back. Instead, he did nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility counted us more significant than himself, looking not to his own interests but to the great need of a humanity dying from its love of selfies. Though the rightful heir to the throne, Jesus made himself nothing, set aside his glory, and became obedient to death on a cross…all to secure our flourishing.
When this kind of love is offered to us, why would we feel a need, ever again, to compete and compare? Why would we feel any need, ever again, to make ourselves great?
Lord, free us from our addiction to being liked.
Because it’s far better to be loved. And that we are.