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Digital Distractions

“Hi there. Pastor Bob here. I’m writing a sermon. How’s your day going? Sorry, just got to answer a text . . . so where was I? Oh yes, writing that sermon. I use, er hold on, I use . . . yeeees! England just took a wicket. BBC Sport, just love it. So about that sermon, yes, you can find commentaries at . . . I am so sorry, I just can’t let that pass. Gotta write a comment in Facebook. Who are these idiots? So yes . . . what we were talking about?”


Last time, I looked at some of the challenges of digital technology. Today, one more.

Let’s start with that monologue above. Recognise it? Of course you do. Unless you’re made of stern stuff, you are probably afflicted with bittiness, like everyone else. Not bitterness.


Bittiness. (A word I made up.)


No wonder the “bitty” effect of technology is so close to the word “byte.” Our technology has atomised our lives, dividing it into ever smaller chunks, until it almost evaporates into dust. So here is my final C (see last week’s post):


Concentration


Technology has exacted a heavy toll on us. Notifications constantly demand our attention. Information vies with entertainment for our affection. And as for how we communicate with our friends, we are always a few clicks away from forming lasting friendships. The problem is, we can never quite get there. We never quite measure up and while the dopamine hit from liking posts soothes the brain, it fades like a morning mist.


Tap-tap-tap go our fingers, and our brains jump ever more quickly from one thing to another.


That’s a problem. It’s a big problem when it comes to our relationship with God.


Lack of focus


If you have a teenager, I’m sure you’ve noticed that you’re in a competition with whoever is on that screen in their hand. They’re with you, but they’re also with the latest post on Instagram. They’re in the conversation, but they’re not always tracking. Perhaps you do the same. Glancing at your phone during dinner. Or if you’ve prohibited the phone from the table, then later on you’re desperately catching up with WhatsApp messages and texts that pull you this way and that. Maybe it’s time to stop polishing that halo simply because you abstain for half an hour.


We’re here but we’re not here. Part of us is always somewhere else.


So much so that a whole industry has developed to solve the problem. It’s called Mindfulness. One of the chief aims is to teach people the art of being present. That should pull us up short. We worship a God whose name is I AM. I AM WHO I AM. Being present is pretty much a description of his essential nature.


I don’t wish to cajole or criticise, but may I encourage you to think very carefully about the use of your phone? Especially when you’re with others. Every time a phone distracts you from a flesh and blood person in front of you, then – perhaps unwittingly – you are telling that person they are less important than whoever might be texting/calling. That is completely unacceptable. And it’s got to stop.


Christ was incarnated. He put on flesh and blood to be present with us, and we owe nothing less than our flesh and blood selves when we minister to those in front of us.


Self-Control


Remember Galatians 5.22-23? I’m sure you do. The last fruit listed is self-control, and it’s probably the most important fruit when it comes to using technology. It may well be that you struggle to change your environment – you need a laptop and phone for work, and the unmissable Line of Duty is on the BBC tonight – but these devices are tools, and as such, you are their master. You decide which tabs to open, which websites to visit, when to call, what to watch. That’s you, no one else. You can’t blame the tech when it’s your fingers pressing the buttons. If you find your life atomising into smaller and smaller chunks – five minutes here, three minutes there, one minute here, comment, scroll, click – then you have a responsibility to take charge. It may be difficult but it’s not impossible. How is God speaking to you today? What is he saying?


Concentration


In the Thesaurus, the following words are associated with “concentration.”


• Contemplate

• Consider closely

• Meditate

• Focus

• Put mind to

• Study


None of these words sits comfortably with digital technology.


The ability to resist the atomisation of our daily lives has a direct effect on our spiritual health. Having cleared a way through the distractions to sit quietly before God, what is going on in our heads when we finally close our eyes? A mind which has become used to jumping constantly from one thing to the next finds it hard to stop jumping.


But somehow, we HAVE TO stop jumping. It’s essential.


There are no shortcuts with God. You cannot download him, nor are there spiritual satnavs, revelatory icons or digital answers to prayer. We human beings are no more advanced than Elijah outside his cave, or David in the temple. We haven’t “evolved” into more spiritual beings. We are just the same.


Alone in a room. Eyes closed. Sitting with our God in the silence. No data will ever change that.


The great spiritual writers of the past talk about the journey of the soul. The spiritual disciplines – challenging and demanding though they may be – train us in meditation on the Word and intercession. They urge us to make sacrifices, to prioritise the inner life whatever the cost. Concentration is hard to master at first, but with practice, it can improve.


Not only does technology not help us, it has the potential to damage our concentration. At some point on the road, it is necessary to assess how well we are able to concentrate and to discard whatever is hindering our progress. If John Bunyan were writing today, I have a hunch one of Christian’s challenges would involve a struggle with a digital giant!


Should we shun technology? Not at all. In fact, as I end, I’d like to recommend a couple of apps. My favourite is Lectio 365. (Thank you, Pete Greig.) Ten minutes of quiet reflection which sets me up for the day. I have also used The Bible in One Year by Nicky Gumbel. You probably have your favourites too.


I am not against technology. I am just conscious of its effects, especially on my inner life with God. I hope you are too. When I struggle to concentrate, I find my digital life challenged and sometimes found wanting. If you do too, then perhaps today is the day to make some changes. For a start, turn off those notifications. All of them. Consider each moment a precious gift from God, so that the very act of scrolling causes you unease.


Remember, you are not your own. And you do not belong to the big tech companies, though they will do their best to drain you of every second you have. You are God’s child, called to serve him joyfully and gratefully each day. It’s incumbent upon you and I to make wise choices, since every second counts.


Every second of the day, lifted up in worship to our God.

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