Standing Fast in the Digital Age
Thirteen and a half years ago the iPhone was released. We are now well into a global smartphone experiment. And many of the consequences of smartphone overuse now have become pretty clear.
So I recently gathered a dozen recovering smartphone addicts for an update on their ongoing struggles. One of them was Jennifer, a 39-year-old wife of a pastor and mother of three children, who lives near D.C. I asked her about what she’s learning about herself as she looks back on her bad smartphone habits of the past.
“What I have learned is that I was far more needy than I ever imagined,” Jennifer said.
“Needy. Needy for what exactly?” I asked.
“Well, it seems for everything,” she said, offering a list. “Personal affirmation. The approval of man. Constant social connection. Fear of missing out. Needy for distraction from life. Needy for constant entertainment. Needy for knowledge to puff me up. It seems like my list of needs is endless.”
So I pressed her to explain further. “What’s at the heart of this struggle? Why are you so needy for these things?”
“I think that at the heart of my social-media struggle,” she said, “is that I am always seeking after my own glory, and that self-glory never is enough. It doesn’t last. Each time I mindlessly scroll through my social-media feed, or check to see if my friends have texted me back, it all just proves again how much I continue to lack. I can never get enough of something.”
“Now,” she said, “there’s nothing inherently wrong with social media, texting friends, taking pictures of your kids, or pictures of yourself for that matter, or enjoying online video. But technology makes all of this immediately accessible in the palm of your hand. And all of our social-media platforms are designed to deliver us instant gratification. So that’s what I have discovered. I have endless needs that are not satisfied by my phone.”
That’s sharp. Do you understand what Jennifer is saying here? She’s saying there are legitimate needs that we have, real needs we seek to feed with candy substitutes that will never satisfy us. She’s saying if you send two hundred throwaway selfies today on Snap, you’re not simply broadcasting your attempt to be seen and loved by your peers. No. You are, more essentially, broadcasting the vastness of your inner neediness to the world. And those needs are not satisfied with just a little more Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok — nor with a little more self-affirmation and self-praise. It all exposes a need.
But we still try. We try to feed this cavernous need inside us. And the result is that it’s making us more lonely, more depressed, and more anxious. We live in an age of increasing anxiety. Rising rates of depression are common now among teen boys, and especially teen girls. Not entirely but largely to blame for it are the communications technologies that feed a 24/7 comparison culture they cannot escape. Teens are always within moments of sharing something digitally, standing ever ready to act and capture and spread.
Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok elicit from them something of a digital beauty pageant, a race to impress with wit, or confidence, or sex appeal, or wealth. But under these ambitious impulses to share at any moment of the day or night remains a low-grade insecurity. When teens fail to impress, and an image or selfie or video sits out there in the digital ether unliked and unloved and unshared, it casts self-doubt. And behind all the digital disillusionment is the false promise that a device will make me more impressive in the eyes of my peers.
And so we all continue to create this unending digital presence before others. We are all needy. And time and time again, our phone does not deliver on these promises. In the wake of smartphone addiction, we are left with increasing anxiety, depression, and more loneliness.
Adults feel these same tensions, lured to our phones by these same false promises. That something of my wit and creativity and brilliance will impress others.
What Christians like Jennifer are beginning to realize is that social media is not a toy. Snapchat and Instagram and TikTok are not simple hobbies. To enter a social-media platform is to enter into a virtual theater of spiritual warfare. Social media is spiritual war. The biggest problem facing us is not too much time spent in social media; our problem is that we engage social media with our spiritual guards down. We don’t expect to be met there with war.
So how do we engage in spiritual warfare, even when it’s within a virtual platform? That’s the relevance of Ephesians 6 in the digital age. For this session, we will look at Ephesians 6:10–20. Turn there. It comes near the end of Paul’s letter. I’ll read the text now, from the ESV:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
“Finally,” Paul says to the believers in the pagan city of Ephesus, “finally, stand.” The city of Ephesus was enchanted by lies, false gods, false comforts, false securities, and all the false promises of happiness that will not deliver in the end. So here at the end of this epistle, a letter in which he has said so much, the end of the matter is this: Stand. Resist the lies of the age with the truth of God.
My task today is to show you how spiritual warfare extends online, and to answer the question, How does the armor of God fit us for the spiritual warfare being waged on our pixelated screens? The text has a pretty simple outline, in three stages. Paul says,
- Stand Fast (verses 10–13)
- Gear Up (verses 14–17)
- Attack (verses 18–20)
First, Paul says to stand fast. He gives us an overview of the struggle we face and what it means to succeed in the struggle.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. (verse 10)
Our strength for this war is not in our power. Our strength is not living off the grid. Our strength is not in deleting all our social-media apps. That may help, but it won’t solve the battle Paul talks about here. Our strength is not in extracting ourselves from digital culture for a life in isolation as an offline hermit without a computer or smartphone or Wi-Fi. No, we are called to do battle in this age, to be strong in the Lord.
