Inclined to Boast: Social Media and Self-Justification
BY A. TREVOR SUTTON
Editor’s note: This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of the Concordia Journal. A. Trevor Sutton is a PhD student at Concordia Seminary and associate pastor at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Lansing, Michigan. Sutton and Dr. Gene E. Veith are co-authors of the book Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Postmodern World (Concordia Publishing House, 2017).
Two billion people have an active Facebook account. This means that a quarter of the world’s population uses this social media platform. To put this figure in perspective, roughly the same number of people living in the world today do not have access to basic sanitation facilities such as a toilet or latrine.
In slightly more than a decade, this digital leviathan has gone from its nascent form as an isolated Harvard University website—TheFacebook—to a ubiquitous mainstay of daily life. This social media platform has had a powerful influence on modern understandings of friendship, privacy, and media practices. It has been at the center of recent debates over democracy, censorship, and “fake news.” It is not an overstatement to claim that the world has changed forever because of social media in general and Facebook in particular.
The steady rise of Facebook has deepened the need for theological reflection regarding social media. With a quarter of the world’s population now using this technology, it is entirely necessary and salient for theologians to engage topics such as new media, technological determinism, and human–computer interaction. This is not simply an attempt to be culturally relevant or trendy; rather, putting theology in conversation with these topics is a pastoral care issue.
Martin Luther understood theology as being inexorably linked to pastoral care—“Pro re theologica et salute fratrum”—and knew the importance of being conversant with the lives of ordinary people. Like Luther, the contemporary Lutheran scholar Mark Mattes describes theology as, “the art of discerning how to deliver the promise.” New media is rapidly transforming the world the way Gutenberg’s printing press did over five hundred years ago. Exploring the theological dynamics of social media and digital technology is an urgent matter of pastoral care. It is vital for pastors and theologians to discern how to deliver the promise in a digital age.
How might Lutheran theology go about engaging in conversation with new media and digital technology? As with any dialogue, a locus communis must be established in order for conversation to occur; this article argues that justification (namely the human pursuit of self-justification) provides that entry. To narrow the scope of analysis, this article will focus on a discrete feature of Facebook’s platform: the one-click “Like.” This exchange—giving and receiving a “Like” on Facebook—is emblematic of our modern pursuit for self-justification. The goal of this discussion is to help pastors and theologians provide pastoral care in a digital age.
Justification in a Secular Society
Just as Facebook is ubiquitous to modern daily life, justification is a ubiquitous doctrine within Lutheran theology. The threads of the internet weave the modern world together; similarly, justification by grace alone through faith alone weaves Lutheran theology together. Luther makes it clear: “For if the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christin doctrine is lost.” The centrality of this doctrine makes it an ideal topic to put in conversation with new media and technology. Justification is not a fleeting fancy or trendy topic within Lutheran theology. It was a central issue in the Reformation and it continues to be a central topic today.
The focus of justification during the Reformation was primarily about one’s vertical relationship with God (coram deo). Luther’s discovery of the gospel, arguably the spark that ignited the Reformation, was concerned with this vertical relationship with God. The issue at hand was whether human righteousness is internally produced (justitia propria) or externally conferred (justitia aliena). As Luther and other reformers made clear, righteousness before God is a passive righteousness from outside oneself based on grace alone through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone.
The imminence of death in the Middle Ages gave a greater exigency to one’s vertical relationship with God. Millions of Europe’s population died of the bubonic plague, or Black Death. The ever-present reality of death put being in right relationship with God at the forefront of pastoral care. Medieval theology, according to historian Steven Ozment, focused heavily on one’s vertical relationship with God in preparation for death: “For medieval theologians the present life remained an anxious pilgrimage; man lived in unresolved suspense, fearing damnation and hoping for salvation, ever in need of confession and indulgence, discipline and consolation, saintly intercession and the self-help of good works.”
