Idols in our Pockets

“…Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless.” 1 Samuel 12:20b-21

Idolatry doesn’t have to be explicit. In fact, it normally isn’t. When we think of “idol worship” we tend to picture people bowing before an elaborate shrine with some small statue of a foreign god at the center. In a way, this picture of idolatry makes sense. Christians have (rightfully so!) gained their understanding of idol worship from the Old Testament. In Exodus 32 and 1 Kings 12, we read that Israel turned to and trusted a golden calf for their prosperity and salvation. 1 Samuel 7 tells us that the Israelites were worshipping “Baals and Ashtoreths,” which were physical representations of Canaanite deities. In 2 Kings 23, we even read that King Solomon of Israel built places of worship to multiple foreign gods in the heart of the Promised Land itself.

An Asherah Pole was a physical representation of foreign goddess, Asherah.

When surveying the Old Testament stories of idol worship, we modern, Western Christians may be tempted to think that we have successfully avoided such sinful practices. I cannot name a single Christian who has erected a stone altar on the side of a mountain in the wilderness and travels there to offer praise and sacrifice to a foreign god. But just because the form of idolatry may look different, it does not mean that we have kept idolatry at bay. This ancient world with all of its shrines and idols and deities seems so distant from our modern sensibilities. But is it?

James K.A. Smith, in his book You Are What You Love, lays out a kind of thought experiment that has been haunting me lately. He says to imagine an alien ethnographer who is sent to Earth to study human culture and to take the findings back to its home planet. Imagine that this alien gets beamed down to your kitchen table one morning while you are eating your breakfast. The alien sees you, sitting there eating and hunched over a tiny glowing rectangle. The alien, watching intently for nearly half an hour, observes that this glowing box is clearly important to you because the amount of time you spend focused on it as opposed to your spouse or your food or anything else in the room is excessive. The alien concludes that this small, bright rectangle must be an object of religious devotion—a kind of idol that humankind spends many hours each day worshipping.

When I read Smith’s thought experiment, I was immediately stung with conviction. How many times have I mindlessly scrolled through a feed instead of engaging with my family or reflecting on my day? How many times has my iPhone kept me from stewarding my daily responsibilities as a student, friend, husband, and father?  More importantly, how many times have screens kept me from communing with the one true God, the One who is always inviting us into deeper relationship with Him? In our secularized context, where the temptation to worship other gods and bow down to false idols seems so distant, we need to be taking an account of our lives and asking ourselves if we have simply erected new, shinier idols in their place.

At its most basic level, idolatry is the continual engagement with lesser realities that keep us from the worship of and communion with God. As our technological world continues to fashion together objects that are more attractive, more addictive, and more all-consuming of our time and devotion, we as Christians must reflect on our use of these objects so that we can navigate away from idolatry and towards deep friendship with God.

Of course, technology such as smartphones, laptops, smart watches, tablets, and televisions are not the only modern day idols that we have erected in our lives. An idol is simply something that captures your heart that is not God Himself. However, it seems to me that technology, with built in features that are explicitly designed to clamor for our attention and cause addiction, pose a very immediate and grave threat to our spiritual health both as individuals and as body of believers. This is because technology’s very nature is to keep us hopelessly unreflective through endless and addictive distraction.

This is a serious problem for Christians because Scripture teaches that the remedy for idolatry in our lives is a kind of deep remembering of who God is and what He has done on our behalf. By “remember” I do not simply mean a kind of cognitive act where we dust off some old memories, but a kind of engagement with God’s story and our place in it that brings us into deeper communion with Him. This is what worship is. To keep idolatry far from our lives, God calls us to participate in everyday practices that bring about a kind of remembering that anchors our hearts in Him. Communion, Sabbath keeping, prayer, shared meals with fellow believers, praising God through song, and so much more all constitute daily and weekly practices that pull us into remembrance of who God is and what He has done. Through these practices of remembrance, our identities are more fully formed by God and His story as opposed to the false idols of this world.

Are you beginning to see the insidious problem that technology presents? In 2018, all of us have not only a powerful potential idol in our pockets, but this “potential idol” also makes it nearly impossible to engage in the necessary practices that will heal us of our idolatry. In other words, our smartphones not only act as a kind of temporary distraction from God, but their very nature causes them to break in and interrupt our attempts at remembering who God is.  I cannot tell you how many times my phone has kept me from entering into a full posture of worship of God. It happens every day. I attempt to enter into a time of scripture reading and prayer, and I hear my phone buzz or ‘ding’ and I am distracted. Once I am distracted, I pick up my phone and begin to scroll until my attention is no longer on God but on some political Facebook post that I disagree with or a highlight video of my favorite sports team. Now, when I try to re-engage God in prayer, the thoughts of my heart are scattered and are in conflict with one another. Before I know it, I am late for work or class and I have to run out the door.

I did not realize that technology represented an idol in my life until, ironically, I left my phone in the other room one morning and spent some time with God in prayer and in His Word. I was reading through 1 Samuel 12 when Samuel is warning the people against idolatry and he says to “…not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless” (v.20b-21). It struck me in this moment that my phone was an “idol” in the proper sense of the word. It is not only “useless” to “profit” or “save” me, but it actually keeps me from following Christ with all of my heart. I always knew that I spent too much time looking at screens, and I have been constantly trying to put boundaries in place to spend less time doing so; however, it wasn’t until in this moment reading Samuel’s words that I realized that I too was worshipping a false god. The problem because spiritually real to me.

Maybe you don’t have this same tenuous relationship with technology that I describe. If not, praise the Lord and take what I share as a cautionary tale and a reminder to evaluate your life to see what might be keeping you from deeper friendship with God. My hunch is, however, that many of us struggle with this to a certain extent. Whenever I walk into a Starbucks or into a classroom or even to a room full of close friends I see people staring at their screens and not at one another (I am one of them). If we struggle to look up from our phones when we are around friends, how much more are we looking at them in private?

As brothers and sisters, let us be bold and creative in figuring out ways to navigate the terrain of this modern, technological world and know that the glow of this world is but a faint flicker compared to the illuminating glory of the One who calls us to Himself.

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor