We come now to the third chapter in 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke. If you’re just joining us, you can find my previous installments here and here. Once again, there is plenty here to take on board and heed. Tony opens with a couple of cautionary tales of women caught up in internet celebrity addictions, and he argues that the internet has largely replaced our heroes with celebrities, momentary images that play on our envies, rather than heroes who grow more solid with time as their virtues solidify and standout against fashions and fads. This drives the overall aim the of the chapter warning against the fear and approval of man, with an especially well-aimed shot at missionary selfies, where Christians frequently substitute the immediate reward of 80 likes and 12 comments for the eternal reward God offers in heaven for good deeds done in secret.
Now, all well and good in general, but again, my interest is in pushing the conversation further up and further in. So what if you’re a Christian who hates self-promotional selfies, is completely committed to seeking the eternal glory and approval of Christ, and doesn’t need likes or favorites or retweets to find meaning and peace in this world? In other words, what is the Lord giving us in the gift of social media, iPhones, and the internet?
Or maybe better: what would the Apostle Paul have done with his iPhone X if he had one? Some of you think he would have thrown it away, but I don’t agree. For example:
Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice. (Phil. 1:15-18)
Imagine Paul talking about social media and iPhones in these verses — some people are driven by envy and strife and selfish ambition, but some also from good will, some from pure motives, some do it out of love, some use these means to proclaim Christ and His truth. And therefore, Paul rejoices. He doesn’t wring his hands and sigh dejectedly. He sees the messiness of human sin and mixed motivations, and says, but don’t you see how Christ is being preached in spite of all that?
That’s the spirit I don’t see or hear much of in Christian discussions of smart phones and social media. Sure, people will get caught up in the glitz and glamor, and some people really will ride the celebrity merry-go-round until they puke. But what about the opportunities? What about the opportunity of having a megaphone in your pocket to proclaim Christ and Him crucified? What about the fact that we can tag these insulated celebrities, and here and there make real contact and (perhaps) make a real difference in their lives? What about the fact that “news” is now effectively being democratized — and no longer nearly as monopolized by big business media? What are the opportunities with social media to make known the truth about abortion, police brutality, war crimes, and proclaim the truth and grace of Christ into it all?
There is certainly a lure in social media to find your identity in likes, follows, shares, and retweets, but there is also a reverse lure to be the armchair scorner of difficult and challenging things. It’s easy to sit up in your middle class ivory tower sneering at all the plebs posting Bible verses and pro-life memes and actually engaging with culture. It’s harder to figure out how to be bold and godly on Twitter. It’s harder to learn how to apply the fruits of the Spirit to Facebook and Instagram. Social media is a jungle, but God sent us into all the world to make disciples of all the nations, so that ever knee would bow, every tongue confess, and every square inch of this world would be brought under the dominion of Christ. Surely that includes phones and social media.
And Paul knew something about the dangers of seeking the fleshly approval of men. He had the full Jewish Boy Scout catalogue of merit badges and threw all of that away as worthless (Phil. 3:4-7). But if Paul were a modern evangelical Christian, he would go on to lament this tendency in men to seek righteousness through the approval of men and how it was becoming more common with the advent of cheaper scrolls and secretaries, safer travel along the Roman Roads, and everyone speaking Greek. If Paul were a modern evangelical Christian, he would only be able to see the down sides and dangers and wrap yellow warning tape around the whole mess.
But that isn’t what Paul does at all. The opposite of seeking the approval of men is seeking the approval of Christ, and it is precisely that glory that drives Paul all over the mediterranean preaching, writing, working, shipwrecked, imprisoned, beaten, threatened, and hungry:
Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:7-11)
In other words, Paul says he threw away all that humanistic righteousness in order to gain real righteousness — the righteousness which is from God by faith. But here’s the thing: this righteousness from God by faith is what we call justification. It’s vindication. It’s being right. It’s being approved by God, which will ultimately be publicly proven by Paul’s resurrection from the dead. And Paul has determined to live his life in the full assurance of that reality of the resurrection. This is what drives his preaching, his letter writing, his disciple-making, his boldness, his courage, his fearlessness. He continues:
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus…Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.
So how does Paul chase the glory of God? How does He press toward the goal? By preaching the gospel everywhere he goes with every means available to him. Pressing on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean being less active on social media. Maybe it does for some people. Maybe if you’re neglecting your other duties, it means that. But I suspect that a well-balanced life of seeking the glory of Christ in obedience to His Word will mean some measure of social media involvement for most people. It will mean sharing God’s blessings with your friends and neighbors enthusiastically. It will mean posting encouraging words to those who need them. It will mean telling the biblical truth boldly at various points about important social and political issues. It will mean being a witness of Christ in day to day life with joy and grace and courage.
And my point here is simply to point out that if God blesses you with that — as He did with Jesus and Paul and Augustine and Luther and Wesley — and He gives you an internet following (most likely along with many enemies and detractors and anonymous trolls), even a very large following, that would make you a hero, and not merely a celebrity. And that would be a high calling, and nothing to be despised or embarrassed about. And I do not doubt that there will be some glorious crowns awaiting some faithful saints who carried on joyfully and courageously in the social media trenches, some of the least of these my brethren, who do not sound trumpets while they patiently tell the truth, share only the funniest memes, and make this world a better place through their wit and wisdom. Their reward will be great in heaven.