January 1, 2024

The Idolatry of Phubbing Jesus

We take selfies with Jesus and think that we are best friends with Him

Justin Kim
Photo by Erik Lucatero on Unsplash

"Phubbing” is snubbing a real person in favor of interacting with a phone instead. Most likely you’ve experienced it: you are eating or hanging out together when someone—sometimes in midconversation—pulls out a phone. Another phenomenon takes this one step further: an individual interacts with the videos and photos on his/her phone while physically next to the same people they are looking at on their phone. In other words, they are with their friends, but interacting, not with them, but with digital manifestations of them. Here they are, at the same table, with the potential to make new memories, have new conversations with new cycles of banter and humor. But instead they are interacting one-sidedly with a digital facsimile of the same person. A twisted snub indeed.

There’s nothing wrong with photos and videos. But there is something wrong talking and interacting with them instead of human beings; not individuals, but the image; not people, but pixels; not persons, but pictures.

Screens are easier to control than people, who have thoughts, emotions, and conversations. One can start and end videos at his or her convenience instead of experiencing organic exchanges with another. The character of friends is relegated to the digital rendition of those friends. The image becomes more than who they are in real life, in real time, in real context. The idea and the abstraction of the photo overshadows what we really love and cherish about the person in the photo.

Might we have similar delusions with God? Might we be cherishing the idea of God more than a real-life, real-time relationship with God Himself? We need, more than an ideal photo or video of God, a living, vibrant, organic, natural, and in vivo connection with Christ. We take selfies with Jesus and think that we are best friends with Him. We customize, edit, filter, amend, color-correct our mental videos of Jesus so that we have the version that we like.

Some people fall in love with the idea of Christ’s grace but refuse to experience that grace because they already own a snapshot of it. Others hold up of the idea of Christ as Lord but haven’t experienced His Lordship because they have a Polaroid of Him in their back pocket. Ranging from God’s aseity to His zeal, we sing songs about particular ideas and qualities about God, develop worship programs that revolve around these notions, and even name our churches and children after them. But as long as we keep them abstract, distant, and even “holy,” we are merely phubbing God while we sit in His pews.

It is modern Christian idolatry. We deplore the idols of other religions, rightly condemning their inability to speak, think, move, and do anything. We belittle their compositions of wood, stone, and metal. But our ideas about God are made of the same immateriality as idols. Ideas are idols too, made to be in our image as we pick and choose them selectively, to be set up for war against only the ideas that we don’t esteem. Photos have their place to allow us to reminisce. But in the presence of the antitype they are mere figurines. “These are a shadow of things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:17, NIV). Instead of the idea of Jesus, let’s connect with Jesus Himself.