The world, however, has changed dramatically since the Middle Ages and the Reformation. Global pandemics, while still cause for fear, are not at the forefront of daily life in the industrialized world. Life expectancy has steadily improved over the last 500 years. Standards of living in many parts of the world have also increased. Death is not a daily fear for most people in modern industrialized nations; the vast majority of people in developed nations begin each week assuming that they will survive to see the weekend. This deferment of death has diminished the urgency of the vertical realm and produced a greater regard for the horizontal realm. Contemporary culture says there is plenty of life standing between now and eventual death; being in right relationship with the world is far more pressing than being in right relationship with God.
Yet, justification continues to be a concern for people in the modern world. Even secular culture is preoccupied with justification, justice, being declared just and right. However, modern concerns about justification are less focused on being in right relationship with God (coram deo) and far more focused on being in right relationship with other people (coram mundo). Self-justification in the Late Middle Ages was about producing good works that one might offer to God in order to be deemed righteous; self-justification in the modern age is about producing good works that one might offer to oneself or the world in order to be deemed righteous. The human desire to seek righteousness apart from divine grace, as described by Ted Peters, is the disease of self-justification: “Whether we refer to it as works or merit, self-justification is the human effort to define oneself or one’s social network as just, righteous, good, and deserving. To self-justify is to define oneself as just.”
John Barclay, New Testament scholar at the University of Durham, suggests that this modern fixation with self-justification is increasingly manifest and prevalent on social media:
In an age when people fear the judgement of their peers far more than the judgment of God, we have become increasingly petulant, critical, even cruel and it’s proving hard to take…Our contemporaries are not now primarily trying to win the favor of God; they are trying to win the favor of one another. The judgement they fear is not the last judgement, but humiliating comments on social media.
The arrival of Web 2.0 in the early 2000s enabled this pursuit of self-justification to flourish. Collecting “Likes” and “Favorites” is one emerging, perhaps even predominant, way people confirm their righteousness. New media and designed technologies are at the forefront of individual user-experience, enabling and expediting the human pursuit of self-justification.
Technology & Technological Determinism
Technology is popularly depicted as modern inventions and futuristic gadgets. These depictions limit technology to new or innovative developments born out of science. In order for something to be considered technology, then it must be a modern creation or adaptation. However, this understanding overlooks the many manifestations of technology that exist in society today: writing, architecture, doors, walls, and automobiles. Although these are not modern inventions, many scholars regard these as manifestations of technology.
It is important to note, however, that technology is not limited to just physical artifacts. While there are many scholars who define technology in narrow ways that can limit it to physical things, many others argue that technology can include not only what does the work but also the work itself. Rhetoric scholar Angela Haas puts it this way: “It is critical that we interrogate the tension between technology as things, technology as work, and technology in relation to multiple and diverse actors when we grapple with the technicalities of technology.”
Haas’ definition means that technology is not confined narrowly to the world of things; instead, technology can include forms of making and doing. Technology encompasses the entire domain of techne that is both physical and non-physical. For instance, a technology might include language as a means by which one parses reality, artificial intelligence that merges data and language, or various forms of new media that are not so obviously physical.
It is important to note that understandings of technology must always include humans. Design scholar Richard Buchanan argues for this when he writes,
However, as important as science is in the development of technology, the activity of technological reasoning inherently involves human values selected knowingly or unknowingly as important premises that directly affect the essential characteristic of objects, not just their superficial appearance. . . . Its success is not judged theoretically by appealing to the knowledge of a small group of experts, but practically by appealing to the interests, attitudes, opinions, and values of users.
Technology is intimately connected to the interests, attitudes, and values of users. In this regard, technology is always user-centered. Technology may exert a power and influence on users. And technology may or may not be designed with the help of users. However, technology never exists apart from users; technology always exists in relation to users. Discussions of technology must always recognize human users: the ways in which technology is shaped by users, acts upon users, and is acted on by users.