The strength of God is nothing less than what Paul suggested earlier, in chapter 1. God’s power is beautifully demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:19–20). Our power for withstanding the digital age is resurrection power. We stand in the strength of God because he is strong. He is stronger than the grave. And he is stronger than Satan. If Satan were stronger than God, we’d have no chance of standing.
And yet, Satan attacks. He attacks, “not because he’s unbeaten, but because he has been defeated in principle. Therefore, he’s venting his spleen. He’s outraged and using whatever energy he has left to pour out all of his venom on us,” God’s church. So we take up arms and fight not because the final end of the cosmic war is in any doubt. No. There’s no doubt. We fight because on “this side of the cross the decisive victory has been won, and it is our privilege to follow our Master in his ‘mop-up’ campaign, as it has been called” (Carson, “An Equipped Man”).
So what is victory? What are we called to achieve?
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. (verse 11)
Here’s our action, our command, and our endgame. Put on the armor of God. Paul is calling us to be outfitted like a contemporary Roman soldier to stand against the schemes of Satan.
Our call is to stand. Paul mixes war and wrestling metaphors here. Outfitted for war, standing as in a wrestling match.
In the face of Satan, we don’t panic. Christ defeated him (John 12:31). Again, “Satan is now a defeated foe, a lion on a chain, and what he can do against us is sovereignly restricted on a day-to-day basis.” That means for us, who are Christ’s, that we “should detest Satan but not dread him, since God now provides us with all-purpose combat equipment for use against him” (Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness, 94).
We don’t run from Satan in fear. No. We stand in faith. That’s the victory.
In verse 12 Paul tells us more about the war.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
No commands in verse 12, just a heads-up. Unseen enemies are always the scariest. An invisible virus is pretty scary. Unseen threats are the ones that make us lose the most sleep.
So an unseen spiritual war has broken out in ancient Ephesus, and the church is being called together for war. That was then. Now, in our scientific and technological age, Satan gets a pass. He’s ignored, written off as a myth. A fiction. A red man in tights with horns and a pitchfork. The punchline of a joke. In the age of science and shiny tech, Satan becomes made-up myth from a bygone age. And that’s false.
In reality, this war is unseen and cosmic. It’s invisible, and it’s everywhere. It’s like a pandemic, in a way. Invisible and disrupting everything in our world. Well, this type of warfare is the context of our entire Christian life as “a profound spiritual warfare of cosmic proportions” (O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, 466). The war includes all of our social-media platforms and what we read and say and post.
In the digital age, we need for our attention to be reset on the nefarious spiritual forces in this world. Unseen forces. Satan is alive and active, and we know that is the case because when the truth is being questioned, and where lies are spreading their damage, there you see his work. Not to be dismissive, and not to be funny, but in all honesty, the plagues of social media prove the existence and ongoing active work of Satan in the world to spread lies. And yet he is unseen.
So we take this by faith: that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” That cosmic war includes what happens on our screens.
So in this culture is a swirling chaos of ideologies and attacks on the gospel. The call is to stand fast and remain immovable. We must see past the false promises and the idols of the age. We must stand.
Again, Paul belabors this point. Verse 13:
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
The letter to the Ephesians is all about a power struggle. A cosmic power struggle. And we are called to stand. Or with-stand. That’s the victory. That’s our war charter. Stand in the breech. Don’t waiver. Don’t give in, don’t give up, in the spiritual resistance of the age. Resist. Stand.
And with that we move on to the second section of this text. We can stand only if we are outfitted for the war.
Every war calls for gear. The war gear of our strongest nations today is advanced to the point we have made warfare clean. Drones fly over hostile cities at 60,000 feet in the air, and then a drone pilot on the other side of the planet, in an air-conditioned military office in Houston, shoots a missile at a compound in Afghanistan.
But in our battle, our latest physical weapons and guns and missiles are powerless because our enemy is not flesh and blood, but spiritual. Therefore, we can stand only if we are outfitted with the armor and weapons of God.
Ephesians 6 is hand-to-hand combat; it’s wrestling. So Paul transitions to say: it’s time to gear up! And that’s what we see in this next section. We can stand firm against these unseen enemies because we have the right war gear.
Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness . . . (verse 14)
The belt of truth seems to be authenticity. The character of Christ is our character. Not perfectly, but it reflects him. We stand as authentic people, people of the truth. That alone will change your texting. No slander, no lies, no gossip, just text the truth.
The breastplate of righteousness is the perfect righteousness of Christ that we have in our justification. We stand in this war because we are justified in Christ. Try to go to war with Satan with only your own self-righteousness, and you’ll get slaughtered.
. . . and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. (verse 15)
These shoes are fitted to our feet. This is gospel readiness. We are always ready to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are ready to proclaim the happy tidings of God’s reign over all things, and his defeat of sin and death and the devil himself.
You can hear in verse 15 an allusion to Isaiah 52:7. There Isaiah says: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”
What a beautiful charter for our social-media lives online. “How beautiful upon the web are the thumbs of him who shares good news, who publishes the peace of God in Christ, who shares the good news of our happiness and joy in him, and who publishes in his feeds: ‘God reigns!’”
So gospel-ready, social-media engagement should be our norm. Standing firm means standing ever ready with the gospel.
In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one . . . (verse 16)
Satan comes at us with an assortment of fiery weapons. Our faith is like a large shield covered in leather and dipped in water and able to extinguish the flaming arrows of Satan. What’s he doing? He’s eliciting a sinful response from us. So quench the temptation. Let it hit and hiss and fizzle out. This is one of the most important takeaways for social media. When slander is shot your way, do you respond with slander? When anger is shot at you, will you respond with anger? Or are those temptations extinguished by faith?
Because if you seek to glorify God online, you will be shot at. You will be slandered. You will be criticized. The fiery darts will fly. And how you respond will be determined by your faith. Can your faith absorb the slander and extinguish it? Or do you get offended and return slander with slander?
. . . and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God . . . (verse 17)
The helmet of salvation is essentially your testimony; it’s your story. So our warfare is not simply a call to say the right things, and to quote orthodox theologians, or even to simply share Bible verses, or to re-post religious memes. No. Critical to standing, and thus of stewarding social media well, is to speak from this place where your testimony of God’s work in your life is the experience out of which you communicate. Your social media emerges from your authentic engagement with God.
And we certainly stand because of the word of God!
Of all the armor of God we are given to stand against Satan, only one piece kills. The sword of the Spirit. The word of God, a word made effective by the Spirit. The word’s cutting edge is razor sharp because it is whetted by the Spirit. It’s not just mere words or letters on a page. No. The word is made sharp by the Spirit. It pierces. We stand firm by jabbing at Satan with this sword.
As needy souls, “The Word of God cuts through the fog of Satan’s lies and shows me where true and lasting happiness is to be found” (John Piper, Future Grace, 334). The word exposes the false promises of social media. So by our testimony, and wielding the word, we stand against the lies of what will satisfy us.
So in the flow of the text, Paul has said, first, “Stand fast.” Second, “Gear up.” And finally, in the third section of our text, Paul says, “Attack!” in verses 18–20.
Paul drops the “stand firm” language. He’s now on the attack to claim ground. Again, not by instruments of death, but by using instruments of life: the instruments of prayer and preaching.
. . . praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints . . . (verse 18)
We underestimate the power of prayer. We deprioritize prayer. And social media steals from us the gaps of life we could use to pray. Instead of praying without ceasing, we tweet without ceasing. There’s competition for the gaps of our life, and social media too often wins out over prayer. Or as John Piper once tweeted, “One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.”
We can be frivolous online. And we can wage war online too. So pray for your friends. Pray for your church. Pray for your witness online. And pray for teachers online. Speaking of John Piper, pray for him. A lot of people think online ministry is safe and comfortable tapping of thumbs on clean glass — when in reality it’s war. Pray for John Piper’s war, as he seeks to preach the glorious gospel online. He gets attacked for it, openly and privately. Pray for him. Pray for all the teachers you benefit from online.
We see this model in Paul, in verses 19–20, where Paul says, “Pray for me and for my battle!”
. . . and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
Paul is on the attack now. Paul says, “Pray for me that I would put my thoughts to words that I can boldly proclaim Christ to my culture.” Again, this spiritual war is about broadcasting truth. That’s relevant to us all.
Verse 20 is amazing, and it makes all of Ephesians 6 especially relevant in the age of virtual media. Virtual media is much of our life, especially right now during a global pandemic. So instead of meeting together inside a room at a conference, we are linked together by this video. It’s not ideal. But it works. It’s a gift from God that we have this way to connect.
