“We live in a very loquacious, noisy, distracted culture,” says philosopher Douglas Groothuis, who has been tracking the digital world’s influence on Christians for more than twenty years since writing his 1997 book, The Soul in Cyberspace.
“It is difficult to serve God with our heart, soul, strength and mind when we are diverted and distracted and multitasking everything.” 1 Historian Bruce Hindmarsh adds, “Our spiritual condition today is one of spiritual ADD.” 2
A distraction can come in many forms: a new amusement, a persistent worry, or a vain aspiration. It is something that diverts our minds and hearts from what is most significant; anything “which monopolizes the heart’s concerns.” 3 The heart works best when it is not dominated by cares and demands.
To put it another way, our battle against the encumbering distractions of this world — especially the unnecessary distractions of our phones — is a heart war we can wage only if our affections are locked firmly on the glory of Christ.
The answer to our hyperkinetic digital world of diversions is the soul-calming sedative of Christ’s splendor, beheld with the mind and enjoyed by the soul. The beauty of Christ calms us and roots our deepest longings in eternal hopes that are far beyond what our smartphones can ever hope to deliver. 4 In this life, where we so often struggle with self-love, worldliness, endless cares and fears, and with “an excessive valuation of relations”—think: social media—in contrast, our souls must be fed “sedate meditations on Christ and his glory” (1:403).
So should we turn back the clock and return to the simplicity of the “distraction-free” predigital age? No — there may have been a pre-digital age, but there has never existed a life without distractions.
Whether you have a smartphone, a dumb phone, or no phone, you cannot escape a life that divides your attention. However, the Bible makes clear that those distractions fall on a spectrum. We face sanctified distractions and unsanctified distractions. We face soul-filling distractions and soul-deadening distractions. We face necessary interruptions and worldly interruptions. We face unavoidable distractions of godly marriage and avoidable distractions of consumer culture.
Here’s the warning: as Christians, if we fail to manage life’s distractions wisely, we will lose our urgency and — in the sobering words of one smartphone-addicted mom of young children — we may “forget how to walk with the Lord.”5 Distraction management is a critical skill for spiritual health, and no less in the digital age.
However, if we merely exorcise one digital distraction from our lives without replacing it with a newer and healthier habit, seven more digital distractions will take its place. (Matt. 12:43–45; Luke 11:24–26). Over time, we may lose our hearts by the erosive power of unchecked amusements.
UNDISTRACTED ON PURPOSE
While our relationships with our phones may not be lifelong covenant relationships (though carrier contracts can feel like it), I would not be the first to suggest that owning a smartphone is similar to dating a high-maintenance, attention-starved partner.6 The smartphone is loaded with prompts, beeps, and allurements. Many of these stimuli (perhaps most of them) are not sinful, but they are pervasive.
The more distracted we are digitally, the more displaced we become spiritually. Following Paul’s words to married couples, we must make it our aim to purge our lives of all unnecessary and unhelpful distractions.
Pastor Tim Keller was once asked online: Why do you think young Christian adults struggle most deeply with God as a personal reality in their lives? He replied: “Noise and distraction. It is easier to tweet than pray!”7 (Said on Twitter, no less!) The ease and immediacy of Twitter is no match for the patient labour of prayer, and the neglect of prayer makes God feel distant in our lives.
As in every age, God calls his children to stop, study what captures their attention in this world, weigh the consequences, and fight for undistracted hearts before him. To that end, here are ten diagnostic questions we can ask ourselves in the digital age:
- Do my smartphone habits expose an underlying addiction to untimely amusements?
- Do my smartphone habits reveal a compulsive desire to be seen and affirmed?
- Do my smartphone habits distract me from genuine communion with God?
- Do my smartphone habits provide an easy escape from sobered thinking about my death, the return of Christ, and eternal realities?
- Do my smartphone habits preoccupy me with the pursuit of worldly success?
- Do my smartphone habits mute the sporadic leading of God’s Spirit in my life?
- Do my smartphone habits preoccupy me with dating and romance?
- Do my smartphone habits build up Christians and my local church?
- Do my smartphone habits center on what is necessary to me and beneficial to others?
- Do my smartphone habits disengage me from the needs of the neighbours God has placed right in front of me?
Let’s be honest: our digital addictions (if we can call them that) are welcomed addictions. The key is to move from being distracted on purpose to being less and less distracted with an eternal purpose. The questions sting, and they touch every area of life — God, spouse, family, friends, work, leisure, and self-projection. But this sting can lead us to make healthy changes.
Our smartphones amplify the most unnecessary distractions as they deaden us to the most significant and important “distractions,” the true needs of our families and neighbours. My phone conditions me to be a passive observer. My phone can connect me to many friends, but it can also decouple me from an expectation for real-life engagement.
When I go into my social media streams, too often I use Facebook to insulate me from the real needs of my friends. Facebook becomes a safe and sanitized room where I can watch the ups and downs of others as an anonymous spectator, with no compulsive impulse to respond and care in any meaningful way. And as I do, I become more and more blind to the flesh and blood around me.
1 Douglas Groothuis, interview with the author via phone (July 3, 2014).
2 Bruce Hindmarsh, interview with the author via phone (March 12, 2015).
3 Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 2:409.
4 See John Owen, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 1:277–79, 402–3.
5 Tracy Fruehauf, “Airing My Dirty Laundry,” One Frue Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, onefrueover thecuckoosnest.com (Aug. 18, 2015).
6 Trip Lee, interview with the author via Skype, explaining his track “iLove” (March 25, 2015). The same metaphor appears in Freitas, The Happiness Effect, 224.
7 Tim Keller (@timkellernyc), Twitter, twitter.com (Dec. 31, 2013).