Technology is shaped by humans, and technology shapes humans. Robert Johnson, in his book User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and other Mundane Artifacts, writes, “Technology helps shape the discursive and material characteristics of cultures. As technologies emerge and are incorporated into a cultural context they alter not just the immediate activity for which they were designed but also have ‘ripple effects’ that shape culture in defining ways.” Johnson’s words capture the basic idea behind technological determinism.
Heavily influenced by phenomenology and Edmund Husserl’s call to explore the things themselves, technological determinism examines the ways in which technology determines the structure and values of a society. This theory sees technology as a powerful actor in daily life. Far from an inert object passively waiting for an actor to arrive and determine how best to use it, technological determinism understands technology as being a powerful actor networked amongst other actors, both human and non-human. Adherents to this theory understand technologies as benefiting some and not others, exerting some sort of force, creating an order, and determining human behavior. Technology is never passive, inactive, or neutral; it is always inclining users toward a certain action, value, or political arrangement.
Technological determinists often use the example of Robert Moses to prove that technology structures societal interactions. Moses, a city planner in New York City during the mid-twentieth century, designed and built bridges over the parkways on Long Island with extremely low clearance. These low bridges inhibited busses from accessing Long Island and thereby kept users of mass transit from using certain parks in the area. This technology, according to Jennifer Slack and Macgregor Wise, was deliberately designed to “hinder poor people and blacks, not only from using the parkways, but also from accessing Jones Beach, a park Moses designed. In this case, the task delegated to the technology was in part that of racial and class discrimination.” The bridges and overpasses, though not often regarded as technologies, determined who was and was not able to access Jones Beach.
Within the theory of technological determinism, there are variants for arguing which technology exerts power on society. Regardless of where one is on the spectrum of technological determinism, this theory investigates the locus of interaction that exists when technology and users meet. The question is not whether technology shapes our lives; rather, the question is how and to what extent technology shapes our lives.
Proponents of technological determinism call attention to the consequences of technology. Rather than engaging in an uncritical understanding of technology, technological determinists call for recognizing the ways in which, “products have persistent consequences in the behavior of human beings, whether we consider a product’s style or its deeper synthesis of technological reasoning.” A thorough examination of technology calls for more than just a surface observation of its features and functions; recognizing the furtive influence of technology on human behavior is vitally important.
The central questions of this article can now be addressed: In what ways do the technologies we encounter on social media scaffold our experience and determine how we interact with others online? How do particular technologies within social media (such as the like button, the share button, and comment features) determine our behaviors in these spaces? And, most importantly, how does social media incline us to engage in self-justification through and with social media?
Self-Justification through the One-Click “Like” Affordance
Luther described the human penchant for sin as incessantly building a case for our own righteousness while rejoicing in the deficiencies of others: “But the carnal nature of man violently rebels, for it greatly delights in punishment, in boasting of its own righteousness, and in its neighbor’s shame and embarrassment at his own unrighteousness. Therefore it pleads its own case, and it rejoices that this is better than its neighbor’s.”
Oswald Bayer echoes Luther’s assessment of the human condition. Bayer describes humanity as being utterly fixated on justification: “To be recognized and justified; to cause ourselves to be justified or to justify ourselves in attitude, thought, word, and action; to need to justify our being; or simply to be allowed to exist without needing to justify our being—all this makes for our happiness or unhappiness and it an essential part of our humanity.” Bayer argues that there is an inner longing within all people to be justified and deemed righteous; desiring justification is a central part of the human experience.
It is no stretch, therefore, to assume that the tools and technologies humans design might facilitate this justification. Scholars have argued that humans seldom interact with the world apart from tools and technology. Instead of interacting directly with the world, we create artifacts to mediate our external activities. These tools range from ancient technologies such as hammers and shovels to more recent technologies such as smartphones and social media. These tools are designed by humans, for humans, to help humans. It is important, therefore, that theologians interrogate the tools and technologies used for self-justification.