But just listen to what Paul says here. Paul says, “I’m attacking the darkness with the preaching of the gospel. I’m on the offensive. I’m an emissary for Christ, spanning the globe to represent him.” And Paul is chained by his wrist and bound under order to house arrest. Paul calls himself a global emissary for Christ, in chains, bound to one spot in Rome. And yet, Paul shares the gospel with the people around him, yes. Paul’s battle plan for gospel advance has also gone virtual. He’s writing letters. He wrote Ephesians and he wrote Philippians and Colossians and Philemon in chains. So Paul says that being bound to one location does not stop prayer, and it does not stop preaching; it does not stop gospel advance in light of the spiritual war.
So to talk about the spiritual war of the virtual realm of social media is not, I don’t think, foreign to the very logic of Paul in Ephesians 6. It’s naturally related because of verse 20 and Paul’s virtual work as a global emissary for Christ, “in chains.”
Now, when Paul says “finally” in verse 10, he is alluding to the fact that this entire section about spiritual battle is rooted in the epistle as a whole, particularly the spiritual war of chapter 1. The war we fight in Ephesians 6 is simply an extension of the war we see in Ephesians 1. For the sake of time, I’ll simply summarize Paul’s earlier point in Ephesians 1:3–14.
There Paul tells us that Christ has won the battle over every rogue rebel on earth, and has unseated the power of every lie on earth, and it’s only a matter of time before his final reign over all things ushers in an eternal inheritance for the church. In Christ, we are predestined to be lavishly blessed by God. To that end, Christ is uniting all of heaven and earth together. That’s our hope and longing: on earth as it is in heaven, cosmic harmony and unity.
Because right now, heaven and earth are out of sync. Christ came to restore the sync. That means he must die for sinners, he must redeem them, and inaugurate the new creation in his resurrection, which will become our resurrection, and will eventually become the resurrection of the whole material world. That’s to come. We fight the spiritual war with Christ’s return in view.
Ephesians is about blood-bought harmony: blood-bought harmony in marriage, blood-bought harmony in local churches. These are the first places where the cosmic victory of Christ is to manifest in this world. Harmony in the home and in the church are to remind the powers and principalities that they lost, and the sweeping victory of Christ will one day cover the whole globe. But for now, the home and the church are little glimpses of victory in light of a cosmic harmony to come.
On the flip side, marriages destroyed and churches fractured are Satan’s attempt to make it seem like Christ lost. Do you see how we’ve been pulled into the cosmic battle? So Paul calls us (especially in the broad, sweeping books of Colossians and Ephesians) to manifest Christ’s victory in our lives, our homes, and our churches. Our ethics — how we live — is all about evidencing Christ’s victory.
Ephesians and Colossians are both written to show us that all of our ethical situations — in marriage, parenting, church unity, racial reconciliation — declare the victory of Christ. And every spiritual victory in your life, every moment that you stand and resist the lies of Satan, is a reminder to the demonic realm that they have lost, and their final defeat is coming soon. And so we stand.
We stand in the cosmic victory of Christ. He’s already won the decisive victory, and one day he is returning to end the war altogether. Until then, the cosmic war between Satan and Christ is being fought in our lives, in our marriages, in our homes, in our churches, and on our smartphone screens.
So although we live in and through this life of flesh, we do not wage a physical war. No, Paul says in another place: “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4–5).
- Apart from Christ, our vast spiritual appetites will be empty.
- Apart from Christ, we will get trapped in seeking self-glory.
- Apart from Christ, we cannot escape online false promises.
- Apart from Christ, there is no hope that we can stand fast in the truth.
We take every thought captive — every tweet captive, every text captive, every post captive. Every moment is ground that can be taken captive and subjected to the sovereign reign of King Jesus. That’s the art of spiritual war online. That’s what it means to stand online.
When you look at your social-media feed, ask yourself a few diagnostic questions:
- Is there a war happening here? Or is my social-media feed at a spiritual ceasefire?
- Who here gets glorified? Is your feed about your own glory or the glory of someone else?
- What is the source of my happiness according to what I project on social media? Is it Christ or something else that makes me happy?
Again, I am not saying our social media are remedied by posting more Bible verses or religious memes. Our social-media feeds are where we battle. It’s the place where your life testimony, the essence of who you are in Christ, engages with God’s world and God’s word. And out of this authentic fellowship, we speak and we make our stand.
Social media is war. Our worst smartphone habits are a result of letting down our guard. The insatiable appetite for self-glory that drives so much of our time online is a lie from Satan, a sham. It won’t satisfy us. Social-media addiction simply exposes the depth of our needy souls for God. But it’s a place we can redeem for eternal purposes, too. A place where we can stand for Christ.Tony Reinke (@tonyreinke) is senior writer for Desiring God and author of Competing Spectacles (2019), 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (2017), John Newton on the Christian Life (2015), and Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011). He hosts the Ask Pastor John podcast and lives in the Phoenix area with his wife and three children.