The high-resolution cameras built into our phones are simply one of the most incredible blessings of the digital age—convenient, portable, and potent. But they also raise three questions.

First, we need to think about the social capacity of our phones and how that capacity shapes our impulses. What is true of our cameras is true of every smartphone behavior—the power to immediately share anything we see or do conditions what we capture in the first place. In Donna Freitas’s extensive study of the social-media habits of college students, one sharp female student told her: “People used to do things and then post them, and the approval you gained from whatever you were putting out there was a byproduct of the actual activity. Now the anticipated approval is what’s driving the behavior or the activity, so there’s just sort of been this reversal.”1 Phones with social connections transform us—and our friends and children—into actors. That’s huge.

Second, we need to rethink our memories. What if the point-and-shoot cameras in our phones make us less capable of retaining discrete memories? One psychologist calls this camera-induced amnesia the “photo-taking impairment effect,”2 and it works like this: by outsourcing the memory of a moment to our camera, we flatten out the event into a 2-D snapshot and proceed to ignore its many other contours—such as context, meaning, smells, touch, and taste.

If the cameras in our pockets mute our moments into 2-D memories, perhaps the richest memories in life are better “captured” by our full sensory awareness in the moment—then later written down in a journal. This simple practice has proven to be a rich means of preserving memories for people throughout the centuries. Photography is a blessing, but if we impulsively turn to our camera apps too quickly, our minds can fail to capture the true moments and the rich details of an experience in exchange for visually flattened memories. Point-and-shoot cameras may in fact be costing us our most vivid recollections. But until we are convinced of this, we will continue to impulsively reach for our phones in the event of the extraordinary (or less).

Third, and most insidious of all, I wonder if this unchecked impulse exposes something deeper and darker in us, a certain unbelief that drives us, something more similar to the lie that maybe a given moment is our last opportunity to get close to greatness. In essence, this was the scam that targeted Adam and Eve, and it has been the heart of every human dupe ever since.3

Sin lies about the future. If I don’t grab this chance at glory now, sin tells me, it will be lost forever. So we point our phones at celebrities, which only points out our forgetfulness. We forget eternity. We so easily lose the faith to imagine that one day we will inherit the world and be more renowned and wealthier than Johnny Depp could ever imagine in this life.4 We want our share of glory now, instead of waiting for our “glory that is to be revealed.”5 What if our rhythms of Snapchat selfies and our star-studded Instagram feeds are exposing the dimness of our future hope?6

Breaking Free 

How, then, can we walk (and click and share) with wisdom? First, we must humbly admit that we are targets of digital mega-corporations that can make us into restless consumers with strategic intermediated content. We cannot be naive here. Our attention spans have been monetized, and getting us hooked on our phones is a commercial commodity measured in billions of dollars, not in kiosk change. The hook often comes in visual allurements. Again, this medium is not inherently wrong. Digital art and messaging can be done for God’s glory, and done well. But we must see that we are being conditioned to turn to our phones when we want to be amazed and wowed, and in turn, we are being milked for corporate profit. Likewise, social-media platforms are huge businesses with public stock prices, and they can grow in value only if they condition us to become actors in front of our phones.7

Second, we must learn to enjoy our present lives in faith—that is, to enjoy each moment of life without feeling compelled to “capture” it. A growing trend among touring musicians is to ask fans not to record concerts on their phones. Keep the phone in your pocket and enjoy the moment, they say. This direction parallels something of the Christian enjoyment of God’s good gifts. Get off your phone, go camping, gaze at the stars, hike in nature—whatever brings creation closer and richer than pixels.

Third, we must celebrate. We cannot suppress our souls’ appetite for what is awe-inspiring. The goal is not to mute all smartphone media but to feed ourselves on the right media. We were created to behold, see, taste, and delight in the richness of God’s glory—and that glory often comes refracted to us through skilled artists. Our insatiable appetite for viral videos, memes, and tweets is the product of an appetite for glory that God gave us. And he created a delicious world of media marvels so that we may delight in, embrace, and cherish anything that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise.8 This will keep us very busy marveling at Scripture, at nature, and at God’s grace in the people he created.

Feeding Authenticity

Filled with mediated reality from God, we become eager in our celebration and shrewd in our discernment of intermediated art. For our online networks, we become filters—salt and light—as an act of love in what we publish, share, and like. We refuse to be brainless carriers of the most recent viral meme. Instead, we live as Christians offering “dialogical resistance”—which means that we filter the messages of the world through our individual discernment and then share online through a robust theology of reality, possibility, and meaning in God.9

To do this, we must escape the trap of the intermediated world of the produced and step away to live our own lives. On the nine-month anniversary of her social-media sobriety—completely off Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter—my wife turned to me and said, “Compulsive social-media habits are a bad trade: your present moment in exchange for an endless series of someone else’s past moments.” She’s right about the cost. Our social-media lives can stop our own living.

Or, as Andy Crouch says, our smartphone addiction leads to creational blindness. It is only in the absence of constant digital flattery that we can feel small and less significant, more human, liberated to encounter the world we are called to love.10 We inevitably grow blind to creation’s wonders when our attention is fixed on our attempt to craft the next scene in our “incessant autobiography.”11 Instead, says Crouch, “All true, lasting creativity comes from deep, risky engagement with the fullness of creation.” So “get out in the glorious, terrifying creation and let it move you and break your heart. Then you’ll have something to offer in the dim mirror that is ‘social media’—and in the full, real world that demands the engagement of all of our heart, mind, soul and strength.”12 Yes, step away from screens, and let the glories of creation break your heart and let the handiwork of God’s creative genius wash you as you ski mountains, hike trails, and scuba dive into oceans. But don’t stop there. Climb the summits of Scripture, too. Let God’s Word pierce your intentions and cut down into your truest motives, and let yourself be convicted, broken, and remade—which is the feeling of standing in the breathtaking presence of God.13

Then take all of God’s created and revealed gifts to you and make all of them into a life that shows the world how glorious and satisfying God really is. This is the secret to “creating” great digital art of all forms and types.

[1] Donna Freitas, The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 4.
[2] Je Jacoby, “Free Your Eyes from the Shackles of the Shutter,” The Boston Globe (Oct.4,2015).
[3] Gen. 3:4-5
[4] Ps. 37:11; Matt. 5:5; 25:21; 1 Cor. 3:21–23; 2 Tim. 2:12; James 2:5; Rev. 2:26; 5:10.
[5] Rom. 8:18; 1 Pet. 5:1.
[6] Phil. 3:19.
[7] Tim Ferriss, The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, “How Seth Godin Manages His Life—Rules, Principles, and Obsessions,” The 4-Hour Workweek, fourhour- workweek.com (Feb. 10, 2016).
[8] Phil. 4:8.
[9] Oliver O’Donovan, Ethics as Theology, vol. 2, Finding and Seeking (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 83, 87.
[10] Andy Crouch, “Small Screens, Big World,” Andy Crouch, andy-crouch.com (April 8, 2015).
[11] C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 101–3.
[12] Joshua Rogers, “Five Questions with Author Andy Crouch,” Boundless, boundless.org (June 15, 2015).
[13] Heb. 4:12–13.

Tony Reinke is a journalist and desiringGod.org staff writer who hosts the popular Ask Pastor John podcast. He is the author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books and Newton on the Christian Life.

Content taken from 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke, ©2017. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.