The latte and scone are delivered to the table, and on cue, the phone is lifted and the photo is taken. It’s possible the espresso is over roasted, the milk soured, and the scone rocklike and impenetrable by even the sharpest fangs. But for all intents and purposes, it looks delicious for social media appetites to consume. It’s picturesque, it’s perfect, and of course, it’s possible that all is well with the coffee shop delicacies.

But if the latte art was messy, the cup dirty, and the scone visibly moldy, surely no photo would be taken. No filter can fix messy and disheveled. All that matters for the cafe camera shot is that it simply looks put together.

The “put together” life

We often view our lives in the exact same manner. As the saying often goes, life imitates art (or in this case, filtered social media photos). By presenting the false images of our otherwise messy lives we run the risk of hiding the “unfruitful works of darkness” when we should be exposing the true image for the sake of our growth in Christlikeness (Eph 5:11).

I first discovered this problem as a student minister. I was ministering to middle school and high school students at the dawn of the social media age. MySpace was trending, Facebook wasn’t selling fake news, and Twitter was just beginning to dip its beak in. The possibilities for connectedness were positive and as a young man ministering to youth, it was vital that I stay up on the trends. Or so I thought.

A couple years into ministry, I began to notice something. Youth events, camps, mission trips, and weekly gatherings were beginning to feel staged. Just like the latte and scone on the cafe table, I and numerous teenagers were staging our lives for a myriad of online onlookers. I was doing it, so I thought, for ministry purposes to encourage youth and their families to find value in our ministry. Students were doing it to show they were at the right place at the right time with the right friends. All these seemed innocent enough. Until I noticed the inconsistencies within both my life and the lives of my students. We were photographing the latte art, but the milk was sour.

A desire to be made much of

While I can’t ultimately know all the reasons for my students’ staged social media life, I knew mine. Recognition. Desire to be known, liked, seen as valuable/worthy/”with it”/etc. And it was something I was trying to hide from others, ultimately hampering my growth in Christlikeness. I was finding identity in successful ministry (or the appearance of it) rather in the finished work of Christ on my behalf. I fretted over the placement of various ministry accoutrements so the well-polished ministry would appear attractive to outsiders, and to continue enticing those who were coming.

Not once did I Instagram a conversation which led to a family leaving the church over secondary or tertiary issues. Never did I tweet about the student dealing with anorexia, self-harm, sex addiction, or any host of issues that were perpetuated by the very media outlet we were using to promote ourselves. Rarely, if ever, did I share a photo on Facebook highlighting the various doldrums I felt in my ministry endeavors. Simply put, messy and uncontained lives are not photographed. Thankfully, for myself, there was a community of people who walked with me in the midst of these issues. They were the ones I could tell about the dry and tasteless scone of life when others saw the image of something sweet and tasty. These were the people who knew the real story behind the well-manicured Instagram snapshot.

The light exposes it

Messy lives are rarely photographed, but they are the reality for all of us. The question is: Who is privy to the view behind the camera? Who is able to observe your disheveled life? Though sometimes our lives do match the photo, who is present behind the scenes to point out when the picture doesn’t line up with the truth? The trouble with social media is it rarely captures the hidden depths of the soul. Twitter can search out the latest on celeb breakups, but it cannot search or know our hearts, nor can it try us and know our thoughts (cf. Ps 139:23). Only a life fully exposed to God’s Word and soaking in the community of Christ can bring to light the mess our social media feeds seek to avoid, and properly develop our growth in Christlikeness.

The church is the backdrop and God’s Word is the filter by which our real lives are exposed on the filmstrip of life. Though no photo journalist, Paul speaks with the knowledge any photographer can understand: “But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.” (Eph 5.13-14). This is true for any believer, whether serving in vocational ministry or not.

So what part of your life are you continuing to present as a filtered and carefully constructed image? Are you presenting a picture perfect print when behind the scenes of your soul is nothing but chaos? Is the latte art of your life just a cover for sour milk? Messy lives are rarely photographed, but they are more often the true raw image we need to embrace if we are to expose the “unfruitful works of darkness” present in our lives for the sake of God’s kingdom and our growth in Christlikeness.