(Note: This post originally appeared on the now-defunct Breaking the Digital Spell website by contributor Brendon Scoggin.)
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was a pretty typical athletic teenage boy.
I spent way too much time in front of the mirror, flexing. At times I was impressed with myself, but for the most part, I was scanning for imperfections. The mirror was more an object of insecurity than a tool for affirmation. Teenagers today spend plenty of time in front of the mirror as well. But there is one critical difference between my teenage mirror experience and that of teens today. When I stood in front of a mirror, I was by myself. Teens today bring others into their viewing session with them through the camera lens on their cell phones.
We all know these pictures, and we have taken them ourselves. Sometimes, still oddly to me, these pictures are taken in front of the bathroom mirror. Other times we take them while traveling or while doing something we think is awesome. Anytime we deem a place to be a noteworthy backdrop we bust out our phones, fire up the front facing camera, extend our arms as far as we can, and boom…selfie.
There is something far deeper at work here than a few thousand pixels frozen in time. The selfie craze reaches beyond our skin and into our hearts. It reveals an age old battle dating back to the Garden of Eden. The essence of sin is an obsession with the self. Remember the temptation that led to the fall of mankind into sin? The serpent craftily enticed Eve by saying, “You will not surely die [if you eat of the fruit God told you not to eat]. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4,5 ESV). Adam and Eve, and all mankind for that matter, were created to be dependent upon God. As his creation we are made to flourish when we trust him and exalt him. We fall when we take our innate sense to give glory to God and choose rather to give glory to ourselves. As Romans 1:25 says, we worship the creation rather than the creator. Since the Fall, mankind has creatively found a myriad of ways to exalt the self, robbing us from the joy of fulfillment found only in doing what we are created to do, which is to exalt God.
The Self Crucified – Galatians 2:20
In Galatians 2:20, Paul recounts the moment he became a Christian and the present reality of his Christianity when he writes:
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the body I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Our English translation is great, but in the English alone we can easily miss something Paul is doing here. When Paul writes, “It is no longer I who live” he uses an emphatic personal pronoun, “ego.” He is comparing his former life, which was all about “ego” or “I” with his new life, which is all about “Christ.” “I” died. Now “Christ” lives in me. We see in this text that becoming a Christian requires the death of the “I”. As you may have already noticed, the Greek “ego” is a word that was directly pulled into the English vernacular. In English the word ego means, “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.” That self is crucified when Christ saves us. Becoming and being a Christian occurs when the self is put in the grave and Christ enters a person by his Spirit and takes over control. The Christian life, then, is directed toward doing what we were created to do before sin tainted every part of our being—exalt Christ as Christ-filled creatures.
And yet we who have been crucified still struggle with self-exaltation because of the fleshly sinful part of our hearts that remains. Because of that, we must be watchful of those parts of creation that draw us toward ourselves and away from Christ. Few are more magnetizing in our current culture than digital technology.
My dad is an MRI technician. If you know anything about MRI technology, you know that the machine itself has a strong magnetic pull. In fact, if any metal so much as enters the same room as the MRI machine, its going to get stuck to the machine, and you aren’t going to get it off. The pull is so strong the entire machine has to be shut down to detach the item. Many patients who have metal in their bodies from surgery cannot be near the machine because it can kill them. Digital technology has that kind of pull on our hearts toward the self. If we are not watchful with our technology habits, we will certainly be pulled toward the machine of selfishness to our own destruction. That is not to say we need to get rid of all technology (though shutting it down for a time may be a wise reset), but it is to say that we need to be aware of the ways it pulls us toward ourselves.
Here are just a few ways it does that:
Exalting the Self through Isolation
Proverbs 18:1 says:
“Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgement.”
Isolating from others is selfish, and personal devices have isolated us more than ever. Just a few months ago I was on the local university campus. I took notice to the fact that every single student I observed walking across campus had their face in their phones and most of them had earbuds in their ears. Dozens of students were silently declaring, “don’t talk to me.” Sadly, we all know this tendency is just as true in our homes as it is when we are around strangers. We sit idly by on our personal devices feet away from one another on the couch, and yet our hearts are miles apart. To steal the namesake of Sherry Turkle’s helpful book; we are alone together. Isolation in and of itself is not sinful. Jesus himself would isolate on occasion for reflection and prayer. Yet we know that when Adam was in the Garden, even in perfect fellowship with God, it was not good for him to be alone.
Isolation has its limits because we are created to thrive in community. The only problem is that community requires selflessness. Community is work. When we isolate ourselves by plugging in to our personal devices, we are emphatically saying that our self is more important than those around us. In fact, we passively posit that any intrusion upon our indulgence is a threat to our self-comfort, self-entertainment, or self-enjoyment. We bite into the lie that it is more blessed to receive than to give. But we know the opposite is true. Joy in community is found when two or more people choose to lay down their lives for one another, which will often begin in our culture by laying down the personal device.
