Lent, Facebook and Desire

Are you giving up Facebook for Lent? Lots of people are doing it. In a 2012 survey published on Christianity Today and generated using Twitter, Facebook appeared as the 6th most common thing that people give up for Lent.

Responding to the Christianity Today survey, one blogger suggests that Facebook and the other most common things that people give up for Lent are more like a “40 day long New Years Resolution.” He regards them as more like self-imposed rules that we legalistically follow, or “some superficial monastic self-flagellation.” Now, it is clear that this author is writing from a Reformed perspective and takes a different approach to Lent then those who are more sacramentally minded. Even so, he would find some common ground with Anglicans, Catholics and Orthodox.

The common ground is this: Lent is about more than giving things up. It can also be about taking something on and doing something new or different. One Eastern Orthodox writer heartily agrees, “The point of the Lenten fast, for us, is not really about what we give up. It is about what we are supposed to do when we feel ourselves wanting what we have told ourselves we should not have.”

Lent is a time of fasting. It is a time spent waiting in the desert where what we want is not always readily available. It is a time to remember where we have come from and where we are going. It is a time of scarcity; a recognition that our wants will not and cannot always be met. It is a time to reflect upon our desires.

Proper Lenten devotion recognizes the great value of human desire. Lent does not call for the elimination of our desires, but, rather, their re-orientation. 

According to a long and ancient Christian tradition, all human desire is oriented toward the ultimate value, God. The problem is that our values can become disordered and our desires can become disoriented.  What we think will satisfy our desires only ends up leaving us wanting more. No matter how great your job is, no matter how much money you have, no matter how many Facebook friends you have, Christian theology has always taught that these things cannot bring a person ultimate satisfaction. They can bring a penultimate satisfaction when valued appropriately, but the more we desire from them, the more discontent we may become.

So, what does Facebook have to do with a theology of desire? I think that Facebook can be a powerful tool through which we seek to satisfy our desires to love ourselves and to be loved, and to love our neighbors. If Facebook can help us to satisfy these desires then, it seems to me, Facebook is helpful. If, on the other hand, Facebook disorients these desires, then it is harmful.

I want to put to the side the argument over whether Facebook is a “neutral” tool and focus on one way that using Facebook may disorder our values and disorient our desires. Facebook is sometimes like a window, or a magnifying glass, through which we imagine ourselves. As we seek to satisfy our desires by using Facebook, we can, at the same time, acquire a disordered value of self. Much has, in fact, been written on the way that Facebook encourages an inflated (narcissism) or deflated (voyeurism) value of self. In both cases, our desires are disoriented and we are left discontent because Facebook overwhelms us with the possibilities of what our lives could look like and the sense that I could be whatever I make of myself on Facebook.

This year, I am giving up Facebook for Lent. I don’t want a new self-imposed rule, and I certainly don’t want to engage in any monastic self-flagellation.  What I want is to take a fresh look at how I satisfy the desires that I use Facebook to satisfy, and I want to re-orient them toward their ultimate goal in the loving communion of the Triune God.

Jim Watkins is the Featured Artist editor for Transpositions and recently completed a PhD with David Brown. His thesis explored and developed a theological model for human creativity in the arts.


  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

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  1. says: Travis Buchanan

    Thanks Jim. This is a thoughtful post. Also, I noticed that six people have already shared it on Facebook.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      As of right now, I see that 9 people have shared it on Facebook. It is my hope that many more will do so, not because I want people to stop using Facebook, but because I hope that people will reflect upon the ways they use Facebook. Thanks!

  2. says: Travis Buchanan

    Your good points on the necessity of reorienting our desires (or having them reoriented for us) and seeking to obtain something positive during lent (e.g., a Xn virtue, a greater desire to be like Christ, etc.), not just abstain from something, reminded me of the opening of C. S. Lewis’s most famous sermon, ‘The Weight of Glory’:

    If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Travis, thank you for this quote. It has been a long time since I have read ‘The Weight of Glory’, and Lewis’ point about love being the central virtue of the Christian faith is so important. In my opinion, unselfishness is much to easy of a virtue. Loving involves more struggle, pain and sacrifice.

  3. says: Bruce Herman

    “Facebook overwhelms us with the possibilities of what our lives could look like” — and so does Downton Abbey (and most fiction and I think FB has a fictional element for all of us). Isn’t the question of disordered desire mostly a practical one? — i.e., what do we allow in our lives to either strengthen or weaken virtue or vice. It seems to me that FB, like all other indulgences, can be enjoyed in a considered way or in a profligate way. My hunch is that it is not neutral, but it is also not clear that it is toxic in itself (like wine, for example). Human beings can use most anything for good or ill. We still choose even where addiction comes into play, though once addiction descends the element of choice diminishes…FB is definitely addictive for some.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Bruce, thank you for your thoughts. You are right that fiction, in general, is a way that we imagine new ways of living, new ways that our world could be. I think you are also right that the question of disordered desire is a practical one, and that is definitely where I am trying to with this post. I’m hoping readers will reflect a little on how Facebook has, or has not, become an important practice (perhaps even a ritual) in their lives. The difficulty is, as you say, that Facebook is a mixed bag: it is not neutral, but it is not inherently toxic. That is one reason why I think that using Facebook requires a lot of discernment, and different people may need to respond differently. As you say, for some Facebook is addictive.

      For my part, I am planning on resuming Facebook post-Easter. That said, I haven’t missed Facebook much, and I may find that whatever fills that Facebook hole will be preferable to reactivating my account. We’ll see!

  4. says: Adam

    Amen! It is so easy for our desires to become disordered, so easy to try finding our identity and significance in things that cannot offer either. Lent is a time to put our disordered desires in their proper place–in subjection to Christ–but to do it with Christ in the power of the Spirit, otherwise it can’t help but remain narcissistic and self-focused.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Amen to you too! Adam, I absolutely agree with you that the re-orientation of our desires toward God cannot be achieved through human effort alone.

  5. says: Matthew Linder

    Would it be strange to share this story on Facebook or would that be the point?

    Our church actually began the year with a 40 day fast and reminded us of your exact point, that a fast is to reorient our lives to the triune God. I wholeheartedly agree, otherwise, what is the point of fasting?

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Matthew, thanks for your comments! Please feel free to share this on Facebook. This is no anti-Facebook tirade. It is my hope that Facebook users will reflect more carefully upon the way they use Facebook, and what they hope to get out of it. Of course, as Bruce Herman suggested in his comment, careful reflection and self-examination is beneficial for any technology that we use, and really all aspects of life.

  6. says: Suzanne Frazier

    Each Lent, I take on a new behavior that I wish to add to enrich my life. Over the years, I have ‘cleaned out’ the misguided behaviors with my mindful practice. I prefer to look at this time period in a positive way, with positive actions and positive results. This year, I have taken on the ‘joy of exercise’, instead of the ‘have-to of exercise’. What a difference it makes. (I’m on Facebook. Giving up Facebook is rather inconsequential to my daily practice of being in the joy of God.

  7. says: Jim Watkins

    Suzanne, thank you for your thoughts. I certainly agree with you when it comes to viewing Lent in more positive terms, and I like the image of cleaning out our misguided behaviors.

    You are absolutely right, of course, that giving up Facebook for Lent should not be for everyone. For some, as you say, this would be inconsequential, and there are probably more important practices to reflect upon. I wish you a blessed Lent, and all the best in your exercising!

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