If I were someone who wanted to put an obstacle in the way of the life with God of millions of Christians around the globe, I don't think I would work particularly hard at sewing seeds of doubt about Jesus' divinity or his humanity. I don't think I would work too hard at stirring up debates about the Bible nor try to add more heat to the fire of the usual controversies that surround it. I don't think I would try to get people to work too hard to earn God's love and operate as if when they do good things, God's love for them would increase. I don't think I'd try to stir up people's passions for the things that destroy them (the good ol' "deadly sins").
No, I think–if my goal were to stagnate the life with God of not just one person, but multitudes––I’d go with something more subtle. It would be something that could suck the life out of people while simultaneously appearing completely socially acceptable even among groups of committed Christians. Rather than working to get Christians to renounce life with God, I think I'd work to get them to embrace something that could keep them from ever making any progress in it.
Here’s why: before long, Christians and non-Christians alike would get to the point where they might never have seen another human being full of the life of God in them, and therefore––without the living models to follow––they would lose all practical motivation to seek God's kingdom. Rather than being something that would scream to us, “God doesn’t exist,” or, “It’s all a big hoax,” it would be the kind of thing that would make us whisper to ourselves softly enough that we wouldn’t even realize it, “Maybe I’ll get serious about God in my life whenever ________ happens. For now, though, I’ve got enough of him to get by, so I think I’ll just check _________ again on my phone.”
I’m certainly not anti-technology (which you should be able to guess since you’re reading these words on the website that I keep up as a hobby). In and of itself, I think that technology is similar to money––it’s value-neutral yet carries with it the potential to assist in doing a great deal of good, but also can be extremely dangerous.
I first got an iPhone in 2008, and I thought it was one of history’s greatest inventions. I’ve been a fan of using the gadgets that have shiny apples on them ever since my oldest brother got his first Mac somewhere around 1988, so the iPhone took the usability of these machines I had always enjoyed so much and put it in my pocket. I used it all of the time, at every hour––indicated by the habit I had of reaching over to my nightstand to check email last thing before going to bed and first thing after waking up.
After having my phone for more than I year, our first Apprentice Group came to the exercise of a 48-hour media fast. Like any addict, I thought I would be able to handle it and that it wouldn’t be any big deal to me. But it was during those two days when I realized how physically ingrained the habit had become of reaching for that phone innumerable times each day to do…well, almost nothing that really mattered.
Following that realization, I began to intentionally have more regular times of being without my phone. I then started to notice how much of an intrusion into my relationships the gadget had become. Even when I was with the people in whom I delight most, I would pull out the phone by habit, and check on…again, almost nothing that really mattered.
So, over time, I began to take some steps (which I’ll describe below) to change my habits and rein in the technological intrusion into my life and my family. I didn’t want to get frustrated with my kids for wanting to play with me rather than entertaining themselves while I looked at something on my phone. I didn’t want to lose any more sleep to emails, or sports scores, or friends’ pictures. I didn’t want to give the phone in my pocket the permission to make me feel hurried, or impatient, or discontent, or distracted.
That last feeling was a big one for me––and I’m convinced it’s a big one for all of us––distraction. That’s why, in my hypothetical strategizing with which I began this post, I wouldn’t have tried to find a way of making Christians bad––I would just try to find a way to make them distracted.
When we’re distracted, we don’t know what things we want most in life (at a real, deep level), and we therefore don’t come anywhere close to arranging our lives in ways that would be conducive to those truest desires.
When we’re distracted, we feel like we don’t have time for the things that are really good for us, like our attention to God and those around us, and the condition of our bodies.
When we’re distracted, we’re much more likely to allow other people to impose their agendas on us, and we’re much more likely to seek others’ approval. For me, this almost always results in overextending myself.
When all of those effects of distraction and many others add up over months and years (and what will we be like when these things have been around for decades?), our life with God probably still exists, but will almost surely be stale.
And even though there are still benefits to these phones (and yes, I still have one), I would be surprised if there has ever been another invention as effective at distracting us as these computers in our pockets.
I’ve discovered through the years that two important gauges for me regarding the state of my life with God are 1) how easily I become irritable with others, and 2) my ability to be present and attentive to the people with me at any given time, rather than constantly thinking about other things. On the positive side––when I am filling my mind with things conducive to God’s work in me, practicing habits that further ingrain God’s grace in me, and engaging in relationships with others who are seeking to do the same––I am better able to focus on my family and whomever is around, and I don’t get so stinking crabby.
Certainly it isn’t as if the entire world was living in union with God before smart phones came along, or computers, or TVs, or…[was radio ever this big of a distraction?], but for me––and I would guess for a number of us––these phones and other accompanying ways that we access media are a good place to start in addressing our distraction problem.
So, the following are a few things that I’ve done and found helpful. I’m not particularly recommending them to anyone else, but instead would hope to stir each of us to think about our own habits and how we would really like them to be. (And these are the things I’m aspiring to––don’t let it surprise you if you catch me doing otherwise, but feel free to call me on it.)
- I refuse to pull out my phone and check it when I’m in the presence of another person. Of course, the most helpful definition of presence as it relates to this is tough to decide upon. But––for sure––if I’m in a conversation with you and I look at my phone screen, feel free to smack me on the head. It’s essentially as if I were saying to you, “Yeah, I like you and all, but I’d really rather be somewhere else right now.”
- I’ve disabled email on my phone. Perhaps my work allows me to do this more than most people’s, but remember the old days, when you used to have to sit down at an actual computer in order to instantly send an electronic message anywhere in the world? I realized that my most senseless phone habit was how often I repeatedly checked email, while I almost never deal with things urgent enough to require a response that fast.
- I won’t have my phone at the family dinner table––not in my pocket, and definitely not sitting on the table next to me. (Yes, I confess that used to be my really bad habit. That’s essentially like saying to my family, “Yeah, I like you and all, but I’m really also open to any kind of other option that may flash on my screen.”)
- I practice life without the phone one day each week. Our family is still experimenting with Sabbath practices, and a key part of that for us is allowing the phones to have as little of a place in our lives as necessary on those days. We want to be attentive to God and one another, not distracted and waiting for more distractions.