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"Leading With Limitations" by Evan Barber

An Axis Course On The "Everything Smartphone" Guided Toolkit

Redeeming the way we think about technology. 

By Evan Barber

Google’s vision statement is “to provide access to the world’s information in one click.” Apple’s vision statement is “to make the best products on earth, and to leave the world better than we found it.” Both statements require data, production, and power. But the vision Jesus had for humanity had little to do with any of these things.

In fact, nobody who has ever lived has been more powerful than Him—and He voluntarily gave all that power up.

Philippians 2:6-7 is a passage about how Jesus came to dwell with us on earth, and why He did it. The Apostle Paul writes that Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

We see here that Jesus purposefully embraced limitations. In Heaven, Jesus is “in very nature God”—omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, as is God the Father. Jesus knows everything, can do everything, and can be everywhere at once. But He purposefully stepped down from this exalted position to be with humanity in person.

This type of sacrifice is the opposite of the mindset our smartphones encourage. The whole purpose of a smartphone seems to be to help us transcend our limited knowledge, power, and presence.

But what does this mindset do to our relationships?

It’s hard for some of us to make it through an entire conversation without Googling some sort of factoid to supposedly make the conversation better—or looking for a TikTok as an example of what we’re saying. But conversation is not intended to be only the sharing of information and content. In her book Reclaiming Conversation, Dr. Sherry Turkle writes, “Young people have grown up in a world of search, and information is the end point of search. They have been taught that information is the key to making things better—in fact, to making everything better.”

But as Turkle goes on to point out, conversation at its best is the process of building understanding together with another person and deepening your relationship. Conversations that happen in the context of a family are a perfect example of what this can be. She writes, “Talking to your parents doesn’t just offer up information. You experience the commitment of a lifelong relationship. A parent may have no immediate ‘solution’ for you but may simply say, ‘No matter what, I will always love you.’ And ‘I’m staying around for another conversation; we’ll keep talking this out.’”

When Jesus voluntarily limited His own omniscience, He made space for deep questions and one-on-one conversation with others.

Every question that Jesus asked His disciples was a question He could have already discerned an answer to—but His goal is to cultivate a relationship with humanity, not just to accumulate data.

Omnipotence essentially means being “all-powerful.” When Jesus was on Earth, he clearly retained some of his God-powers (take Him cursing the fig tree as one example). But He limited His use of these powers. When He was betrayed and arrested, the disciples tried to defend Him against the Roman guard. But Jesus says to them, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” Jesus restrained the use of His powers, even up to the moment of His death.

Smartphones set out to give us access to unimaginable power. They enable us to do so much that we couldn’t do otherwise. With a few taps on our screen, practically anything we want can be delivered to our house. We can contact anyone in the world at any time. Using AI, we can conjure up elaborate, believable illusions like mythological wizards.

But power, on its own, is not always a positive thing.

As journalist Robert Caro once put it, “Power doesn’t always corrupt. What power always does is reveal. When a guy gets into a position where he doesn’t have to worry anymore, then you see what he wanted to do all along.”

We can use power for good or evil purposes; but Jesus gives us the example of voluntarily giving up our power in order to make space for closer relationships.

When Jesus became human, He went from being omnipresent to just being present. He went from having an awareness of all places and all times to walking around in the foothills of Galilee and Judea.

When we log into social media and become engrossed in our feeds, we go from being present wherever we are, to launching our attention onto something somewhere else in the world. When we do this, we lose awareness of our immediate surroundings.

At the extreme end, this is why “distracted driving” claimed 3,308 lives in 2022. At the less extreme end, this is why, without even looking, most of us can now recognize others’ sudden lack of response in conversation as a sign that they’ve been absorbed by their phone and are now “somewhere else.”

Today, this is the normal state of affairs. To quote again from Dr. Turkle, “We turn away from each other and toward our phones. We are forever elsewhere.”

When the Apostle Paul encourages believers to follow Jesus’s example in Philippians 2, he is talking specifically about Jesus’ humility: Jesus left his exalted position to come walk around on our planet, where he asked thoughtful questions to people, invited others to follow Him, and brought healing to many. But underlying all of this was Jesus’ careful, intentional presence with the people around Him.

In 1942, the French philosopher Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Her words ring even truer today; in our age of almost continual distraction, taking time to give the people around us our full focus and attention means giving them a rare and precious gift. It communicates to them that they matter, that their perspective matters, and that being with them is the most important thing to us right now.

Smartphones are supposed to make our communication with others clear, instant, and limitless.

In theory, our attention to and understanding of other people should be easier than ever. As we’ve seen, that’s far from the case. And there’s biblical precedent to support the confusion and disconnection that this type of power can create.

In Genesis 11, humanity builds what is eventually called the Tower of Babel. In verse 4, the “whole world” is represented as saying, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.” In their disobedience to God, who had commanded them to spread out over the world, they were essentially trying to play the role of God for themselves. And the Lord’s response to this act is to “confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

In other words: in trying to obtain their own God-like status, humanity lost the ability to have conversation with each other.

What we can and should realize is that when we turn to our smartphones, we are trading our awareness of the present moment—and of whoever is with us in that present moment—for an awareness of something somewhere else. When we use smartphones to avoid the present moment, we are trading presence with whoever is around us for information and power.

But when we purposefully embrace limitations, which Jesus did on a much grander scale than we ever will—either by restricting our phone’s settings or by setting our phone somewhere else altogether—we make space for conversation and attention with the people God has placed in our lives.

Evan Barber is a writer, podcast host, and senior editor at Axis. Over ten years, he’s led teams of gospel-minded researchers, writers, speakers, and content creators, leveraging pop culture to help parents show teens how faith is relevant to every aspect of our lives.