User-centered design, as the name suggests, advocates for designing with end users in mind. Donald Norman, a formative figure in modern design studies, has recognized the ways in which designers actually seek to facilitate human sinfulness through their designs. In the foreword to a book by Chris Nodder, Evil by Design: Interaction Design Leads Us into Temptation, Norman writes, “But why should design be based on evil? Simple: Starting with evil means starting with real human behavior. . . . And good design results from good understanding.” Norman’s point is simple: Good design understands users and thus it must also consider the depravity of users.
As Norman suggests, Nodder’s entire book argues that human sinfulness ought to be accounted for and perhaps even exploited. Designing for the digital age requires, according to Nodder, designers to ask, “How do we influence behavior through the medium of software?” These “evil” design characteristics are often furtive and hidden from plain sight. In fact, that is what makes for good design.
Other scholars have made similar arguments about the furtive power of digital interfaces. According to Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe, digital interfaces have a powerful influence on users:
Within the virtual space represented by these interfaces, and elsewhere within computer systems, the values of our culture—ideological, political, economic, education—are mapped both implicitly and explicitly, constituting a complex set of material relations among culture, technology, and technology users. In effect, interfaces are cultural maps of computer systems . . . such maps are never ideologically innocent or inert.
Selfe and Selfe argue that it is naïve to think that designed interfaces are free from bias or partiality. Instead, these digital interfaces incline us to think, behave, and function in a certain manner.
Human users, being broken and sinful creatures, are inclined toward boasting in their own self-righteousness and building a case for their own self-worth. User-centered design strives to understand real human behavior and design with this in mind. Social media is a designed technology intended to maximize user experience and enjoyment. Therefore, this technology has been designed—at worst, furtively, or at best, unintentionally—in such a way as to facilitate our sinful penchant for self-justification and boasting. The Like button on Facebook is not there by accident. The Like button is there because of our deep longing to be liked by others, celebrated for our accomplishments, and deemed righteous in the horizontal realm. This affordance was designed, wittingly or unwittingly, with this kind of user in mind. 
The one-click affordance of the Like button on Facebook is a good example of technology designed for self-justification: it provides visible confirmation and affirmation from other users. Users post a picture or text while other users are able to like what has been posted. The amount of likes a post receives is visible to other users. The Facebook platform is a public forum for determining what is deemed good, right, and salutary by other users.
Scholars have studied the ways in which Facebook in general, and the one-click Like affordance in particular, impact users’ well-being. For instance, a group of psychologists has determined that, while ostensibly being a place for communal interaction, Facebook use can have a negative impact on one’s sense of well-being: “Rather than enhancing well-being . . . the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults—it may undermine it.” The decline in user well-being was both moment-to-moment and over time.
The results of this study spurred further investigation of the relationship between Facebook and user well-being. Another study parsed various kinds of communication within Facebook and determined that impersonal gestures such as the one-click Like did little to promote user well-being “while receiving personalized, effortful communication from close friends was linked to improvements in well-being.”
Along with influencing well-being, researchers have also explored the ways in which Facebook influences users’ behavior and actions. German researchers have found that spending time on social networking sites can trigger strong feelings of envy. The researchers found that, “passive following triggers invidious emotions, with users mainly envying the happiness of others . . .” Interestingly, the researchers found that users developed methods for dealing with their feelings of envy:
As part of their envy-coping plan, some users may engage in even greater self-promotion and impression management. . . . this behavior can trigger the phenomenon we denoted as the self-promotion–envy spiral, with users reacting with even more self-promotion content to the self-promotion of others. As a result, envy-ridden character of the platform climate can become even more pronounced.
According to these researchers, this technology is far from a passive actor awaiting the influence of a human user; rather, the Facebook platform is actively scaffolding users’ experiences and interactions in a particular way. This technology, as technological determinism predicts, is actively inclining users toward feelings of envy and behaviors of self-promotion.
