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God’s of Instagram

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Luke tells us in Acts 17 that Paul while touring Athens, was distressed because the city was so full of idols that they even designated one monument to the “Unknown God,” just in case they might have missed one. In the post-Christian West, we naively consider ourselves more sophisticated, believing that most modern people either worship one God or, increasingly, no God – or so we think.

Five hundred years ago, John Calvin wrote that the human heart is an idol factory. We all struggle with taking the good things God has made to enjoy, like beauty, sex, careers, money, romance, and the like – and elevating them from being a ‘good thing’ to the ‘ultimate thing.’ When we cling tighter to the good things God has made rather than to Himself, who made them, our hearts have manufactured an idol. Essentially, we’ve bent the knee to a new lord whose name isn’t Jesus.

Colossians 3:5 points out that greed, which is at the root of most sins, including those listed in the verse, is idolatry. Greed says, “I must have more – God has not allotted enough money, sex, power, comfort, etc., to me.” Greed compels us to bend the rules, overwork, manipulate, or trample over others to acquire more.

It’s true; our idols aren’t carved in stone. We don’t go to temples to worship stone gods—no need for that. Big tech has miniaturized the ancient Pantheon (a temple in Rome dedicated to worshipping all Roman gods) to fit in our pockets. We strain our necks, curve our backs, and tightly wrap our hands around our smart devices, often oblivious to the real, beautiful world all around us if only we’d look up.

Who hasn’t seen a young couple on a dinner date, silent with each other while flirting with their screens? Who among us, when bored in line at the grocery store or being uncomfortable at a dinner party, instinctively reaches for our phones, desperately looking for a new headline (and by new, I mean newer than the headline we read 5 minutes ago)? I’m not alone in sensing our attention span getting shorter, our face-to-face conversations becoming scarcer, and our moments of meaningful solitude eluding us together. How many of us fall asleep on Twitter or YouTube and, upon waking, reach for our phones once again? When was the last time you read a whole book? When did you last go a month, week, day, or even a single waking hour without looking at your phone?

How has big tech pulled off the biggest caper of all time – hustling modern humanity to trade a scrumptious banquet for a bag of chips?

In his book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply, Jonathan Hari again makes a compelling case that it’s all by deliberate design and manipulation. Since Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and the like are free, users are viewed not as customers but as products. Those companies profit by selling you to their real customers – the advertisers. The more often we use their platforms, the more money they make. They have an army of psychologists and behavioural scientists to design their apps to get us hooked.

 In the 2020 Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” one of the regretful architects of the technology used to these ends tellingly quips that only two industries refer to their customers as “users”: drug dealers and social media companies.

Jonathan Hari interviewed Aza Raskin – someone no one had ever heard of. Yet, Aza has changed your life. Aza invented the infinite scroll function used by almost every app and website. When scientists analyzed the effects of Aza’s invention on how long the average user spends surfing an app or the web, they found that users, conservatively, take 50% more time. Aza calculated that his invention caused people on earth to waste an additional 200,000 human lifetimes from birth to death, frivolously scrolling through their screens daily. Aza feels his creation has hijacked his life. Even Satan must be respectfully envious of big tech’s proficiencies in enslaving image-bearers to frivolity. 

In a hilariously sad study done by the tech giant HP on the effects of perpetual distraction, Hari wrote, 

“At first, they tested their IQ when they were not being distracted or interrupted. Then they tested their IQ when they were receiving emails and phone calls. The study found that ‘technological distraction’—just getting emails and calls—caused a drop in the workers’ IQ by an average of ten points. To give you a sense of how big that is: in the short term, that’s twice the knock to your IQ that you get when you smoke cannabis. So this suggests, in terms of being able to get your work done, you’d be better off getting stoned at your desk than checking your texts and Facebook messages a lot.” 

