Looking for Likes️ in All the Wrong Places 

The Internet doesn’t have to be the end of all human connection. It just requires a bit more work than pressing a like button.

Just six months before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, my mother died. Of course, there are so many layers of grief when one loses a parent. But one of the unforeseen losses in my life was her frequent encouragement. Even though we lived miles apart, she still listened to my sermons online weekly and would faithfully call or text me to tell me what personally spoke to her. It made me feel heard, seen, and known.  

Her absence made me especially aware that I never outgrew the child-like sense of satisfaction from my mother’s words of affirmation.  

As an adult, I am not ashamed to say that I still long to be validated, heard, seen, and appreciated. And the worst of this behavior in all of us is highlighted through our interactions with others online. 

During the height of the pandemic when everything went virtual, suddenly we had a new metric to measure what churches were doing. My church leaders and I found ourselves concerned about how many “views” and “likes” we were getting. This was different from traditional Sunday attendance tracking. We could see how many people showed up virtually for Zoom meetings, Bible studies, and watched our services on YouTube. It was a new way of keeping score. 

But what does God have to say about the encouragement we seek from the likes we collect online? 

Going Viral 

It seems everyone wants their message, their music, and their platform to go viral. YouTube will even pay you if your videos generate enough views and likes. Companies will sponsor you if you give them a mention. Likes have now become a form of currency—we base the value of our relationships on the number of online reactions they receive. There is a release of the pleasure hormone dopamine from these interactions that is just as rewarding and real as physical pleasure. But it does not last forever. 

In March of 2012, a short documentary about boy soldiers in Uganda reached 83 million views on YouTube. In response to his overnight success, the director of the film was found walking around naked and yelling at pedestrians and cars going by. He was subsequently arrested and then hospitalized for what his family called “a brief reactive psychosis.” In dark irony, the cause of his mental illness was the same viral video he spawned. 

Is it possible we all run the risk of becoming infected by the high that comes from viral popularity on social media? We all need to guard our minds and hearts from this smartphone-born illness. 

A Like by Any Other Name… 

When someone clicks your like button, does it mean that they truly see and validate you? In the case of my sermon post, does it mean that my words have truly made an impact? Because something we publish online gets a lot of positive attention, does it authentically encourage others and spread peace and joy?  

Our desire to quantify and increase our popularity does not align well with Jesus’ challenge not to seek to become first or the greatest. Instead, He tells us to strive to be like little children in their longing to humbly know the vast love of our Heavenly Father (Matthew 18:1-4). It’s when we remain curious about each other that interactions online can lead to real relationship. 

In the case of my mother’s encouraging words, we had a true relationship. I was not earning her love by my performance. She was expressing her unconditional love by gratitude for who I am as her and God’s child. As I write this, I’m keenly aware of how blessed I was and am to have had such a loving parent who truly wanted to continue to get to know me and was profoundly interested in how my life’s story is unfolding. 

It’s not easy to offer such authentic support to those we meet online. And yet, I think this is exactly the work God is calling us to pause and invest in. 

God Likes You 

There were a few jaw-dropping moments when I was a seminary student. Once, one of my seminary professors warned us not to get lost in all our love language about God. He said that “God loves you” can lose its power if we are not also reminded of the height, width, length, and depth of His love. He pointed out the problem is that we so emphasize God’s unconditional love for us, that we can run the risk of thinking He loves us out of mere obligation. Or we think our individual, little lives do not matter much in the vastness of the universe. “The problem is we believe God loves us, but we don’t believe God likes us all that much.”  

And the truth is—God really likes us! Jesus was called the “Friend of sinners” because He ate and drank with social outcasts, tax collectors, and prostitutes. Jesus was not just a Master and a Rabbi to His followers. He called them friends and even playfully nicknamed them.  

In John 21:15-17, Jesus asks Peter three times “Do you love me?” Actually, he doesn’t. He asks him twice if he loves (agapaō) Him and the third time asks if he likes (phileō) Him! This puzzling change of words may be a call for all of us to not only love Jesus and be loved by Jesus but also to like Him and be liked by Him. 

It seems counterintuitive for the conversation to climax on their great friendship. But it would not be a complete and authentic relationship if we did not both love and like one another. 

Jesus says in Matthew 10:29-31 that not even one sparrow falls to the ground apart from His devoted love and attention. So we have God’s devoted love and attention. He even numbers the hair on our heads. In Psalm 139:17-18 the songwriter marvels at the incalculable number of thoughts God has about us. If we tried to count or quantify how much God likes us, it would be like trying to count all the individual grains of sand on the seashore. In other words, God does not just love us. He likes us

If our lives and souls had a like button, He would be infinitely and eternally clicking that like button. And it’s when we take the time to see each other this way, as unique children of our Living God, that love can win. The Internet doesn’t have to be the end of all human connection. It just requires a bit more work than pressing a like button. 

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