All of these studies, and others like them, reveal how Facebook is largely anemic when it comes to providing real and meaningful well-being. To be certain, Facebook can be used in ways that promote well-being. Nevertheless, these studies offer a sobering reminder that social media engagement can often have exactly the opposite outcome. Social media users come to these platforms hoping to have increased connection with others and an improved sense of well-being; instead, they frequently leave feeling alienated, envious, and experiencing diminished well-being.
Facebook, as long as it is used as a vehicle for proving ourselves righteous, will always be ineffective. Seeking righteousness—coram deo or coram mundo—on social media will lead to despair. Any attempt at our own self-justification will come up wanting: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8–9). Lutheran theology can offer a helpful response.
Grace in a Web 2.0 World
Thesis 28 of the Heidelberg Disputations states, “The love of God does not find, but creates, what is pleasing to it. Human love comes into being through what is pleasing to it.” Though written five hundred years ago, these words are salient for our Web 2.0 world. Social media invites us to find that which is pleasing. We like good pictures, tweets with which we agree, and shared articles that affirm our views. These platforms are a virtual exchange of human love; people seek, find, and confirm their love of self and others. In order for human love to exist, however, that which is loved must be pleasing. These online spaces invite us to endlessly prove that we are in fact loveable. Pleasing the unpleasable, however, is a fruitless endeavor that will inevitably lead to despair.
The love of God is different. God does not find something loveable; rather, God creates that which is loveable. The message of the gospel is exactly this: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6–8). The righteousness of Christ is a gift that is given—not earned—simply by the grace of God. Our coram deo righteousness is passively bestowed upon us through faith in Christ Jesus. Before God, our standing is not based on the sum total of our likes, favorites, or retweets. According to John Barclay, the gospel has the power to upend conventional standards of worth and restructure social interaction: “It is the incongruous grace that Paul traces in the Christ-event and experiences in the Gentile mission that is the explosive force that demolishes old criteria of worth and clears space for innovative communities that inaugurate new patterns of social existence.”
Pastoral care in the digital age must help people to never forget the unmerited grace of God in Christ Jesus. As people spend hours each day on social media platforms, they will undoubtedly be shaped by these technologies. The ubiquitous nature of social media will make it ever harder to maintain the truth that the love of God creates that which is pleasing. Increasingly, social media will convince us all that love finds that which is pleasing. The future work of seelsorger will include helping people find their worth in Christ Jesus alone rather than amassing likes, favorite, and retweets. Pastors will be called upon to help people untangle the cords of self-justification that have ensnared them in despair and alienation. The kingdom of God is markedly different from the kingdom of Facebook.
Pastoral care in the digital age also involves guiding people toward constructive engagement with social media. Since research has shown that personalized communication (i.e., direct messages) can promote well-being, this sort of engagement should be encouraged over impersonal communication (i.e., the Like one-click affordance). Furthermore, pastors should help people think through the ways in which their own social media usage can either incite or abate feelings of envy within others: Might this post trigger the “self-promotion–envy spiral” within someone else? These are only two of many ways in which the redeemed can use social media in constructive and beneficial ways.
Theologians must attend to the ways in which this digital technology is shaping our culture, practices, and lives. Richard Buchanan says that those in the humanities (though theologians could also take note) often settle for superficial critiques of emerging technology “without closely examining how technological innovations come to be or how they are transformed into the products that influence our lives.” It is vitally important for pastors and theologians to develop thoughtful understandings and critiques when it comes to new media. Dismissing new media as unimportant or inconsequential could be catastrophic to the future of pastoral care.
Technology is always in situ. That is to say, technology must always be considered in relation to its situation, context, and users. Pastoral care in the digital age requires us to examine both the objects of technology and how they are situated in society. Langdon Winner, a formidable technology scholar, explains the need to study technology as it is deployed in the world: “My belief that we ought to attend more closely to technical objects themselves is not to say that we can ignore the contexts in which those objects are situated. A ship at sea may well require, as Plato and Engels insisted, a single captain and obedient crew. But a ship out of service, parked at the dock, needs only a caretaker.” Facebook, in and of itself, may be an inconsequential technology for pastors and theologians. Facebook, as it is deployed in the world and used by billions of people, is massively important for pastors and theologians.
