Do you remember the story of Narcissus? He was an attractive chap, but he was also arrogant and incapable of receiving love or giving love to anyone. For his frigid affection, the goddess Nemesis cursed him in a most hopeless way, making him fall in love with the image he projected of himself. Day after day, he bent over and caught his reflection in the glassy surface of the water, longing for the image he saw, so much so that one day he noticed his reflection in the bottom of a well, jumped in, and drowned.
It’s awkward to say it this way, but like Narcissus staring down into the water, enchanted with himself, we bend over our phones—and what most quickly captures our attention is our own reflection: our replicated images, our tabulations of approval, and our accumulated “likes.” Social media has become the new PR firm of the brand Self, and we check our feeds compulsively and find it nearly impossible to turn away from looking at—and loving—our “second self.”
So when we talk about “smartphone addiction,” often what we are talking about is the addiction of looking at ourselves.
Digital narcissism—this constant, bent-over focus on our own reflections—cannot define our identity in a satisfying way, and there are many reasons why. Fundamentally, finding our identity is not just a matter of self-love but also of conformity.
We know teenagers strive desperately to fit in, and we know that in search of this conformity, they try to stand out. For example, a teen may present himself or herself with jet-black hair, dark eyeliner, and a black wardrobe. This fashion may be an attempt to stand out, but more important, it is an attempt to fit in (to the goth subculture).
But we all do this: we all wear “costumes” to meet the approval of certain subcultures, because our search for individuality is always a chase for conformity. There is an old adage that says, “We are not who we think we are; we are not even who others think we are; we are who we think others think we are.” In other words, what we think others think of us profoundly shapes our sense of identity and our search for belonging. This complex social dynamic further proves that we don’t find our identity in ourselves.
Long before the smartphone, pastor Tim Keller explained this dynamic to his urban congregation. “People in New York City like to think, ‘We’re individuals. People here can decide what they want to be and do it.’ That’s not true,” he corrected. “You all have your uniforms. Some of you are wearing Wall Street uniforms. Some of you are wearing East Village uniforms. Some of you are wearing SoHo uniforms. There are uniforms! You have to fit in. You have to get your validation from somebody. You have to have a group of people that say, ‘You’re one of us.’” At the core of our lives, we want to fit in to find our identity.
Changed by Loves
We are composites of the people we want to conform to, and this conformity defines one of the most powerful lures of our smartphones. Digital technology now accelerates and particularizes our search for belonging.
To help explain this phenomenon, I contacted theologian Richard Lints, who has studied how we become like what we worship. He examines our conformity in the contexts of both the negative (idolatry) and the positive (worship and sanctification). “We are mirrors,” he told me. “And so the whole metaphor of the human being—reflecting its environment, reflecting its context, reflecting its idols, reflecting its gods—is absolutely core, from the beginning to the end of the canon [of Scripture]. What we call worship—worshiping God faithfully and truly—is also a matter of our identity. That is what we are created for. That is who we are.”
Whether or not we see it, worship is the fundamental dynamic of our molding. And this is why, no matter how fiercely independent we are, we never find our identity within ourselves. We must always look outside of ourselves for identity, to our group fit and to our loves. Both dynamics reveal the truth: we are becoming like what we see. We are becoming like what we worship. Or, to put this in Facebook terms directly, we are becoming like what we like.
Worship Guided and Misguided
The Bible sharpens the point of this dynamic like a woodworker’s chisel. Either we worship what is created (idols) or we worship the Creator (Christ). These are our only options.
If we worship idols, we become like the idols. Idolatry is the vain attempt to find ultimate meaning in finite things that we can craft and hold in our hands. This is extremely clear in Scripture: to love and worship a dead idol is to become like the idol. If our idols have no hands to embrace us, no eyes to see us, no mouths to assure us, and no ears to hear us, then we who worship idols become like them: spiritually powerless, blind, mute, and deaf. Our idols dehumanize us; they petrify our souls, and dumb and dull and deaden all of our spiritual senses. Idols can only distort us (as we’ll see more fully later). Therefore, to worship anything that is not God is to fundamentally live in identity confusion.
