Welcome to week 4 of “Virtual Reality.” We’ve been exploring 5 Biblical principles for how to navigate the pitfalls of our digital world.
Why don’t we start with a quick recap?
The overall principle to remember when it comes to our digital lives as followers of Jesus is this:
Principle 1: You are on a mission.
In other words, as our world is being chewed up by the excesses of these new technologies, we have a responsibility to move into the filth as agents of healing and life in Jesus’ name.
Week 2 was all about the content we consume. The principle there was:
Principle 2: Garbage in, garbage out.
What we consume has a huge impact on the kinds of people we become. And if we’re on a mission, we can’t be the ones spewing garbage.
Last week we discussed the hyper-addictive nature of so much of our technology and learned how:
Principle 3: Sabbath breaks chains.
We explored the biblical practice of sabbath and saw how regularly stopping the things that are grinding us into dust - can not only help us regain freedom and control, but is how we show our world that there is another way to live.
That’s why yesterday we put that concept to the test and did the “No Screen Saturday Challenge” as a church.
TRIBALISM AND VANITY
Alright. Today we’re going to look at the fourth principle of our series, which is all about our identities: who we are online and who the digital world wants us to be.
Specifically, when it comes to two identity problems that I see as absolutely epidemic in our world today:
Tribalism & Vanity
Tribalism - the tendency to surround ourselves with people like ourselves and to shun outsiders.
Our biology drives us to connect with other people. Humans have always needed community.
But now things are getting out of hand. Because social media and powerful algorithms are exploiting that biological need for profit.
We want to belong, so the algorithms connect us with other like-minded people.
It sounds great, but true community has never been monolithic. Diversity of thought is what makes human culture thrive.
When we are only being exposed to people just like us, our biases get reinforced. People on ‘the other side’ start to look like monsters. Because the algorithm knows that outrage drives engagement.
Tribalism warps our worldview because we are hungry for the affirmation of belonging.
No wonder our culture is seething with hate and rage right now. No wonder we’re already seeing it turn into real-life violence.
Online tribalism has real-world effects.
The same thing is true for vanity: which is defined as “excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, and achievements.” We don’t just want to belong. We want to be liked. And popular. It’s human nature to desire affirmation.
And again, the algorithms are having a field day with this.
They know that if you get tagged in a photo, you’re going straight to your device to find out how you look. Bam. You’re engaged. And now they can show you an ad.
If everyone you see online looks beautiful and successful, you are incentivized to brag about what you’ve achieved or use filters to make yourself look better.
Because that’s how you get more likes. That’s how you get affirmed.
The algorithms know that the affirmation you receive from looking beautiful or cool or impressive or intelligent online is going to grip you with an addiction for more.
Tribalism and vanity are epidemic in our digital world, and the algorithms are just fanning the flames. They have twisted essential human needs. We need affirmation. We need to belong.
But now those needs are being met in a deeply harmful way.
This would be bad enough if it was just affecting adults, but it’s not. Kids and young adults are being ravaged by this tidal wave of online culture and it’s not getting better.
Rates of mental health problems for adolescents has gone up every single year since 2011, right when social media was becoming widespread. Today, 95% of teens have a smartphone.
All that access comes with a cost. In a study by the CDC just last year, 1 in 3 adolescent girls said they have seriously considered attempting suicide.
Meanwhile, an ever-growing number of adolescent boys are exposed to misogynistic or extremist content every day. Their tribes are locked in before they’re even grown.
No wonder things are a mess. Our identity is being shaped by profit-driven algorithms made by multibillion dollar tech companies. And we are little more than cogs in the machine.
So what do we do?
Well, this is heavy stuff, but I do have good news:
Technology changes but human nature doesn’t.
And I’m so glad that’s the case. Because as it turns out, tribalism and vanity go back a long time. Today we’re going to talk about the church in Corinth, where vanity and tribalism were out of control.
First of all, some geography. Corinth was a Greek city that the Roman Empire had turned into the capital of Achaia.
If you zoom in a bit, you can see that Corinth was on a pretty narrow isthmus with two ports that gave it access to the markets of Italy on one side, the Aegean Sea on the other.
Put simply, everybody went through Corinth for trade, for travel, for politics… It was the New York or London or Hong Kong of its day.
