Take up your cross, put down your phone, and follow me
5 tips to follow Jesus in a hyper-distracted world
Maybe it has something to do with turning 40 over the summer, but I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about what it means to live a joyful life. I have become convinced that one of the greatest enemies to joyful living is our constant addiction to technology.
Because we spend so much time staring at our phones, we don’t have the productivity at our jobs that we should, we don’t spend enough time outside, we ignore our spiritual disciplines, and we spend too much of the time that we spend with people staring at our phones.
This year, I have worked through several books that address this issue. One was Adam Alter’s important book on digital addiction, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Two books that work through it from a Christian perspective are Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You and The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch. (You can find my favorite quotes from 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You here and I hope to post quotes from Crouch’s book soon.)
The book that had the most influence on my thinking about technology this year is one that I have mentioned many times. Authored by Georgetown Associate Professor of Computer Science Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World changed the way I think about my work and, as I have continued to reflect on the book, my walk with the Lord.
Newport argues that deep work, work which requires hours of focused concentration, is increasingly rare and valuable in our culture. The type of concentration we need to do good work is difficult because, as his subtitle says, we are living in a distracted world.
If distraction makes work difficult, how much more is it true in the way we approach our spiritual lives as well? We struggle to spend time in our Bibles because of our distractions, our minds wander when we are in prayer, and we find corporate worship difficult because the forty-minute sermon is longer than our declining attention spans can handle.
If we struggle to develop our walk with the Lord because we spend most of our time distracted by shallow things, can we adjust our lives and eliminate distractions?
Cultivate a deep walk through time in his Word
Yes, every post about growing spiritually begins with a discussion about time in the Bible. I make no apologies for this and don’t intend to amend my practice anytime soon. We need God’s word. The Bible’s own testimony about itself shows how desperately we need it. Moses spoke of the man not living by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Jesus quoted this passage during his temptations in the wilderness. The psalmist describes the Bible as a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Paul tells Timothy that God breathed out this word and that it is useful to equip us for every good work.
What if you committed to going to bed 20 minutes earlier so that you can wake up earlier to read God’s word before you have breakfast and start your day? How much different would your walk with the Lord be if at the end of the week you had spent an hour and a half in God’s word? Over the course of a month, you would spend almost ten hours basking in the glow of God’s beautiful Word.
You only have to do one thing to make it happen–put down your phone or turn off the TV so you can go to sleep at an earlier time and do not grab your phone first thing in the morning when you wake up. Instead, work on the discipline of not looking at your phone or turning on the TV until you have set your heart upon the Word of God.
When you read the Bible, make sure you are paying close attention to it. Most of us have slaughtered our attention spans, so do whatever you have to do to make sure that your head is in the game when you are reading. Read with a pencil in your hand so you can underline things that strike you. Read with a journal so you can jot down important insights. Do everything you can to get into God’s word and do not walk away from it until you have allowed it to bear down on your heart.
Cultivate a deep walk through time in prayer
If we think our minds wander during a sermon, it is nothing compared with how they wander when we’re praying. When we pray, it often feels like we are alone and talking to no one, but this is not true. In prayer, we commune with the God who made the whole world and gave his Son to bring us back to him. What should capture our attention more than that?
In prayer, you must devise strategies that will help you have laser-like focus. First, do not think of Bible reading and prayer as two separate and unrelated activities. Instead, look at one as feeding the other. I recommend finding at least one thing in your Bible reading that can jumpstart your prayer time. Did you see sin that you need to confess? Did you read a promise that you need faith to believe? Were you reminded of a struggle that you need strength to face? Was there a command that you need help obeying?
Also, make use of a journal or a list when you pray. This can be a list of people you are praying for and of things going on in your own life that you need to bring before the Lord. You may want to write out your prayers while you say them so you stay engaged and your mind does not wander. In addition, when you do this you can read over your prayers years later and be encouraged by how the Lord has been at work.
You may wonder where you will “find” the time to do this. You will not “find” the time. Life does not work that way. You must make time by ruthlessly cutting out things that are of little or no importance so you can make time for things that are of supreme importance. If you use a smartphone, there are a couple of ways you can make time.
This week I installed an app that tracks how much time I spend on my phone. I didn’t like what I saw and will be making some changes. The other thing iPhone users can do is to go into your settings and look at which apps are taking the most of your battery life. These tactics will usually show you where you have extra time.
