Jesus is waiting. Not standing at the door with a lantern, like in that William Holman Hunt painting. Sitting at a computer. On Facebook. Refreshing and refreshing a picture with a message about cancer and that equates ‘Likes’ to prayers. He really wants to heal someone, but without the requisite likes and shares, his hands are tied. Poor Jesus.
If you think this is unlikely in reality, you’re probably of sound mind and reasonable theology. And if you find the idea that such images might be popular online, you’re probably more picky about Facebook friends than I am.
Among some Christians, these types of images and messages are ubiquitous. They range from the exploitative but harmless ('Share if you think God is amazing') and the less harmless, guilt-tweakers ('Like and share if you love Jesus, scroll past if you don’t', or even: 'Jesus died for you. The least you could do is share this terrible image of what he would look like if he was white and painted by Norman Rockwell after a stroke').
The full spectrum of shareable images created specifically for the Christian Facebooker extends to darker places, including the superstitious chain letter ('Say the following prayer and hit share immediately and God will bless you') to the threatening ('Pray this prayer and share with our friends within one day and God will give you a blessing. Ignore and bad things will happen. Possibly to your family.')
I’m paraphrasing in most of those. Mostly because my spelling and grammar are better than the originals. And, while bad spelling and grammar are cause enough, there are better reasons to denounce these sometimes stupid, sometimes satanic, Jesus jpegs.
Dangerous theology and predatory commercial opportunism that have had God plastered all over them should horrify and sadden us. However little they should surprise us.
And while I’m 90% sure that every smart Christian should take every opportunity seek to halt the spread of these little miracles of stupidity, there are three points that give me pause:
1. 'Share if you love Jesus' may be an okay sentiment
I know, I know. This is not how discipleship or faith are measured. And it’s manipulative. And, the images are always so profoundly terrible.
But is it really so bad that they are asking us to share something that affirms Jesus? Why don’t we want to share them? I mean, are bad aesthetics really reason enough not to? Would it kill the smart Christians to find some subtle images and some better quotes?
The basic fact is that asking people to like and share an image on social media results in people liking and sharing it. Which is what you want if you’re running a social media page. So unless you hate Facebook generally, you have to cut people slack for that. And, as long as the message is not heretical (which is a big ask with these images, I know), surely more affirmations of Christ are at very least goodness-neutral, if not positive? Was your last photo of your meal or your boring little child/pet/hobby really that much more edifying than a Bible verse in comic sans, stuck on a sunset?
2. 'Jesus needs your clicks to heal' may be no stupider than my theology of healing
Is it really that dumb to think Jesus is waiting for our likes and clicks? Well, yes. Obviously. It’s severely brain-damaged, theologically speaking, because likes are not prayers. Prayers are prayers.
But the idea of Jesus waiting for those prayers before he heals someone – is that part of it really crazy? Are you really certain that your theology of how answered prayer and healing work is more sophisticated? Less open to accusations of sub-mustard-seed faith or above-average credulity? Because I’m not.
I have no idea how healing works, if I’m honest. I can give you arguments and answers, obviously. I’m a writer and I think I’m awfully clever. But if we’re being vulnerable here (and why wouldn’t I in the safe space that is a Christian opinion blog and its attached comments section?), I have to say I’m not sure I understand anything beyond the fact that God loves us and sometimes he chooses to answer prayers. There’s enough in the Bible (which I believe to be true) that suggests praying more makes things like miracles more likely. That’s ‘likely’, not ‘like-y’, of course. But, still.
3. 'Repeat this prayer and you’ll be blessed' may work. Who knows?
While I’m enough of a Protestant to think it is dumb and superstitious to pressure people into saying prayers some spotty social media account officer made up on their coffee break, I’m also enough of a Protestant to think that saying more prayers can’t be an entirely bad thing. And before you say, 'Ah, but what kind of prayers?' let me say: 'Shut up.' When did we get to be the ones who judge the quality or type of prayers that people with a relationship with Jesus should offer to him? Most of our prayers are selfish, myopic and weak. Because we are selfish, myopic and weak. God is aware. If that was an absolute barrier to his hearing us, prayer would have ceased to work in the Garden.
Again, the Bible often links prayer and worship to blessing. So, while I know it is God who blesses, by his choice, not as a result of our saying magic words – and while I know that blessing-hoarding is a less than great approach to our faith, I also think we could either cut the online prayer-mongers a bit of slack, too. The last time I asked people to pray on Facebook was when I had cancer. Selfish. And long ago.
Don’t get me wrong. I still hate these images. I just think there’s a particular kind of sophisticated, intelligent, educated sneering at them (and at the people who share them) that is as unpleasant as it is hypocritical, when you drill down into our objections. Really, most of the time, it’s not spiritual purity but aesthetic and intellectual snobbery that fuels our horror. And I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t sitting around waiting to bless that, either.