I tell you this because the people of Corinth, including people in the Church, were deeply influenced by the cultural trends that swept through. By the wealth, the fame, the celebrities, the sex…
And just like today, tribalism and vanity were epidemic.
The Apostle Paul started the church in Corinth around AD 50 and lived there for a year and a half.
His whole message was that is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, etc. We’re all one in Christ. But after he left, Christians in Corinth started devolving into tribes.
Choosing their favorite apostle to follow - which team they were on.
Paul was ticked at this. He wrote a letter to them (which we call 1 Corinthians) and said,
1 Corinthians 1:12-13
Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,” or “I follow only Christ.” Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you?… Of course not!
Put simply, tribalism was a big problem in Corinth.
But so was vanity. People in the church there started thinking that because they had new freedom and forgiveness in Christ, they could kind of do whatever they wanted.
And remember, Corinth was a happening city where anything goes. So some of these Corinthian Christians start strutting around, flaunting their wealth, and living like kings.
Again, Paul was having none of it.
1 Corinthians 4:8
You think you already have everything you need. You think you are already rich. You have begun to reign in God’s kingdom without us!
Paul sent this letter and thought perhaps they’d wake up to how ridiculous they are being. Right? Tribalism and vanity have no place in the Church.
But… that’s not what happened. Long story short, things only got worse.
Because then some new apostles showed up in Corinth and started making Paul look bad. Because these guys were, as Paul calls them, sarcastically, “super-apostles.”
They were like the TikTok influencers of their day. Well spoken, well dressed, charismatic, rich, funny… They were sparkling and they made Paul look like a dusty, washed-up loser.
Making matters worse, Paul gets thrown into prison in Ephesus while these “super-apostles” are the talk of the town. Guess who the Corinthian Christians wanted to be associated with?
Yet again, tribes were forming in the church, vanity was taking center stage. And the Christians there were being swept away by it all.
And so Paul writes another letter, 2 Corinthians, where he tries to address this problem head on.
And I want us to look at it together, so please turn with me to 2 Corinthians 5:14, Page _______.
We don’t have time to explore his whole argument, but essentially he’s saying, “You don’t think I’m impressive? Good. Because that’s not what I’m going for. You’re embarrassed that I’m suffering for Jesus, that’s what being an apostle looks like.”
“I’m a servant of Christ. Those super-apostles boast about their spectacular ministry, but I have a sincere heart. And if you can’t tell which one looks more like Jesus, then I think you have an identity issue.”
That’s essentially what he’s saying in 2 Corinthians 5. Take a look with me.
2 Corinthians 5:14-17
Christ’s love controls us. Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them. So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
The problem, as Paul sees it, is that these Christians in Corinth were basing their whole identity on the things of this earth: fame, wealth, influence, power, whatever “tribe” would make them feel more successful and attractive.
In other words, “living for themselves” as he says in v.15.
But if we are in Christ, Paul says, then that stuff is not our identity anymore. Verse 17. “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person.” Literally, a “new creation.”
In other words, our identity is re-formed in Jesus from the ground up. We start to live for him. Verse 14. His love - not the stuff of this earth - his love is what controls us.
Now, why is Paul making such a big deal about this? Is he just insecure and getting defensive because of these “super-apostles?”
No. Paul’s hammering this identity stuff home because he understands that Christ-followers are on a mission. Having the right identity is crucial for that mission to succeed.
ON A MISSION
Let’s keep reading what Paul says next.
2 Corinthians 5:18-20
And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!”
This is why tribalism and vanity have no place in the Church. Because we are on a mission - a mission of reconciliation.
It’s why we’re here. To speak the love and life of Christ into our world and direct people - by the way we live, by the way that we love - back to our Creator.
If people in the Church are strutting around, giving in to pride and greed and lust, choosing sides in every popularity contest, then we look indistinguishable from the world around us and our message of hope rings hollow.
But if our actions and words flow out of a core identity found in the crucified Lord, if we humble ourselves like Jesus, and knock down cultural diving walls with self-giving love… that’s when our message of hope hits home.
That’s when lives begin to change. In Ancient Corinth and in Hamilton County.
Our identity is in Christ. Our mission will fail if we find it in anything else.
