By Jenn Hesse
Being cynical has its perks. I don’t yield easily to peer pressure, for one. Marketing gimmicks fail to lure me into a cartful of buyer’s remorse. Starting at a baseline of doubt, I sift messages and speakers through a razor-edged sieve, ruthlessly separating truth from fraud.
As much as I’d like to call it godly discernment, I’m learning how un-Christ-like cynicism can be. Especially when browsing social media, my critical spirit degenerates into spite. Though I recognize that people curate content for various reasons––to tell a story or display art or promote a charitable cause––I automatically doubt their intentions and assume they’re not being honest. As I scroll through my feed, my head screams at each post: “Fake! Fake! Fake!”
These are nasty thoughts, I admit. It’s remarkable how quickly we turn healthy practices like critical thinking into weapons that hurt others and defy God, all for the sake of protecting ourselves by our own efforts and according to our own standards. Yet the Lord is faithful to expose our sins, bring us to repentance, and show us a better way to honor him and love our neighbors online.
Discernment vs. Hypercriticism
While critical thinking can help discern what’s true and good according to God’s Word, hypercritical thinking applies a different yardstick. The first mindset puts God as the rightful judge and arbiter of truth. The latter elevates the person doing the critiquing.
Consider what the word hypercriticism implies. One of the definitions of the prefix hyper is “above.” Thinking about people (whether online or face to face) hypercritically essentially places us above them. Our focus on what we perceive as their faults dishonors the Lord, who alone is omniscient, and creates relational division, often positioning ourselves on the moral high ground and others in disgrace. This attitude lacks charity and likely means we’re thinking more highly of ourselves than what the Bible recommends.
As followers of Christ, we can and should exercise discernment about ideas and opinions. Scripture urges us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). God gave us brains and his Word; we should use them to walk circumspectly and pierce any façade sheltering bad theology.
But automatically labeling a person we see online as fake or narcissistic goes beyond discernment to the point of projecting logs in others’ eyes. Assuming the worst about someone, even a stranger on the Internet, doesn’t make me a better Christian; it makes me a more hypocritical one.
Only God knows the true intentions behind what anyone posts. He sees beyond what we can observe, searching hearts and testing minds (Jeremiah 17:10). While we can proclaim the truth and seek his wisdom about circumstances that might call for gentle correction, we can trust Him to convict His children as He sees fit, not according to our assumptions or critiques.
Recognizing the Truth
Social media builds this false insight that can inflate our pride. We realize that other people are only posting snippets of their lives, not the whole picture of who they are or what they’re struggling with, yet we criticize them for not being “real.” Particularly for those of us cynical types, the margin between what someone posts and what they choose not to disclose leaves ample room for assuming fault. In the absence of full credibility, we see others as sinners and ourselves as truth-seeking saints.
Friends, we know this is wrong. We can’t bless ourselves and curse others based on our finite, short-sighted views into others’ lives. God’s Word is the ultimate authority on what’s true about all people, not our perceptions. Scripture teaches that we’re all sinners, all fallen short of his glory, all mistakenly believing we can rule our little kingdoms.
Sin is a given for everyone using social media. We don’t need to highlight it, and certainly don’t need to invent and ascribe it to others. God doesn’t call us to scrutinize other people online and see if they’re in the faith; he instructs us to examine ourselves and test our own work (1 Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 6:4).
Besides acknowledging the reality of sin and asking God to search our own hearts, we need to remember that people we engage with online are real people made in his image. Regardless of their motives or personal failures, they deserve to be treated with dignity as humans designed by a perfect Creator. This doesn’t mean we have to believe what they say, like what they post or agree with all their opinions. It simply involves loving our neighbor as ourselves and acting civilly in a manner worthy of the gospel, rather than a manner worthy of trash talk shows.
Seeing Others as Christ Sees
We know the Lord wants us to respect and show kindness to others and to use discernment regarding what we believe and who we trust. But how do we accomplish both goals that sometimes conflict, especially with the additional challenge of engaging online? How can we tread along the true/false tightrope of social media, steadied by equal parts wisdom and grace?
For perfect balance, we know where to turn our eyes. Jesus knew the extent of human depravity, yet He treated others with dignity and compassion. He healed a chronically ill woman deemed unclean because of her blood. He called the most loathed member of society, a tax collector, and invited him to eat together. He held a private nighttime rendezvous with a critical, questioning Pharisee. He spoke gently and directly with a woman who had sinned, repeatedly, and remained unfaithful and restless, never quenched in her thirst for belonging.
Christ’s attitude toward others wasn’t glass half-empty or half-full. He was fully aware of the darkness, fully surrendered to the Lord, fully given to save lost souls and grant them abundant life through union with Him. His charge to us, as his followers, leaves no room for doubt: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). To love like Christ is to be patient and kind, bearing all things and hoping all things of others. As we fulfill his Great Commission, making disciples and teaching them to observe his commands, we can trust God to detect and correct sin, believe the best about others, and serve them out of a desire to reflect Christ.
Before allowing cynicism to sour our perception of others, let’s first look for what’s good, excellent and praiseworthy about the real people sitting on the other side of our screens. May we build one another up through humility and give grace to those who post.
This article was adapted from a post at jennhesse.com.