Exalting the Self through Consumption
I got a text message a few days ago from my good friend, Dominos. Dominos apparently knows how important it is to stroke my ego. I need that little pick-me-up every once and a while, so I keep Dominos around. In this particular text message, my good friend reminded me, “You deserve the best! Get 2 or more Mix & Match items for $5.99 each.” Thanks, Dominos. I know I deserve the best, but I may have forgotten that if you had not reminded me. And you wonder why my generation of Millennials is said to be the most entitled yet. We are fed these lies from morning to night, nonstop.
Our devices are marketing machines, designed with the intention of companies making trillions of dollars by getting us to buy what they are selling. Consuming, like isolation, is not bad in and of itself. It is good for us to enjoy products and services that others have created which can add value to our lives. The problem comes when consumption leads to love of money and possessions that become idols in the place of God. Tech companies have no issue with us loving idols if it means money in their pockets, so Christians must be on the watch to ensure idolatry is not rooting in our hearts through the marketing techniques of these companies.
Only a few years ago products and services were harder to come by. Shopping was a much rarer occasion, as the exchange of dollars for goods meant a trip to the storefront. Now we shop sitting in our living rooms pressing buttons on our screens. Some of us might as well have our paychecks directly deposited into our Amazon accounts, because it is all going there anyways. Amazon, which is by far the most successful E-commerce company in the world, ranked #3 only behind Facebook and Facebook Messenger for monthly app users in 2018. In other words, people are shopping on their phones, a lot.
As we shop, we are constantly bombarded with personalized product recommendations produced through complex algorithms that trace our every click on the web. Tech companies track our behavior. They see and record everything we look at so they can make recommendations exact to what they know we will like. Here is a description pulled from a leading digital marketing company’s website:
Modern personalization marketing tactics now aim to go beyond demographic groups and instead offer customized campaigns targeted at the individual level. Algorithms can help connect identity at this personal level, without needing a login, by looking to an identity graph and matching people based on their attributes. An algorithm can also use behavioral data and attributes to determine the target individual’s unique personality and decide on the optimal creative to display or product to suggest from a set of possible options.
These companies are getting really good at reading us, which can quickly lead to more self-focused consumption. We don’t just struggle with envy when we walk by the window of our favorite shop anymore. We enter a battle every time we fire up our screens. Our phones are always showing us that one more thing that we just can’t live without, leading us to spend more time and more money on ourselves.
Exalting the Self through Social Media
Does anyone remember MySpace? Shockingly, it still exists and has a decent following. MySpace was the #1 social media site and even topped Google as the most visited site on the web in 2006. It had a short and yet very successful run as a social media empire until Facebook surpassed it in 2008. MySpace has a name that speaks to why it was so wildly popular. It was one of the first websites where a person could develop his/her own social profile or “space”, projecting to the world how he/she wanted to be perceived. Profile pics became a huge deal, accompanied by “profile music” which would start playing when someone visited your site. The profile was meant to cast your identity into the public eye. It told people who you were…or at least who you wanted people to think you were. This was amplified by the popular “profile views” tracker, where users could see how many people had viewed their profile. The profile views tracker was one of the first numeric affirmation tools. Users would log in to see how many people had viewed their profile and then tinker with it to try and increase their views. It was addictive, and Facebook quickly caught on to the idea, installing the “like” button into their ecosystem.
Soon after the entrance of the “like” button, posting on Facebook became less about keeping people updated on the happenings of your life and more for the purpose of identity affirmation. People began drawing a sense of importance from the number of “likes” they received on a post. To this day, social media largely serves the function of individuals pursuing their own celebrity. The more “likes” the better. Christians must recognize the danger of this practice. Social media can have good purposes, but it can quickly become all about self-exaltation. That is not to say a Christian can never use or post on social media. Rather, it is to say that we must examine our hearts every time we do post. We must ask ourselves, “why am I posting this?” “Why am I obsessively checking every notification after posting?” “Am I seeking to please man rather than to please God through this post?” Posts can have God-glorifying ends. It is God-glorifying to celebrate His goodness in your life; it is God-glorifying to stay in touch with relationships via social media; it is God-glorifying to use Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to encourage others. But we must watch our hearts, because in a moment our usage can turn away from Christ and toward the self.
Just to add one final comment on social media, though much more could be written. It is also selfish when we scroll through looking at other people’s posts, not with the intent of encouraging them or being encouraged by them, but with the intent of comparing to the point of envy. Comparison becomes self-exaltation when jealousy or envy get involved. We can either look at the life of another and give praise to God for his goodness toward them, or we can look at their life and pity ours, revealing our deep longings to exalt our selfish desires.
As you can see, these matters are tricky to navigate because the battle is not always external and obvious; it is in the heart. May God grant us wisdom as we navigate the temptations of digital technology on the self. And may Christ be exalted in our lives.