Now that technology has become such an ubiquitous part of our daily lives, it seems nostalgic to imagine life any other way. The past decade has seen rapid acceleration in society’s adaptation to a virtual lifestyle. Technological changes have been par for the course for a couple of centuries now, but the advent of the internet and then the smartphone have profoundly changed the way we interact with each other and the world. Everyone takes it for granted that a couple flicks of the finger can pull up virtually any information about anything in the world. We relish our increased opportunities to discover the world. And why shouldn’t we?
The church—at least the conservative fringes—has had a retrogressive way of dealing with these (un)welcome changes. This is nothing new. Cars, electricity, and the telephone were all resisted by some groups; a few are still holding out. This reticence hasn’t been limited to the church, either. As humans, change can be unsettling, even when it comes with obvious advantages. Technological advances have displaced workers and knocked everyone out of their routine. But the world has progressed regardless and these growing pains are quickly forgotten, if just in time for the next round of change.
For the church, though, this reluctance to see our lives disrupted is understandable—but it also gets messy. We haven’t effectively distinguished between mere dislike for change and actual spiritual concern. Personal preference can easily be promoted as a matter of keeping the faith, or at least walking in good standing with the church. For young people in particular, this is often hard to take seriously, especially because many of these churches have slowly surrendered to the inroads of technology, just a decade or two behind. These matters are apparently of spiritual significance—until they aren’t.
I’m worried about this. And no, I’m not talking about the domineering bishop who wags his finger at everyone who uses Facebook—and has never heard of Instagram or TikTok. Quite frankly, these types of approaches have made it easy to smirk and move right along without having some crucial conversations. There are many silly reasons to avoid technology, that’s for sure. But as we hold this powerful new medium in our hands, we shouldn’t assume that all the change it brings is positive. That might be self-evident, but have we considered where technology is good and where it isn’t? There are the obvious downsides—porn, of course—but perhaps there are subtler ways we’re being changed. I want us to think through these issues in a nuanced way. If we’re going to use these powerful tools at our disposal, we need to know when they’re helpful—and when they’re not.
The last thing I want to do is vilify technology for its own sake. When technology presents new opportunities that are worthwhile without bringing significant downsides, there’s no good reason to resist. At the same time, the fact that technology can be used well shouldn’t cause us to leave poor usage unresolved. (For example, the fact that technology enables the church to remain connected with isolated missionaries doesn’t help the teen who is spending four hours a day on Instagram.) Part of the challenge is that it’s not readily apparent just when technology becomes unhelpful. But if we don’t have at least some idea, we’re probably going to cross the line, simply due to the addictive nature of our devices.
To help the conversation be edifying—and not merely the aforementioned vilifying of technology—I want to focus on the positive habits that can emerge from properly controlling our devices. When we aren’t on our phones, we’ll be doing something else instead; many times we’ll find we actually enjoy this more. While there are times that we need to avoid evil, there are other times where we need—or want—to pursue after what is best. It’s this pursuit of what’s best that should guide our choices.
I love going for walks. I live on a farmette surrounded by Amish farmland on the outskirts of the tourist center of Lancaster County, PA. Yesterday I passed two out-of-state ladies photographing the view I have from my back porch—not nearly the first time I’ve seen tourists there. They were stopped by a bridge that has a little creek flowing below. I like to stop there on my walks, often watching the little ducklings scampering under the bridge. Sometimes I see a snake—there was a dead one on the road today. Then I pass by some horses on the other side of the road; sometimes I feed them some of the long, greener grass from my side of the fence.
Often I pass one of the Amish boys raking hay or spreading manure; I prefer the former but think I’d oddly miss it if I never smelt freshly spread manure again. Sometimes I think about what it would be like if I’d be that boy, out under the sun all day, alone with himself and his horses. It has a strange charm for me. He’d have a lot of time to think, that’s for sure, and without distractions. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if my life would be more like that—especially the distractions part.
I take this walk daily, or nearly so, all year round, except for the coldest days of winter. It takes about half an hour. If my day is a little more free, I’ll take it twice, once in the morning and once in the evening. These walks have become a highlight of my day. Often I pray. It’s a special time alone with God and my thoughts. Sometimes I’ve been quite happy, effortlessly spilling out thanksgiving. Other times, I’ve been slightly less happy. I’ve looked out over the beautiful landscape—often a sunset—and asked deep, dark questions about my life. I remember some of these moments vividly. No matter what is happening in my life at that time, I have time to reflect. Sometimes that has hurt. But I can’t imagine my life without this.