So that’s Paul’s argument in a nutshell. What do we do with this in our digital world?
We’ve already covered the problem we’re facing. There is a massive, multi-billion dollar industry that is incentivized to play on our need for belonging to drive us deeper and deeper into tribalistic extremes.
These algorithms are incentivized to manipulate our craving for affirmation to keep us projecting false versions of ourselves to the world.
If we do nothing, tribalism and vanity will come to define our lives… just like everybody else.
But that’s not an option for us, is it?
No. Because we are on a mission. And we are called to show our friends and neighbors and coworkers that there is another way to live.
Which is why it is crucial that you remember:
Principle 4: Likes do not define you.
The thumbs up and hearts and fire emojis you receive for being a good little cog in the machine - for isolating into your tribe, for giving in to vanity - it does not capture who you really are.
No. You are defined by your identity in Christ now. You are loved by the Creator of the Universe. You are transformed by the Spirit of God. You are chosen for a one of a kind destiny. That’s who you are.
Your actions, your words, your emotions, your worldview… all of it should flow out of who you are in him. A new creation.
Likes do not define you, because “The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”
You are on a mission. Your identity in Christ matters, especially in our hate-filled and self-obsessed digital world.
IT IS TIME
So let’s get real practical here. What would it mean if we - Grace Church - took this call to reframe our identity seriously? If we really believed that likes do not define us?
Well, first we’d realize that:
It is time to move beyond tribes.
I know I talk about this a lot, but if we claim to follow Christ, then we cannot keep giving in to the forces that want us to hate and demonize “the other side.”
Paul says God has given us the task of reconciling people to him. Why don’t we start by reconciling people to ourselves?
If our identity is not in likes, is not in the false sense of belonging we get from huddling up with other people just like us… If our identity is in Christ, then we are free to love those the world says we should hate.
Pay attention to what you’re reading and watching. Is it designed to make you outraged? Is the headline worded in a way that dehumanizes? Then chuck it in the trash. Remember, Garbage in, garbage out.
And think very, very carefully about what you are posting or commenting online, especially in an election year. Are you building bridges? Are you demonstrating compassion?
Or are you feeding more fuel into the fire because the virtue-signaling gets you more likes and makes you feel like you belong?
Enough. We are a community of love. There is no Jew or Gentile. No slave or free. We are one in the Spirit. We love our enemies. That is who we are. That’s our identity.
It’s time to move beyond tribes in the Church because we are on a mission and if we don’t do it, no one will.
It is time to move beyond filters.
What I mean is, the allure of vanity is strong in our celebrity-driven culture. And we are all tempted to airbrush away our imperfections.
That includes the literal Instagram filters you use to make yourself look better. But it also includes the metaphorical filters you use: the little lies you tell about your achievements. The humble-bragging about the promotion or the new car.
We post this stuff in a desperate quest for affirmation.
Here’s why this stuff is a problem. It’s not just because you’re seeking affirmation in the things of this earth. It’s not just because you’re allowing vanity to warp your own self-image.
It’s because you are contributing to the unrealistic standards - of beauty, of happiness, of success - that are wreaking havoc on the younger generation.
When children and teens see a world full of perfect, beautiful, shiny, successful people online and then look at themselves in the mirror, do you know what they see? They see someone ugly. They see a failure.
No wonder they are struggling so much right now.
But you have an opportunity to change that. Because likes do not define you. Your identity is not found in the affirmation of others. The love and acceptance of Christ is enough because it’s everything.
The God of the universe adores you. Who cares what some rando on the internet thinks?
You are on a mission. You can be your real self online (not artificial authenticity… the real you, warts and all!) and show the world that there is another way to live.
Will this cost you likes and influence? Perhaps. But think about how free you’d be without that pressure to perform.
A little bit later in 2 Corinthians, Paul describes the cost of being an apostle like this:
2 Corinthians 6:10
Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything.
Our world wants to define success and affirmation as the be all and end all of life. But if likes do not define you, you are free to be who you really are in Christ. And that’s the person who will change this broken world.
It’s time to move beyond filters. It’s time to move beyond tribes.
It’s time to tell the algorithms that we’re done playing their games. “I know who I am in Jesus, and I am not your pawn anymore.”