Two Keys to Flourishing in the Digital Age
Always connected to the web, always connected to social media, a smartphone with a camera is the most addictive tool of communication ever invented.
Packaged with all its potent blessings come the amplification of its curses. Our phones can allow unnecessary habits in the silent spaces of our lives. And our phones can feed the most insidious impulses that live inside of our hearts.
We all seem to sense that — for good or bad — our smartphones are changing us, our habits, and our relationships. We all know it. We feel it. We seem to be more productive, and yet we are more distracted. We seem to be more connected, and yet we are more alone. We seem to be more knowledgeable, and yet we are less likely to understand the very purpose of our lives.
We all seem to sense that — for good or bad — our smartphones are changing us, our habits, and our relationships.
The more important questions are these: What can be done about it? And do we Christians have anything relevant to say to the perplexing questions facing our digital age?
After three years researching and writing my new book on smartphone habits, I say emphatically: Yes!
Let me show you the relevance of the Bible for the “never-offline” smartphone generation.
Four Important Questions
First, technology is a gift from God, when we use it for human flourishing. But new technology is merely a collection of new tools we invent and share and use to make things go faster and run more smoothly. Technology makes what we do easier, but it cannot answer our deepest questions.
Specifically, technology cannot answer these four questions:
- Who am I?
- What am I here for?
- What am I called to do?
- And am I succeeding or failing at it?
Technology will not answer these four foundational questions of life.
Luke 10 is a good example of Scripture’s relevance in the “never-offline” culture. The chapter begins with Jesus sending out 72 disciples to preach the gospel. All social media gospel spreading in the digital age really can be traced back to the democratization of the message in this sending moment (Luke 10:1–24).
I’ll pick up the story in the next scene, in Luke 10:25, what we call the parable of the Good Samaritan.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He [Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he [the lawyer] answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
Here we find the two love commands. In two other similar accounts in the Gospels, Jesus himself states the same summary. Here it’s a lawyer. This scheming lawyer fishes for self-justification, and misses the point.
Nevertheless, the lawyer is not stupid. He boils down the entire moral will of God into two categories:
- Love God with all that you are.
- Love others as yourself.
Jesus commends the lawyer’s summary. He’s right.
Love Command One
Here’s the primary love command: Treasure God with everything you are! This is the chief vocation for humans.
“The most prevalent health issue in the country is not cancer or heart disease or obesity. It is isolation.”
We were created to express a heart-soul-strength-mind, holistic embrace of God. Faith is a response to seeing God’s glory and goodness. In the light of his beauty, faith desires nothing on earth more than him and cherishes him above even the most beloved father or mother or son or daughter. Faith joyfully gives all our earthly assets in this life to buy a field that holds the priceless treasure of Christ. Faith considers everything in this life as loss compared to the supreme worth of knowing Christ. That is saving faith. It is seeing and hearing and tasting and touching — holistic metaphors for all the various expression of how faith is treasuring God with all that we are and all that we have (Psalm 34:8; 73:25–26; Matthew 10:37; 13:44; Luke 10:27; 14:33; John 6:35; Philippians 3:8).
In the words of Piper: “Jesus’ demand to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength means that every impulse and every act of every faculty and every capacity should be an expression of treasuring God above all things” (What Jesus Demands, 82).
This is our primary vocation — and it’s a lofty one.
Now, the lawyer knows that a whole-life embrace of God is the most important thing in the universe. What the lawyer doesn’t see is that this expression of faith is nothing short of a miraculous gift of God’s sovereign grace.
Love Command Two
Here’s the second love command: Love your neighbor as yourself. This is the resulting human vocation, which comes out of the first vocation.
These are the two pillars of all human flourishing — true in the Old Testament, affirmed in the ministry of Jesus, and no less relevant for digitally savvy Christians today.
By affirming these two love commands, Jesus is saying that these are the two load-bearing commands — on them “depend [or hang] all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40).
“A smartphone with a camera is the most addictive tool of communication ever invented.”
So, if you lose the second pillar (to love your neighbor), ethics will collapse and crumble into a heap of pious religious jargon that fails to demonstrate the value of God in service to others. Or, if the first pillar crumbles (to love God), ethics collapses into secular social work that cannot, and will not, give expression to the overflow of God’s all-satisfying beauty.
All human flourishing rests on these two pillars.
Who Is My Neighbor?
Next, the text forces us to ask this question in Luke 10:29–37:
But he [the lawyer], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
The image of a dying man in the street is so relevant today, after the terror attacks in Boston, Paris, and now in London and Russia. Sadly, it has become a universal experience to see pedestrians bleeding out on public streets.
Now, the lawyer himself misses the whole point — he’s not searching for justification in a Savior; he’s seeking self-justification in front of the Savior.
The Ultimate Neighbor
This whole episode for the lawyer will make no sense until he sees Jesus inside the story. Those with eyes of faith will see that we are the man in the gutter of sin and desolation. The pressures of the world, the sinfulness of our flesh, and the conniving of the devil have jumped us, knocked us out cold with brass knuckles, and left us in total ruin and death.
