This week we are joined on the Ask Pastor John podcast with Dr. Richard Lints, the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Main Campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, just a short drive north of Boston. Dr. Lints is also the author of a book that releases this winter titled Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion, in Don Carson’s silver series, New Studies in Biblical Theology.
Dr. Lints, you develop an interesting point on Romans 1 in the book when you point out that sinners exchange God for created things. This is idolatry of course. But you go on to point out, “Humans have persuaded themselves into thinking that other created things will satisfy their deepest longings. The apparent wisdom in this is the illusion that created things can be more easily controlled than the Creator.” There’s something profound about our desire to be deeply satisfied in things we can control. Control freaks love idols. Explain this.
I do think that there is something really unique about contemporary idols in this respect, although the dynamic of control is present in most forms of idolatry across every age, across every culture. But what is unique in our time is that, when we think about the idols of our own heart, we believe they are more easily controlled than the living God. Now, there is some wisdom in that — that is, you don’t control the living God. And so the natural instinct in a fallen creature is to suppose, “I need to find things that will satisfy me or give me significance that I have a greater control of, and therefore, I have greater control of my own identity.”
Paralyzed by Choice
Now I think that arises for most of us in this context of believing that we have access to greater tools of choice and control. So we have this mistaken impression that we live in a world where, because we have so many choices, we can control our destiny more than we could have in an earlier age. And that language of progress is the language of choice and control. The deeply unsatisfying part of this great contemporary myth is that we all also feel overwhelmed, paralyzed almost, by the amount of choices that we have in our lives. Most people experience, in the West, in most of our cultural context, that these choices become overwhelming.
And that is also another dynamic of idolatry: we recognize that our idols are controlling us. And so I think it is not a cultural accident that burnout is a common experience that busyness — sheer, simple busyness — seems a pressing personal dilemma for many people; there are too many things to do. And that is, of course, the other side or the result of believing that we can control our environment by expressing how many choices we have.
So one enters into the grocery store and becomes almost overwhelmed by the number of choices — how many different kinds of ketchup, how many different kinds of cereals. And that’s just a small anecdote. And then you multiply that exponentially in all of life, and it becomes paralyzing for us.
That is the end result of idolatry: burnout, depression, feelings of discouragement, losing hope, feeling unsatisfied — all those personal emotions are natural results of idols that don’t satisfy.
Blessings and Curses of Technology
Speaking of things we think we can control, we live in a digital age. We are lured to our smartphones, a world that we can completely shape and mold into our own personal preferences. And it draws our attention. A 2014 study published in The Journal of Behavioral Addictions, titled “The Invisible Addiction,” concluded that the average college student now spends nine hours a day on their phone. Knowing why God created us, when you hear this, how do you respond?
I have two thoughts at different ends of the spectrum here. I mean the first thought is that technology, as an object in its own right, ought to be viewed with deep respect and some sense of awe as to what we are able to accomplish. Technology and the digital revolution that what we have experienced in the last fifteen years is not a creation of the devil. We need to be careful of a kind of technophobia, a fear of technology.
On the other hand, there is always the other side — the blessings and the curses. That which is good in every age can be used in a fashion that is actually disruptive. And so technology, by the sheer power of its abilities, draws us to it. So it is not that long ago that we were first discovering personal computers. It has only been twenty years or so since the personal computer revolution. And now just the speed with which that revolution has taken shape and form for most of us is that we recognize we now have got this powerful little thing in our hands called the smartphone, and it promises to give us access to the whole world instantaneously.
And you could stand back in a hundred years, if the Lord tarries, or if you had lived a hundred years ago and been able to see the future for whatever reason, you would have recognized: That would be a very powerful idol. You could see why people would be attracted to it and drawn to it. It gives great power. It gives great access.
See Your Smartphone in a New Light
But, of course, it is also addictive. I mean even the statistics — nine hours a day — suggest that there is something almost magnetic that draws us to it, that we can’t live without it. And so though I would be cautious of using language that it has become our own god, the addictive dynamic involved with it ought to teach us something about our own hearts. It tells us in part that we do need to have access to others — that it seems to promise relationships to others, instantaneously, on our own terms, conveniently, when we want it, where we want it. Again, you have all those dynamics of choice and control.
And so youth pastors that have taken kids out and said, “We are going to have a technology-free day,” have really often helped kids experience this kind of new world. They have helped the kids experience something they have never experienced before: that there actually is a richness to life without technology. That helps you see technology, then, in a different light.
So I think sometimes when you pull the idol out, there is a great sense of loss. And that is true when pull a smartphone away from a teenager that lives on it for nine hours a day.