Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, today for most of us is made up of many ordinary moments—not Instagram moments. Yes, there are some of those, but getting up in the morning is rarely, if ever, a picturesque moment. Neither is eating breakfast, nor taking the kids to school. Neither is answering e-mails from coworkers, nor brushing our teeth. That’s not to speak of the bad moments: the despair, the failures, and the hardships. Those moments are rarely posted.
The effects of Instagram on mental health have been well documented.1 Instagram use is associated with higher levels of anxiety, FOMO (fear of missing out), and loneliness. Of course, you can’t attribute these feelings just to browsing Instagram. It’s likely that we browse Instagram when we’re feeling lonely, and so there’s not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship. Instagram and services like it, however, have given rise, especially among younger generations, to dissatisfaction with the ordinary. As perfect lives made up of perfect moments constantly enter our minds, we feel like we don’t measure up.2
Why is that? There’s a conflict that occurs between our expectation of what things ought to be like (Instagram) and what they’re really like (real life). Our expectations for life shift and change as we view images of other people’s best moments. We come to believe in a subliminal way that the extraordinary, perfect life in the here and now is ideal and achievable, and the monotony and struggle of ordinary life is drab and worthless. We want our ordinary life to be extraordinary all of the time. But, as we all know, that’s not real life. The very definition of extraordinary requires the existence of the ordinary. Extraordinary things are a deviation from the ordinary. Instagram gives the impression that it’s possible to have the extraordinary without any ordinary at all.
Most of our following Jesus takes place in the ordinary, because it takes place in real life. This is apparent in the Bible. Just one example: there was a lot of talk in the early church about what to eat and what not to eat. If we read Acts, Romans, or 1 Corinthians, we eventually stumble upon passages about “meat sacrificed to idols.” To us, it seems like an odd thing to talk about, but it was a pervasive concern for early Christians. Meat sacrificed to idols was often sold secondhand in the marketplace. Christians wondered if it was OK to purchase such meat and eat it. The basic question was, How can I follow Jesus in what I buy and cook for dinner? What does my ordinary life look like because I’m following Jesus?
Because following Jesus occurs in the ordinary, most of our discipleship isn’t Instagrammable. For those ancient Christians, trying to figure out what to buy at the meat market was hardly a moment for exaltation. It was a real struggle. Think about some less-than-picturesque moments among Christians even today: a hard conversation with a brother in Christ, parents caring for children after a difficult day at work, or sharing the gospel with a coworker over lunch. That’s not to mention the daily battles in our minds that are impossible to photograph, even if we wanted to. Our discipleship mostly consists, day in and day out, of following Jesus on some rather ordinary roads.
The story we’re called to, as Christians, is the story of the cross.
Instagram isn’t particularly suited to reminding us that these ordinary roads make up most of the Christian life. But what’s more, the Christian life isn’t just about living in the ordinary. It’s not just walking ordinary roads; it’s walking the road of the cross. The Christian life is perhaps even more so about suffering in the ordinary. Jesus’ life wasn’t just ordinary or un-Instagrammable, but often His life was, in fact, the “anti-Instagram.” Think about dark and depressing images of Jesus—Jesus on the cross or in the tomb. These images defy our preoccupation with posting our best lives now. They’re not even ordinary moments. They’re sub-ordinary. They’re the type of moments we’d never want to post ourselves. And yet they’re the images that the Gospels drive toward. Every gospel is a narrative that climaxes with the cross. To be sure, the resurrection is an Instagram moment, but it’s utterly impossible without the cross.
There is a story of Fyodor Dostoevsky encountering the painting by Hans Holbein the Younger of the dead Christ in the tomb. The story goes that Dostoevsky, upon seeing the painting, was so captivated by it that he sat to stare at it for hours. His wife had to drag him away for fear of his being induced into an epileptic fit. Dostoevsky even wrote the painting into one of his novels, The Idiot. In that novel, the character Prince Myshkin declares that staring at the painting long enough would cause the viewer to lose his faith.
Yet staring only at the resurrection will cause us to lose our faith, too. It’s not just Jesus’ being alive that accomplishes our redemption; it’s His having died. There’s no resurrection without Christ’s death. If we ignore the cross, we ignore the gospel.
Something similar is true in our own lives. If we ignore or pass over the ordinary things of life, giving the highest honor to our best, most picturesque moments, we miss what life is really about. That’s even more true of our suffering. God is actively using our suffering to bring about our sanctification. If we constantly live as if this life is heaven on earth by avoiding the ordinary and any suffering whatsoever, we’re actually left without hope. It’s only the way of the cross that leads to glory. This is why it’s hopeless to pursue our best life now. It’s hopeless because Jesus didn’t do that, and the way of Jesus is the way of life. What did Jesus do? He pursued His best life later. “For the joy that was set before him [He] endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). He didn’t set out to have a life full of Instagram moments. He was born in a stable. He came from a no-name city. He grew up lower class. He hung out with fishermen. He had no home. He died on a cross.
By no means do I intend to convey the impression that we should all get off Instagram and disconnect from social media. Instagram is a service that can be used for good. Just like eating dinner can be done to the glory of God, so can using Instagram be done to the glory of God. We can post pictures of our trips, our marriages, our kids. We must, however, remember: the life of #YOLO, of only posting pictures of our best moments, of displaying a wonderful life to the world, is only half the story. It’s the story we so often want, but we want the story without the suffering. The story we’re called to, as Christians, is the story of the cross. It’s life, death, and resurrection.
Amanda MacMillan, “Why Instagram Is the Worst Social Media for Mental Health,” Time, May 25, 2017, http://time.com/4793331/instagram-social-media-mental-health/, accessed March 5, 2018. ↩︎
Maggie Parker, “The ‘irrational desire’ driving millennials and Gen Z into depression,” Yahoo! Lifestyle, January 3, 2018, https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/irrational-desire-driving-millennials-gen-z-depression-222357005.html, accessed March 5, 2018. ↩︎
Thomas Brewer is managing editor of Tabletalk and a teaching elder in the PCA.