Features, Pastorate, Theology

Millennial Perfectionism and the Social Media Covenant of Works

If you are a Millennial, relax. This is not another critique. I do spend a fair bit of time with Millennials, however, and I have observed some interesting trends. One of these observations was reinforced recently in an article by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill, “How Perfectionism Became a Hidden Epidemic Among Young People.” They define perfectionism thus:

Broadly speaking, perfectionism is an irrational desire for flawlessness, combined with harsh self-criticism. But on a deeper level, what sets a perfectionist apart from someone who is simply diligent or hard-working is a single-minded need to correct their own imperfections.

They explain, “perfectionists need to be told that they have achieved the best possible outcomes…”. As a teacher I have noticed this. To be sure, this tendency is not unique to Millennials. However, according to the authors it does occur more frequently among Millennials. “[L]evels of perfectionism have risen significantly among young people since 1989.”

Their explanation of the cause strikes me as strained—they blame it on the “neoliberalism” of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Brian Mulroney. That said, their observation about the existence and growth of perfectionism rings true. I lived through the Regan era. The Nixon-Ford-Carter economies were inflationary and the first year or so of the Reagan era was very difficult. An abundance of jobs and an explosive growth in wealth, however, was not as stressful as high unemployment, low wages, high inflation, and high interest rates.

The generation(s) about which the authors are concerned have grown up in a very prosperous post-Reagan economy that even the Great Recession and the following stagnant economy was not able to entirely thwart. There is an alternative explanation for the sorts of pressures experienced by Millennials and others in our day: computers and the Internet.

Computers themselves create an artificial reality. They create the illusion of perfection. Term papers that were once typed and marred with “White Out” and imperfect footnotes now may be made to look like published works. Software inserts perfect Chicago Manual of Style footnotes. Term papers have the mirage of perfection. Before computers I think expectations about what could be achieved in a term paper were lower. The very business of reducing everything to zeroes and ones, which is fundamentally what computers do, changes things. It changes our perception of how we live and how we remember (we now refer to our memories as “hard drives”).

The Internet plays an even bigger role in the rise of perfectionism. Millennials are the first generation to grow up with the Internet with all its challenges and opportunities. The Internet has changed the way we communicate with each other and the primary driver in this communication revolution is social media.

To understand the role social media plays in perfectionism we need to understand that there are two fundamental realities in the world: law and gospel. The law demands perfect obedience. The law says, “do this and live” and “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” Left to itself social media is what the Reformed call a “covenant of works,” which promises eternal life on the basis of perfect obedience to the law. The law is revealed in nature (see, Romans 2:14–15). Social media teach us the greatness of our sin and misery. It teaches us that everyone else is happy, good, successful, and prosperous and that we, by contrast, are average or worse. It teaches us that we are politically incorrect. It teaches us that we are guilty of systemic sins for which individual repentance is inconsequential and insufficient. Social media is nothing but a massive covenant of works. How many people lost their jobs this week because they tweeted something they should not have done? (I think I saw at least two such news stories.)

By contrast, the gospel announces a free salvation to sinners who have transgressed the law, who have recognized their sin and misery, and who have put their trust in Jesus the Savior. The gospel is not found in nature. It is only found in Scripture. The gospel announces that God the Son has become incarnate in order to redeem sinners; that Jesus has obeyed in the place of sinners and become their substitute; that he suffered, died, was raised on the third day, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father reigning over all things until he returns to judge the damned and redeem the saved.

That good news does get announced on social media, but it is certainly not the dominate message young people are hearing. Mostly what they see is some version of “do this and live.” This drives perfectionism. Our young people are laboring under the law and, like Martin Luther in the early 16th century, they are flagellating themselves trying to please the angry god of social media righteousness. This is why virtual virtue signaling and digital self-righteousness is almost irresistible. Every time someone identifies with the “right” side they have satisfied the social media covenant of works—for now.

Of course, one of the great things about computers is that a person can fix mistakes easily. We no longer need “White Out.” We have backspace. We can delete Facebook posts, Instagrams, and tweets. If one works it, one can even clean up the past in the WayBack Machine. It’s called “scrubbing” one’s “social media footprint.” We can create the illusion of righteousness and fool at least some of the people some of the time. This is the late-modern equivalent of congruent merit: the god of social media will accept your best efforts. Now, as then, congruent merit is a lie from the pit of hell.

God, the real God, the God who is, in whose image we are made, however, is not fooled and he is not pleased with our cobbled-together righteousness. Jesus came for real (not virtual) sinners. He is true and true God. He is flesh and blood and he suffered in his true humanity. He grieved for our sins. He suffered and died for them. His actual, condign, real righteousness is credited to all who believe. And our real, actual sins are credited to him and punished in his suffering and death. This is the great exchange that the Internet could never accomplish.

Those who know themselves to be real sinners should not be attracted to virtual virtue or to social media mobs or to political correctness. Jesus was perfect and the rest of us are sinners who shall never attain to perfection in this life. Real sinners live by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). We need not revel in our sins nor excuse them, but we should not flatter ourselves by thinking that we have achieved perfection or that we can. We cannot. We will not. We shall not. Jesus did not come for the healthy but for the sick—the sick unto death. Those rescued from death by Jesus should hardly be surprised by their sins and failures. Social media are an illusion. If the wrong people hit the wrong keys at the wrong time, the whole thing could disappear in a moment. The law of God, however, is real. Grace is real. Justification is real. Progressive sanctification (dying to sin and living to Christ) is real. And glorification will be the believer’s reality forever.

Filed under: Features, Pastorate, Theology
R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark (D.Phil., Oxford University) is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, an ordained minister, and author of several books including, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (P&R, 2008). Follow him on Twitter: @RScottClark.