If we worship Christ, we become like Christ. Opposite our idols, to love and to worship Christ is to become like him, powerfully conforming to his beautiful image, the true image of God. Jesus Christ is the full image of what you and I were created to express. I am made in his image. But my humanity is sinful, twisted, and broken. He loved me so much he shed his blood for me, in order to free me from all other conformity traps. In him, I have been made spiritually alive and given eternal hope and lasting joy, and in him I find the anticipation of a moment when I will see him face to face and experience the full and perfect recovery of everything I was created to be as God’s image bearer. This hope and longing is what drives me to see him in Scripture—and then to love him, to reflect him, and to conform to his life now (and anticipate becoming fully conformed to his image in the resurrection).
The object of our worship is the object of our imitation. God designed this inseparable pattern. What we want to become, we worship. And what we worship shapes our becoming. This is Anthropology 101.
The object of our worship is the object of our imitation.
The Idols of Social Media
If idols shape us, unhealthy phone patterns are bound to be reflected in our relationships.
Our digital interactions with one another, which are often necessarily brief and superficial, begin to pattern all our relationships. When our relationships are shallow online, our relationships become shallow offline. Douglas Groothuis, a professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, warns: “The way we interact online becomes the norm for how we interact offline. Facebook and Twitter communications are pretty short, clipped, and rapid. And that is not a way to have a good conversation with someone. Moreover, a good conversation involves listening and timing, and that is pretty much taken away with Internet communications, because you are not there with the person. So someone could send you a message and you could ignore it, or someone could send you a message and you could get to it two hours later. But if you are in real time in a real place with real bodies and a real voice, that is a very different dynamic. You shouldn’t treat another person the way you interact with Twitter.” Yet our online habits change our relational habits: both become clipped and superficial, and we become more easily distracted and less patient with one another.
Our relationships also suffer when our thinking becomes caught in the ebb and flow of online fiascos. Writer Alan Jacobs spent seven years on his iPhone, seven years engaged on Twitter, and more than ten years responding to blog comments. Then he stood back, evaluated it, and dropped it all. He ditched social media and his iPhone. “I have considered the costs and benefits,” he said, “and I have firmly decided that I’m not going to be held hostage to that stuff anymore.” Why not? “The chief reason is not that people are ill-tempered or dim-witted—though Lord knows one of those descriptors is accurate for a distressingly large number of social-media communications—but that so many of them are blown about by every wind of social-media doctrine, their attention swamped by the tsunamis of the moment, their wills captive to the felt need to respond now to what everyone else is responding to now.”
When Andrew Sherwood, a graduate student, decided to do the same (ditch social media and the smartphone), his wife said it was the greatest gift he ever gave her. Why? “When you had your smartphone, you were a walking vending machine of whatever you’d ingested that day,” she told him. “It was difficult to talk about deeper things that mattered, because you were constantly distracted by Internet litter. You’re now able to focus and give necessary attention to deeper issues. More of what we talk about comes from your heart rather than your Twitter feed.” Whether or not it’s time to ditch your smartphone altogether is a question we will save for later, but Andrew offers us a graphic illustration of how digital idols pattern us.
The Warning and the Hope
As human beings, we were made to image God, which means our identity is, by definition, moldable, and that means susceptible. We are statues of wax, changed and reshaped by what we do on our phones. But this pliability also means we can be redeemed, remade, and restored by the sovereign grace of our image-sculpting Savior to do what we were made to do: magnify God. As we image him, we invite the world to a welcoming Father, where the lost can find refuge and identity, and where thirsty sinners will find the all-satisfying living water.
True image bearing frees us to be digitally honest about ourselves. We pray for grace to avoid the plight of Narcissus—to avoid falling in love with the image of ourselves. And we pray for grace and courage to take a more honest look at our digital reflections in the glossy screens of our phones and see where we fail to image Christ, willing to humbly admit, repent, and change when we sometimes see the reflection of a dragon looking back.