When Our Phones Master Us

I was without my phone for less than 24 hours, and I felt subhuman. Something is wrong. Something is terribly wrong.

This wasn’t a voluntary experiment. I left my phone on the back bumper of our car as we were scrambling to get our kids and running strollers into the car after it started to rain. Then off we drove, and off my phone flew. The moment I realized that my phone, so vital to my daily routines, so seemingly essential to my functioning, was gone was something too like realizing my oxygen supply had been cut off. It’s pathetic really, but this object has patterned so much of my thinking. It has carved out the path for my daily routine and set the tempo for the rhythms of my life. I pick it up at every spare moment because—well, honestly, I don’t know why anymore. I just do. It has formed me. And this is a serious problem. This is, in fact, a biblical problem.

When God created Adam and Eve and planted them in the Garden which he created for them to enjoy and in which they could flourish, God gave commanded them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1.28). God bestowed on Adam and Eve the blessing of being vice regents, or under rulers, over the creation which he had made. Their ruling over creation, however, was not to be passive or standoffish. As image bearers of God, they were to live and be at work in God’s creation in such a way that their dominion would be life giving, thereby extending the blessing of God into all facets of creation. The way Adam and Eve were to accomplish this was by cultivating the potential God had embedded within creation. Like a child playing in a sandbox in which are buried all sorts of treasures, Adam and Eve were to bring out of creation what God had planted in creation. The potential for agriculture and architecture, for education and economics, for technology and transportation were all present within God’s creation, and God invited Adam and Eve to draw these potentials out in service of their God and their fellow image bearers.

Like a child playing in a sandbox in which are buried all sorts of treasures, Adam and Eve were to bring out of creation what God had planted in creation.

The entailments of these truths are countless, but three are worth pointing out here. First, there is an established order to God’s world. God is King, human beings are his under rulers and creation is the domain God gives human beings to rule on his behalf. This means that God’s world functions under the banner of his blessing when the order he has established is honored and maintained.

As this creational order is maintained, human beings serve their role as image bearers of God. This is this second point to note. As image bearers, human beings will always reflect someone or something. We are mirrors—always reflecting, always imaging. God made us to be his image bearers that we might reflect his glory in all the earth. In our imaging God, we are like him (Genesis 1.27). What is so crucial to the conversation at hand is the connection between image bearing and dominion—we become like that which has dominion over us. Or to put it another way, we become like that to which we bow down.

Third, being like God means that we work with God to accomplish his purpose for his world. The opening chapters of Genesis affirm that progress and advancement are necessary for God’s plan for his world. Adam and Eve were not to remain in the confines of Garden but to bring the Garden’s blessing to fill the whole earth! This means that iPhones are not intrinsically bad or evil. Rather, my phone belongs to the created order. The potential for my phone to exist was present in Genesis 1. Therefore, as with all things, God intended iPhones to emerge in order to cultivate a love for him and to promote human flourishing.

So what has gone wrong? If the problem is not my phone, what, rather who, is the problem? Well, I am. And collectively, we are. Instead of submitting to the divine order of creation and the sovereignty of God over all things, we despise God’s kingship over us that subjects us to his rule and instead desire an autonomy that attempts to subject God to us. We have fundamentally altered the creational order God instituted for the flourishing of his image bearers and his creation. Far from being an isolated incident, this rebellion has cosmic consequences.

Where human beings were called by God to have dominion over the created order, the created order has won dominion over us. We have pushed aside the Giver of life and turned to search for life in the created order. In doing so we are being shaped into image of the created order. As Paul notes in Romans, we have exchanged the glory of the eternal God for the glory of created things—like iPhones. Where the glory of God the King was to pattern human life—cultivating our desires, shaping our habits, directing our steps, and animating our hands—the “glory” of created things now plays that role. Our lives testify that iPhones are glorious when our lives demonstrate—in word and deed—the mastery our phones have over us.

We occupy the time our spouse or date leaves the table at dinner with our news feed because we find it easier to know and judge the world from a distance than it is to know and love the world in front of us.

Further, in our rejection of God’s rule over his creation and our place as image bearers within it, we have lost the ability to join with him in his purposes for the world. Instead of cultivating the potentials of creation out of love for God and for the good of others, we cultivate and use creation, even iPhones, for the building of our own personal kingdoms. We tend to our phones at every beckon call in order to fabricate the masquerade of being available or responsive or a hard worker. (Is it not absurd that we would tend to a text message that interrupts a face-to-face conversation?) We build social media profiles that present ourselves flawless to the world because we long to be loved but are terrified of being known. We refresh our social media feeds because we tether our worth to the number of likes we gain. We unlock our phones as soon as silence sets in because we are terrified of self reflection. We occupy the time our spouse or date leaves the table at dinner with our news feed because we find it easier to know and judge the world from a distance than it is to know and love the world in front of us. We have rejected the benevolent and life-giving kingship of God and enslaved ourselves to the malevolent and life-destroying dominion of far lesser things.

So where do we go from here? What are gospel-informed principles that might give redemptive shape to our relationship with our phones?

One, in the power of the Spirit, cultivate a supreme desire for and delight in God. Our desires have been misdirected at lesser things though our desires are made to find their ultimate end in God. In Christ who delighted only to do God’s will, our desires can again be Godward. What we desire and delight in fundamentally shape us. It is only when our desire is for God that we gladly submit to his kingship over us and are postured to embrace our role as his image bearers who exercise dominion over creation instead of being enslaved to it. Apart from the gracious work of the Spirit to pattern our desires after Christ, all other efforts to escape our enslavement to our phones will be futile.

What we desire and delight in fundamentally shape us.

Two, use your phone as a means to propagate the kingdom and agenda of Christ over and against personal kingdoms and agendas. Let your phone conversations and text messages and social media accounts be alive with the aroma of Christ. Inject the various worlds our phones open up with the renewal of King Jesus. Our phones and our use of them provide an incredible potential for the gospel of Jesus to be displayed. Use them in such a way that proves Christ is the true and better King.

Three, utilize your phone as a means to love others. In our digital age, let your phone be a front porch of your life. Be available and responsive—not for the sake of maintaining your image but simply out of obedience to the command of Christ to be a good neighbor. As people approach you on the porch of your phone, invite them in in order to love and serve them.

Four, make what is proximate priority. Let the people who are across the table from you have primacy over the person who just sent you a text message. Be a faithful steward of the your neighbor’s time with whom you are in conversation. If your “need” to respond immediately to a text message is always primary in a conversation, you will never really love your neighbor.

Five, intentionally incorporate time apart from your phone. As has been discussed, our constant attention to our phone both indicates and cultivates our being shaped by our phones.  Therefore, it is essential to lay them aside daily and be shaped by Christ. Set them aside for time in the Word and in prayer. Set them aside for time with your spouse and kids. Set them aside while grabbing a cup of coffee with a friend. Carve these spaces out that they might be spaces in which the all-satisfying and all-sufficient goodness of Jesus shine infinitely brighter than the screen of your phone.