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Our mobile phones – tools or idols?

Repent / Idols
Mobile phones have become everyday essentials in our digitally connected world. They can also become obsessions that we invest much of our hearts and time into. How do we know if we have not been unknowingly worshipping at the altar of the Internet and become phone addicts? Nomophobia is a syndrome that is prevalent across the world and it is growing.

(See Chinese versions: 简体中文 > 我们的手机-工具或偶像? | 繁體中文 > 我們的手機-工具或偶像?)


Nomophobia is defined as the irrational fear of being without our mobile phones or being unable to use our phones for some reason, such as the absence of a signal or running out of minutes or battery power.

A tool or an idol?

A tool is something we use to fulfill a temporary need.

An idol is anything we hold on to fulfill our deeper internal needs, over and above going to God. Idols become a source of our identities, security, purpose, enlightenment, and comfort.

Not that long ago, our idols were made of stone clay and wood. Today, they have morphed into multimedia formats and possibly soon, holographic. They promise to give us all our answers and meet all our needs, but starve us spiritually and separate us from God.

Deuteronomy 4:28-29 ESV  And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. But from there you will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.

The inner needs we use our phones to fulfill 

Phone addicts or worshippers may not be aware that what they are really seeking is a sense of fulfillment or security. Mobile phone addiction often involves instant (but temporary) gratification to deeper underlying issues that we feel “stuck” with. Mindless surfing is a way to retreat and hide from the pressures we feel inside us. We “switch off” from the real world and enter a “virtual world” filled with titillating ideas and imagery. Addictive phone usage, however, creates an invisible barrier in relationship and life. In families, phone users isolate themselves from their parents, spouses, and children.

As an ex-phone addict explains, “It’s a one-way interaction where you are in total control. You can switch in and out of it without having to explain anything or consider other people’s emotions. You are 100% in control of what pleases or displeases you. It lowered the disappointment I had in interacting with people. There was no waiting, listening or disagreement. ”

Different people have different reasons for their phone addiction. Here are some examples.

Identity My phone gives me the opportunity to find out who I can be, as I compare myself to other people.”
Purpose  It feels good to be productive on my phone. It gives me a sense of purpose and value.”
Comfort My life is a little too messy and stressful for me to handle. My phone gives me a discrete way to escape and avoid pain or conflict.”
Value I want to connect with other people to give me a sense of value and worth.”
Security I feel safe being connected to somethingIf I don’t check my phone, I am afraid I could miss out on something.
Control My life feels out of control. My phone gives me something that is predictable and controllable.

We probably idolise our phones in our hearts if we tend to:

  1. Use up our best energy online and leave what’s left over for God
  2. Think of our phones, instead of God or other people, the first thing we wake up
  3. Feel the need to constantly check our phones, even during sermons, walking or driving
  4. Get nervous when our phone batteries run low
  5. Become annoyed when we need to stop looking at our phones to pay attention to other people
  6. Be tempted to check our phones as we study the Bible
  7. Not hear other people call us when we are online

How grieved God must be when we turn our mobile phones into our idols. He warns that any idol we set before our faces can become “stumbling blocks” that lead us to sin against Him.

Ezekiel 14:2-3 ESV  And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them? 

The real answer to our inner needs

The answer to every need we search for online is ultimately found in God.

1. Identity

When we go online to check out what other people are doing, wearing or eating, and compare ourselves with them, we are subconsciously modeling ourselves against other people’s images. We forget we are made in God’s image and unwittingly follow passing trends and opinion leaders.

Matthew 16:24 ESV  Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Genesis 1:27 ESV  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Our Heavenly Father says, “My child, I made you in My image. I know you inside out and all of your amazing potentialLet Me show you all who I designed you to be.

2. Purpose 

Some people use work to self-medicate their inner conditions – unable to draw the line between “productivity to satisfy a task” and “productivity to satisfy an emotional state”. We “stay in touch with work” even during off-hours and holidays because it gives us a sense of purpose and legitimacy. It is a convenient excuse to use to avoid interacting with people.

Ephesians 2:10 ESV  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Our Heavenly Father says, “Please stop looking in all these other places for your purpose and fulfillment because you won’t find it there. You will aimlessly spin your wheels. I decided the purpose of your life ages ago. Slow down, seek Me first, and I will guide you to it.

3. Comfort

Sometimes, we become phone addicts because we find our environments too demanding, hurtful or lonely. By going online, we “mute out“ the emotional stress in our lives. In the process, we also mute out the Holy Spirit’s gentle call to go to Him for all our needs.

Matthew 11:28 NLT  Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Our Heavenly Father says, “I know you are weary and worn out. You have been carrying heavy emotional burdens for a very long time. Come to Me and let Me lead you on a journey of healing. I made you and know your needs intimately, better than you doDon’t be afraid. Your God is humble and gentle at heart. I love you. Now come back to Me and stop hiding.

4. Value

We develop very strong impressions of our value from a very young age, not only from what is said or unsaid but also from our parents’ body language or absence. Unfortunately, very few families demonstrate the same value that God places on us. Where we have felt de-valued in the past, we use our phones to build our own self-esteem and confidence. Over time, it can become an obsession.

1 Corinthians 7:23 ESV  You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.

Our Heavenly Father says, “You are highly valuable to Me. Don’t look at what other people say or behave towards you. See the blood I shed to redeem you and to make you all Mine. You belong to Me now. Don’t be enslaved by what you think other people think of you.

5. Security

Where we have felt left out, rejected or abandoned in the past, we can yearn for connections and fear it at the same time. This translates into our online behaviour. We stay constantly connected, driven by a nagging fear that we may miss something and be left out. There is no true security.