An obvious challenge for a believer in Jesus is to examine our hearts to see if the constant barrage of promoted idols streaming from our phones is more effectively shaping our affections than the Holy Spirit. All of us would do well to do this often. Most of us will have areas to confess, repent, and change course.

Yet, a less obvious risk to our soul bears a painful examination. What if the very nature of the smartphones’ effect on our brains—the quick access to distraction, entertainment, social engagement, and interruptions—is the very thing that robs us of a deeper, life-giving connection with Jesus? Science already tells us that phones are stealing our sleep, shallowing our relationships, chipping away at our productivity, raising our anxiety, intensifying our depression, increasing our envy, amplifying our anger, widening our divisions, obliterating our concentration, and decreasing our enjoyment of the real world just inches beyond the screen.

Less than a year ago, I struggled with anxiety, languished with insomnia, and was stuck in my devotional life. I was also a Twitter devotee. I loved being connected to the conversations enveloping the world in real time. I became addicted to being absorbed into the day’s storylines—before they even hit the headlines. I followed preachers, politicians, philosophers, and scientists. I enjoyed the outrage that welled inside me upon reading a controversial tweet. It was intoxicating. Twitter greeted me in the morning and tucked me into bed at night. One morning, I received an email from Twitter congratulating me on my 11th anniversary as a user. Instantly, a wave of shame followed by anger overcame me, and I knew what I had to do. I canceled my account before I even got out of bed. My chains were gone; I had been set free.

I was stunned at how quickly my life changed. Within days, my insomnia almost disappeared entirely. My anger and anxiety levels went down. I became a more relaxed person.

A few months later, while on a sabbatical, I made a further change. I decided to put my phone down in public. I resolved to use my phone only as a tool for maps, recipes, or other critical information and communication – and not as a digital drug to mask awkwardness, boredom, or social engagement. It was a jarring yet life-giving change. It’s like I had swallowed the red pill and vomited out of the matrix. I was travelling in Southeast Asia and noticed that almost everyone around me was glued to their devices while walking down busy streets, eating meals, or travelling on subways. Once, in a crowded subway car, I was overcome by how everyone was glued to their phones. I looked around and felt an overwhelming sadness for them and the previous version of myself. Then, I locked eyes with an old Thai man – the only other person in the train car enjoying the world around him. We nodded to each other, shared a moment, and smiled. We both understood the absurdity of the digital heroin addicts all around us. I’m never going back to the connected world.

In my adult life, I’ve never been less anxious, more content, less caught up in tensions and crises in my church or global events, less angry, and more aware that God is good, in control, and loves me and others very much.

From the hymnal Jesus would have sung, we read:

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (Psalm 46:1-3)

Life is sometimes difficult with all its challenges, crises, insecurities, betrayals, and heartaches. These fears feel like mountains crashing into the sea throughout the day, shaking our foundations. When faced with these things, we rightly seek comfort and assurance – and as the hymn says, we should turn to God as our refuge and strength. Sometimes we do. Yet often, we can find a quick hit of easy comfort by focusing on our devices instead of God. Not only do we short-circuit what God has for us, but we also lose sight of what He’s doing all around us.

“Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Come and see what the LORD has done…” (Psalm 46:6-8a)

Do we ever take the time to see what the Lord has already done if every negative emotion is instinctively soothed by our smartphone god rather than God, the maker of heaven and earth?

“He says, ‘Be still and know that I am God…’” (Psalm 46:10).

Do you still have the ability to obey this command? Try it. Try it right now. Set the alarm for just 10 minutes. Turn off your phone, put aside every distraction, and take 10 minutes to be still and focus on knowing who God is. Dare to try? 

How did it go? If you managed it, I’m biblically confident it was life-giving. If you struggled mightily – if 10 minutes seemed like 10 hours – perhaps this is a canary in the coal mine, alerting you that the tyranny of your beckoning phone has sucked up the oxygen of your inner spiritual life?

Victor Neufeld is the lead pastor at North Kildonan MB Church in Winnipeg.

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