“Selfie Harm” and the Tree of Life
Every blemish and freckle disappeared; eyes grew wider and brighter; noses narrowed and lifted; chins sharpened; teeth whitened. Appearances drastically altered – and all in less than five minutes.
This past week, news circuited regarding a new photo series entitled “Selfie Harm” by renowned British photographer Rankin. The concept is simple. Rankin took individual photos of 15 teenagers ages 13-19. He then gave the teens five minutes to make their photo “social media ready.” In those five minutes, every teen chose to edit their photos; and thanks to the popularity and availability of photo-editing apps, most changed their appearances in similar ways – manipulations that once could have only been achieved after hours of trained computer work… or skilled surgical knowledge.
Rankin’s photo series is the most recent embodiment of a growing trend among this teenage generation. Today’s teens are not only consistently subject to the influence of outside marketers, but through social media, they have actually become the influencers themselves. Where students once battled the pressure to look like the digitally-enhanced photo on their favorite magazine, they now face the pressure for the reflection in the mirror to match the self-curated image on their public profile.
When considering the impact this “selfie” world is having (and will continue to have) on our students, I was immediately drawn back to the story of the garden for a few reasons. First, this story serves as a reminder of how Satan often chooses to attack, not simply with lies but through our desires. Second – and more importantly – it beckons us back to more than the beginning of sin, but the beginning of the gospel (Genesis 3:15).
I mean, have you ever thought what Eve’s view must have been as she stood in front of the tree that day?
With the tree of good and evil standing in the midst of the garden (Genesis 2:9), I can only imagine the beauty that surrounded her. Eden was a garden filled with every type of tree pleasing to the eye and good for food (Genesis 2:9) – apples, mangos, bananas, oranges, cherries – the colors would have been spectacular! There were also animals of every kind (Genesis 1:24-25, 2:19) – birds dancing in the sky overhead, horses and cattle grazing the land nearby, fish of all sizes playing in the current of the rivers.
And it was there, encompassed by extraordinary beauty and graced with the provision of everything for life and enjoyment, that the serpent first approached Eve. It is hard to fathom how she could be surrounded by such splendor, and there was still space in her heart to long for more. But there, in the midst of all that abundant beauty, deception and sin first entered in.
Looking at Rankin’s photos I first thought, “how are students buying into this lie?” It seems so obvious to me; their perception of “beauty” looks almost animated.
But that’s just it, isn’t it? It is more than just a lie that is manipulating teenagers today. Just as there was something more than a lie that drew Eve’s attention on that day in Eden. I believe the latter part of Genesis 3:6 gives us that answer – “and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.”
This particular tree offered Eve something the other trees could not offer her – a chance to be like God. And by drawing her attention to this fact, Satan paved the way for Eve to question God’s provision. While she had everything she needed, for the first time, Eve realized she did not have everything. And her desire laid way for doubt.
Satan did not have to force Eve’s hand; He did not even have to change her perspective. In the midst of the beauty of the garden, with the words of God in her mind (Genesis 2:16-17), Satan deceived Eve through an attack on her desires – a desire for more.
For our students living in this selfie world, they are standing in a place where they are being tempted to believe there is something more than what God has given them. In fact, they are being offered the lie that they can actually play God themselves – crafting an image and a world that exists as they desire it to be.
In a dichotomized world where one’s online persona can be different than one’s physical one, the danger is in confusing what is real and what is not. The simple (often daily) act of editing one’s appearance, even digitally, can drastically affect how teens process reality. By viewing themselves so often through their own curated image, an image that is completely unattainable in real life, teens begin to long to have what the filters give them – confidence, followers, likes, etc. And when they cannot get this in real life, their distorted desires begin to tell them they need to change. The prime example of this is the emerging reality of “Snapchat dysmorphia” – people presenting filtered selfies to plastic surgeons as the goal they are looking to achieve.
As I was meditating on the creation story this week, one thing caught my attention. As Eve stood in front of the tree of good and evil, she actually had the tree of life right beside her (Gen. 2:9). But through the distortion of her desire, Eve could not recognize the far greater reality that was being offered to her that very same moment.
The truth is, I do not know the toll this new “filtered reality” will have on our students. Only time will tell. What I do know is this: as we proclaim the gospel of grace to our students, a key truth we must proclaim is Christus Victor.
The gospel is not only the good news of the redemption to come, but the good news of the redemption that is here. Through the work of Christ on the cross, we no longer live under the curse of sin and its desires. And through the work of the Holy Spirit, though we will still be subject to sinful desires, we are no longer slaves to them.
This is why, as student leaders, we cannot ignore the emerging trends of technology; we must strive to know the ways the culture is speaking to our students’ desires because we know that the enemy is waging a war for those desires. As leaders, it is not our job to shape or change our students’ desires; only Christ can do that. However, because of Christ, we have the joy of standing in the gap for them, to be a lighthouse drawing their attention away from the tree of good and evil and toward the true tree of life – a tree that stood on Cavalry’s hill; a tree that bears the scars of their savior who surrendered His own desires to give them victory over theirs.