Cultivate a deep walk by making time for people
We experience an interesting paradox in the digital age. We are connected to more people in more places than ever, yet we are lonelier. (The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century by Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz examines this trend.) Very little of the time we spend connected to other people takes place in face to face conversations, around the dinner table, or working together on a shared project. Unfortunately, we spend much of our time in the presence of other people looking at our own screens.
When we function like this, we miss many of the blessings of following Jesus. When you are reading the New Testament, look carefully at every occurrence of the words “one another.” Can we experience the value of true Christian community while we sit in our homes and stare at a phone? Of course not! The one another passages beckon us out of our cocoons and into real life with other people. When we do this, we get the blessing of being an encouragement to them and experience the blessing of them being a blessing to us.
In community we discover our spiritual gifts. In community, we discover areas where we struggle with sin and need to grow. When we walk with others, we learn where we are deceiving ourselves and where we have blind spots. While this sounds like bad news, it is actually a great grace to us. Through seeing our sins in community, we can repent and grow with the help of other believers. We are not on our own in the struggle. Maybe some of the powerlessness in our own personal walk with the Lord and in the witness of our churches comes from our neglecting time with each other.
Cultivate a deep walk by making time for corporate worship
I’m about to sound like I am older than my 40 years, but there was a time in the life of American Christianity when we measured our involvement in the local church by how many times we were engaged each week. Now we measure it by how many times we attend in a month. I have no desire to return to the days when something was going on at the church building every night of the week. It was not healthy, and we did not give people enough time to spend with their families and neighbors.
We have gone way too far in the other direction. When you look at how much of the world we get fed every day, worship with the church twice a month is not sufficient to grow as a believer. How can we grow when we are neglecting the means God has given to help us grow?
In addition, we are too distracted when we gather for worship. Most of us do not have enough willpower to use a Bible app on our phones and not sneak in a check of our social media feeds instead of listening and worshipping. We have already destroyed our attention spans, so trying to engage with God’s word while having social media access a tap away is a terrible idea.
If you have so much going on in your life that you are too tired to worship with the church on Sunday, cut something out. If you are too busy to do what God has commanded, you are too busy. Make time for the Sunday worship gathering. Allow nothing but providential hindrances to come in the way. (Sickness, etc.) When you come into worship, bring a physical copy of the Bible, turn off your phone, talk to the people around you before the gathering begins, and completely engage in worship with the body.
You will find that your time in worship will be more beneficial. You will discover that while one sermon may not change your life, repeated exposure to God’s word week after week will. You will find that you learn those songs you claim not to know when you sing them more often. The people you say you never see will become more familiar to you. Partaking in communion more often will not cheapen its meaning, but will make it a vital means of grace in your life.
Cultivate a deep walk by knowing what is truly important
Although I wrote the first draft of this on a typewriter, this has not been a screed against technology. Technology is a good thing when it is a tool that we use. It becomes dangerous when it is something that is using us. We must learn to be master of these tools and not their slaves. So, we must reacquaint ourselves with the things in our lives that matter most. We need to give them the priority they are due so we can cultivate a walk with the Lord that goes deeper than we have ever gone before.
A while back, my doctor told me that I need to lose weight. Since she ended her speech to me with “and I’ll be praying for you,” I’m assuming she was serious. Waking up at 4:30 a.m. to work out has not been fun, and I wish I could eat more chocolate, but after a month I feel better, have more energy, and my clothes fit better. It has been worth it. In the same way, putting down our devices at night and getting to bed earlier will not be easy. Cutting down on our weekend activities means saying “no” to things we would like to say “yes” to. However, we find that in saying “no” to mundane things, we get to say “yes” to things that things that are better and more beautiful.
Being dazzled by God’s Word is better than being entertained by one more episode of The Office on Netflix or one more scroll through your Facebook news feed. The encouragement from time in prayer before the Father is infinitely better than bathing in social media gossip. The correction or encouragement of a Christian friend to your face is worth way more than hundreds of likes from people you never see.
When we cultivate a deep walk with the Lord, we are not denying ourselves the best things in life. We are cutting out things that bring no lasting satisfaction so we can have the infinite and lasting joy that only God can give.