Oh, another interesting thing about these walks: I never take my phone.
Part of the reason these walks are so special is that they sadly don’t typify much of my life. I enjoy the stillness, precisely because it’s unusual. Now it’s true that most of our lives can’t be spent in undistracted reflection. But our lives suffer when such moments are missing. We need them. And perhaps this is the way our lives have been hurt the most. Our phones can subtly take away the few moments of calm we could have.
What do we do about this? I’m still asking myself these questions. A few years ago, I first became aware of how much technology was dominating my life and made steps to curb its usage. I’ve been continually more aware of my screen time since then, but I’ve hardly consistently managed to keep it under control. Our phones are so addictive. It’s easy to sit down aimlessly and quickly respond to a text message, only to realize half an hour later we’re still on our phones. We’d never plan to spend our time this way, but it happens regardless. But is this a serious problem, assuming we aren’t using our phones for sinful purposes?
It can be. Even if all of our screen time is harmless in itself, it can easily be replacing things we dare not lose. As Christians, we should be jealous of the time we spend in prayer and reflection. We should all set aside a specific daily time to reconnect with Christ. But there are also spontaneous moments when there’s a brief lull in our busyness and we can actually think. This can be a chance to pray, or simply a time to think over our day. Too often, though, these are the moments when we reach for our phones. We easily come to expect constant preoccupation, and if nothing is immediately calling for our attention, we fill it.
Sherry Turkle says:
When we reach for a phone to push reverie away, we should get into the habit of asking why. Perhaps we are not moving toward our phones but away from something else. Are we hiding from anxiety? Are we hiding from a good idea that will demand difficult work? Are we hiding from a question that will take time to sort through?— Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation, pg. 77
It makes sense why so many find this alluring. Life is difficult and sometimes it’s nice to be distracted. It makes less sense for the Christian, though. When we are distracted, we are hindered from loving God and each other. But no matter how deep and right our desires may be, we’ll always be tempted to take the easy route. It takes less work to check our phone than to read our Bible. It’s helped me to realize that my phone will always have this pull and to plan accordingly. That’s why I don’t take my phone with me on my walks. If you’re anything like me, Adam Alter’s questions hit home:
How far are you from your phone right now? Can you reach it without moving your feet? And, when you sleep, can you reach your phone from your bed? If you’re like many people, this is the first time you’ve considered these questions, and your answer to one or both will be “yes.” Your phone’s location may seem trivial—the sort of thing you’d never bother to consider in the midst of your busy life—but it’s a vivid illustration of the power of behavioral architecture. Like an architect who designs a building, you consciously or unconsciously design the space that surrounds you. If your phone is nearby, you’re far more likely to reach for it throughout the day. Worse, you’re also more likely to disrupt your sleep if you keep your phone by your bed.— Adam Alter, Irresistible, pg. 274
James Clear gives an eminently practical solution:
Whenever possible, I leave my phone in a different room until lunch. When it’s right next to me, I’ll check it all morning for no reason at all. But when it’s in another room, I rarely think about it. And the friction is high enough that I won’t go get it without a reason. As a result, I get three to four hours each morning where I can work without interruption.— James Clear, Atomic Habits pg. 157
Whenever I’ve followed this advice—or some variant—I’ve found my mind clears, my productivity goes up, and I’m more likely to think about God throughout my day. And no, I’m not doing this to avoid some vague cloud of guilt. I’m doing this because I’m a happier person when my phone is under control. I’m actually able to spend a lot more undivided time doing the things I most enjoy.
And yes, I still do use technology. I’m perfectly aware that you’re reading this article using the internet, probably on your phone. There are distinct advantages to technology, especially when it comes to sharing information. It’s perfectly reasonable to attempt to capitalize on these benefits while avoiding the pitfalls. In theory, this is what we all do. But it’s also helped me to realize that technology is more likely to distract me than enrich me. And to be clear, technology can be enrichening. But this doesn’t happen by default. It’s only with clear intentionality that we can master its usage, making it serve us instead of the other way around.
I want you to go away from this article desiring stillness: time alone with God and your thoughts. Perhaps make a point to put your phone away for a couple hours. I think you’ll find the mental clearness you gain delightful.