In the cross, we find Christ as the Greater Levite. Christ is the Ultimate Mercy Giver. Christ is the Ultimate Neighbor. Christ is the Greater Priest who does not stand at a safe distance near the Purell dispenser. He draws near to me to get his hands dirty and to shed his own blood for me while I am in my most broken place. The One born in a barn because all the hotel rooms were booked is the Savior who makes for you an eternal home in his Father’s house. Don’t miss the echoes of Jesus in this parable.
In other words, “you’ll never become a radical neighbor for others until you see that you have been radically neighbored by Christ” (Keller).
So, this text answers the question: Who is my neighbor? That phrase, “your neighbor” — appears over 60 times in the Bible, mostly in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Proverbs. The stress, as Jesus points out here, is on embodied place-ed-ness.
“You can fake online authenticity for a while, but not forever. It will catch up to you.”
For the purpose of an illustration, imagine that you and I, who don’t recognize each other, are sitting inside the same Starbucks coffee shop. At that moment, I exist in the room, and you exist in the room. This is where our bodies coincide. At that moment, we become neighbors in a way that we were not neighbors earlier in the day, not because we follow one another on Twitter, but because our physical presence now overlaps in proximity.
Sitting as apparent strangers in the same room, we are neighbors. In this moment, we are now responsible to care for one another. If one of us needs medical attention, the other is obligated to offer help, and to not walk away.
My point is that neighboring is rooted in space and time. To have a body is to be obligated to others. We have obligations to our parents, perhaps to a spouse, to children, to a local church, to a boss, and to a neighborhood. And in many of these situations — in the home and church — we have gender-specific obligations to one another. To be a creature is to be obligated to others. That’s fundamental to neighboring.
But in the digital age, when we lose a sense of our bodies, we quickly find ourselves in isolation from others, and our sense of what it means to be a true neighbor evaporates.
The resulting fallout of this isolation is why the Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, has made it his mantra: “The most prevalent health issue in the country is not cancer or heart disease or obesity. It is isolation.” Social disconnection. Even in those areas that most root us — our marriages and jobs — our culture has taught us the dance of having one foot in and one foot out never quite committed to anything. We like to keep our options open.
So, when a beaten neighbor is lying on the metaphorical path of our lives, we are quick to jump over to the sidewalk of escape on the other side of the street. For many of us, that escapism is found in the virtual world of our smartphones.
The Main Point
All of these points in Luke 10 link our evolving smartphone habits to the ancient parable of Jesus.
Here’s the point:
The priest sees the man in the street, but he’s rushing off to God’s temple to dispense his priestly work. He’s clean, pure, unsoiled, and perhaps his shift begins soon — so he absolutely cannot stop to dirty himself with this filthy, bloody, dying guy in the street. The Levite sees the man, too, but he’s apparently running late for his preaching gig. He cannot stop for the same reason: ministry expectations beckon for his faraway attention. You begin to see the problem here rather quickly. Setting your mind on good and noble things, like remote ministry possibilities, can eventually callous you to the flesh and blood needs around you.
Giving over your attention to virtual possibilities, even finding an important role online, can blind you to the gospel needs lying at your feet.
If that is not a prophetic warning for Christians in the digital age, I don’t know what is.
Good or Essential?
Jesus clearly wants the lawyer to see the sin of his own neighbor-neglect and repent. In this parable we see the sin of our smartphone abuse, the sin of our hyperconnectivity to the virtual world — even in performing good ministry online. We so often are tempted to withhold mercy from those around us — our families, our roommates, our colleagues, our classmates, our church members, and yes, our neighbors.
Neighboring, defined by Jesus, puts great stress on how our bodies root us in a particular place, as both gift-getters (receiving mercy) and gift-givers (offering mercy).
Radical neighboring is embodied neighboring. Face-to-face. Real needs met. And there is no exemption clause because you have five hundred followers online.
Taken together, Luke 10 says to all of God’s disciples: Yes, like the 72 sent out, go into the digital world as far as your online influence will spread, and proclaim the good news of Christ — but — don’t get so wrapped up in those opportunities that you forget your essential vocations: (1) to cultivate a genuine love of God above everything, and (2) to care for the needs you see immediately around you.
“Giving over your attention to virtual possibilities can blind you to the gospel needs lying at your feet.
To put it another way, you can fake online authenticity for a while, but not forever. It will catch up to you. Our authenticity offline is always the basis for our authenticity online. All our platform building will become pointless if we miss these two points from Jesus.
So, if God has called and equipped you to be a Twitter sage, or a hip-hop artist, or an Instagram evangelist, or a podcaster, or a writer, or a social media social activist, or a digital creator of any type, you must take breaks from the scuttle of those ministry expectations — those expectations out in the remoteness of the virtual world — in order to reconnect with the ultimate purpose on this planet that grounds all our flourishing: To be embodied children of God, feeding our faith on the truth of God, cherishing him with our entire being, and then, out of our abundance, serving our neighbors.