If two billion Facebook users are not enough to merit theological inquiry, the impending flood of new media ought to catch our attention. In a letter written to his son in 1945, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote prophetic words about the increasing power of technology. Pastors and theologians would be wise to heed Tolkien’s words both now and in the future: “As the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful. What’s their next move?”
 Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, announced this on June 27, 2017.
 According to the World Health Organization, 2.3 billion people do not have basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs392/en/
 “For theology and the salvation of the brethren.” LW: 48:23–26.
 Mark Mattes, The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 3.
 LW 26:9
 Steve Ozment, The Age of Reform: 1250–1550 (New Haven, CT: Yale Press, 1980), 8.
 Robert Kolb, Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narrative as a Foundation for Christian Living (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 169.
 Ozment, 374.
 Oswald Bayer has written extensively on the modern fixation with self-justification. For example, Bayer discusses this topic in his book, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification (Minneapolis: Lutheran Quarterly Books, 2003).
 Ted Peters, “Justice, Justification, and Self-Justification” Theology Today 72 no. 4 (2016): 359–378.
 John Barclay, “Lecture at Concordia Seminary: Paul, Grace, and Human Worth” (Tuesday, April 4, 2017).
 Cf. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (Abingdon UK: Routledge, 2002), 81. “Yet writing (and especially alphabetic writing) is a technology, calling for the use of tools and other equipment: styli or brushes or pens, carefully prepared surfaces such as paper, animal skins, strips of wood, as well as inks or paints, and much more.”
 Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus, 109 no. 1 (1980): 123.
 Angela Haas, “Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: A Case Study of Decolonial Technical Communication, Theory, Methodology, and Pedagogy” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 26 no. 3 (July 2012): 289.
 NB Plato’s Phaedrus Dialogue.
 Richard Buchanan, “Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice” Design Issues 2 no. 1 (1985): 19.
 Robert Johnson, User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and other Mundane Artifacts (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998): 89.
 Jennifer Slack and Macgregor Wise, Culture and Technology: A Primer (Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang Publishing, 2014), 204–205.
 Robert Johnson, 88.
 Richard Buchanan, “Design and the New Rhetoric. Philosophy and Rhetoric 34 no. 3 (2001): 194.
 LW 31:304.
 Bayer, 2.
 Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie Nardi, Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006): 42.
 Chris Nodde, Evil by Design: Interaction Design to Lead Us into Temptation (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2013): 6.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 9.
 Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe, “The Politics of the Interface: Power and Its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones.” College Composition and Communication 45 no. 4 (1994): 485.
 Nodde, 9.
 Ethan Kross, Philippe Verduyn, Emre Demiralp, Jiyoung Park, David Seungjae Lee, Natalie Lin, Holly Shablack, John Jonides, Oscar Ybarra “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults.” PLOS One 8 no. 8 (2013): 5.
 Moira Burke and Robert E. Kraut “The Relationship Between Facebook Use and Well-Being Depends on Communication Type and Tie Strength.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 21 (2016): 279.
 Hannah Krasnova, Helena Wenninger, Thomas Widjaja, and Peter Buxmann. “Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to Users’ Life Satisfaction?” 11th International Conference on Wirtschaftsinformatik. 27 February 2013: 13.
 Ibid., 12.
 Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation – Thesis 28.
 John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 498–499.
 Richard Buchanan. “Design and the New Rhetoric” Philosophy and Rhetoric 34 no. 3 (2001) 185.
 Winner, 135.
 J. R. R. Tolkien. “Letter #96: To Christopher Tolkien.” January 30, 1945.