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 but according 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& dash;they blame it on the “neoliberalism” Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Brian Mulroney but their observation about the existence and growth of perfectionism resonates as 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 but an abundance of jobs and an explosive growth in wealth was not nearly 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 entirely to throttle. There is a substitute explanation for the sorts of pressures experienced by Millennials and others: 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 are not actually perfect but they appear to be. Before computers I think expectations about what could be achieved in a term paper were a little 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 has an even bigger role in the rise of perfectionism. This is the first generation to grow up with it and with social media. In order to understand the role social media plays in perfectionism we need to understand that there are two kinds of words 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 Rom 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 politically incorrect. It teaches us that we guilty of systemic sins for which individual repentance is inconsequential and insufficient. Social media is nothing but a great big 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, as their substitute, he has suffered, died, was raised on the third day, has ascended, and is seated at the right hand of the Father reigning over all things— whence he shall come to judge the damned and redeem the saved.

That good news does get announced on social media but it is not the message that most young people are seeing most of the time. 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 some 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 one 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 is 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 they were punished in his suffering and death.

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 and the wrong time, the whole thing could disappear in a moment. The law of God, however, is real. Justification is real. Grace is real. Progressive sanctification (dying to sin and living to Christ) is real. Glorification is the most real thing ever.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Thank you for this great, encouraging message. What a scandalous message the gospel is. We are the cast off infant in Ezekiel 16 that the Lord found in a field, polluted and helpless in its own blood and left to die. The Lord took pity on her and raised her as his princess, but she became a harlot and despised him. Still he loved her and pursued her, because of the everlasting covenant he made with her in her youth. God, justifier of the wicked! “Jesus came for real (not virtual sinners)….His actual, condign, real righteousness is credited to all who believe and our real, actual sins are credited to him and they were punished in his suffering and death.” What a scandal. What a love story.

  2. Thank you for this Dr Clark, I’m eighteen and have different forms of SM (Facebook, instagram etc). This article was very ensightful.

Comments are closed.