Isaiah 41:10 NIV  So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Our Heavenly Father says, “There is nothing that will happen that I do not know about. Do not be anxious. Every security you need in your heart, I will provide. Just turn to Me. I will uphold you and keep you safe, always.”

6. Control

Some of our lives feel out of control. This creates an inner frustration and a deep-seated desire for control. The apps on our phones offer environments where we can become “masters”. This becomes very alluring and addictive, and over time, enslaves us instead.

Isaiah 40:26 ESV  Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might and because he is strong in power, not one is missing.

Our Heavenly Father says, “I created the entire universe and I created you. Striving to be in control is too much for you. I know every single detail about your life and have your best interest at heart. Come take your rest with Me. When I am in control, you will enjoy deep peace.

We can’t hide our online history from God

God is omnipresent. We can encrypt our messages, set up privacy filters and clear our caches, but we can’t hide what we do online from God.

Proverbs 15:3 ESV  The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.

When we click on pornography sites, God is right next to us looking at what we look at. When we ignore all the people that He has placed in our midst who need our attention, He grieves over us. When we incessantly shop online, we misuse the talents He has given us to bless others. When we repeat unkind judgments circulating on social media, we unwittingly condemn people God calls us to bless.

Luke 6:27-28 ESV  “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

One day, we will have to give an account of everything we have done to God. Let us consider how we can redeem our online behaviour to honour God.

Romans 14:12 ESV  So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.

Removing the invisible chains to our phones

If we recognise that we have formed an unhealthy relationship with our mobile phones, here are some ways we can disentangle ourselves and break the invisible chains that keep us stuck to our mobile phones.

1. Turn back to God

As disciples of Jesus, we are called to love God first.

Luke 10:27 ESV  And he 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.”

The Bible warns us against being seduced by the things of this world that feed our lusts, appetites, and pride, and distract us from God’s will for our lives. This is a form of subconscious rebellion against our loving Father who is kept waiting for us to return to Him.

1 John 2:16-17 ESV  For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

Let us repent to our Heavenly Father for creating idols out of our mobile phones. God is patient and kind. We can openly tell Him our inner frustrations, fears, and worries. He will help us overcome them all.

2. Identify our unfulfilled inner needs through godly counsel

Next, we need to take a somber look at the reasons why we love our phones so much and ask the question “Why am I so attached to my phone?” The Holy Spirit may show us that we are driven by an inner voice that tells us lies or an inner frustration that has not been surrendered to God.

John 16:8 ESV  And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:

Where necessary, we should seek God-fearing counselors to help us process and understand our subconscious drivers. At the same time, we can invite godly friends to keep us accountable for developing new online habits. Each time we reach a new milestone towards recovery, we can celebrate our victories with them.

Proverbs 12:15 ESV  The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.

Proverbs 11:14 ESV  Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.

3. Set up filters and boundaries

Our Internet choices should not be dictated by algorithms programmed by Google, advertisers’ budgets, or our friends’ likes and dislikes. When we fail to filter what we feed our minds, we can be easily ensnared by Satan and captured by him to do his will. Let us “come to our senses” as the Bible says, and set up healthy electronic and time filters based on the guidelines we find in Philippians 4:8. We can also physically set aside our phones so we don’t see them all the time.

2 Timothy 2:25-26 ESV … God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Philippians 4:8 ESV  Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

4. Develop new habits

This period of change is an opportunity to develop new hobbies or to learn something we haven’t gotten around to yet. In addition, we can change what we do online. For instance, we can set a reading plan for the Bible, refer to online devotionals, listen to worship music, refer to family counseling materials, watch personal testimonies etc.

It is also important to find other ways to de-stress. This could involve taking ourselves out of stressful situations, going on walks, and finding some quiet alone time with God to tell Him about our struggles and our needs. He sympathises with all our weaknesses and promises to help us in our times of need.

Hebrews 4:15-16 ESV  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

5. Beware our triggers

It is also important to recognise the thoughts that trigger our online additions and re-train our own minds with new thoughts. When we are tempted to turn to our phones to medicate against stress, pain or boredom, we need to remind ourselves about our commitment to be renewed through the Holy Spirit and mentally switch over to our new habits instead.

Certain people, places, and circumstances will tend to draw us back to old habits. We ought to set boundaries to protect ourselves from unnecessary exposure to them. Just as it is not helpful for a recovering alcoholic to sit in a bar, it is also not helpful for a recovering phone addict to be surrounded by people surfing the Internet without a book to read as an alternative activity, for example.

6. Communicate

Often, we don’t realise that we have been hurting and disappointing those around us by “ignoring” them and prioritising our phones over them. Others may not know that their behaviour is driving us to turn to our phones instead of interacting with them. This is an opportunity to understand one another’s needs and restore healthy relationships. We may have to explicitly set some boundaries and realistic expectations on both sides.

7. Fast, pray and memorise Scripture

As we detox from our online addictions, it is very helpful to pray and fast. Submitting to the Holy Spirit through a fast releases our bondage to fleshly desires. See The significance of fasting. We also need to fill our minds with God’s Word so we have the truth about who God calls us to be embedded deeply into our psyches.

Galatians 5:16-17, 24 ESV  But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. … And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Isaiah 58:6-7 ESV   “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

If Jesus were on earth today, He would not be mindlessly surfing and working online. He would be doing His Heavenly Father’s will, by loving others and sharing the good news of salvation. When Jesus returns to earth to gather those who are faithful to Him, will He find us doing the same – or glued to our mobile phones, oblivious to His will?


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