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Bible Distraction and Screen Meditations

Series: Technology and the Christian

Is It Helpful? (1 Corinthians 6:12)

  • Is it right or wrong to use tvs, tablets, phones, and computers? That’s a dumb question, isn’t it? And yet, isn’t this sometimes the only question we ask about our lives? “Is there any law against xyz?” This question really is pretty childish. Paul shows us a more mature way of thinking in 1 Corinthians 6:12 (ESV), “ ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.”
    • The Corinthian church was an immature mess. Though 1 Corinthians is often turned into a letter where Paul dispenses what is right and wrong when it comes to many issues in this church — lawsuits, marriage, meat sacrificed to idols, head coverings, etc. — that’s not exactly what Paul is doing.
    • Yes, he does often say, “do this” or “don’t do this”; but even then, he backs up to talk about why they should do or not do something. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3 that he has had to continue talking to them like they are infants.
    • See, many issues in 1 Corinthians aren’t related to morality. “You can get married, but should you?” “You can speak in tongues, but will this build anyone up?” “You can eat meat sacrificed to idols, but think about what that does to your brother.”
    • This truth is clear in both Proverbs and 1 Corinthians: spiritual children only ask “what is right and wrong” and often get themselves in trouble with this question. The mature take it a step further. “What is wise and helpful?” As Jeff Wilson has pointed out: if we seek to be biblically wise, we will always be morally upright.
  • As we ask “what is helpful?” when it comes our screens - tvs, computers, tablets, and iPhones - Paul shows us a good question to ask: am I being dominated by screens? Am I being mastered, enslaved, brought under the power of my tech?

 

The Sons of This World Are More Shrewd (Luke 16:8)

Excerpt from 2014 NY Times article by Nick Bilton.

 

“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked Mr. Jobs, trying to change the subject. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

I’m sure I responded with a gasp and dumbfounded silence. I had imagined the Jobs’s household was like a nerd’s paradise: that the walls were giant touch screens, the dining table was made from tiles of iPads and that iPods were handed out to guests like chocolates on a pillow.

Nope, Mr. Jobs told me, not even close.

Since then, I’ve met a number of technology chief executives and venture capitalists who say similar things: they strictly limit their children’s screen time, often banning all gadgets on school nights, and allocating ascetic time limits on weekends.

I was perplexed by this parenting style. After all, most parents seem to take the opposite approach, letting their children bathe in the glow of tablets, smartphones and computers, day and night.

Yet these tech C.E.O.’s seem to know something that the rest of us don’t.

Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now chief executive of 3D Robotics, a drone maker, has instituted time limits and parental controls on every device in his home. “My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules,” he said of his five children, 6 to 17. “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

The dangers he is referring to include exposure to harmful content like pornography, bullying from other kids, and perhaps worse of all, becoming addicted to their devices, just like their parents. (“Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent,” Nick Bilton)

 

  • Something Jesus said at the end of one of his parables is quite relevant here. Luke 16:8 (NIV11), “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” The original context is different, but the principle still rings true. Sometimes we only think of morality while the world is 5 steps ahead of us being shrewd. Don’t get me wrong, these tech execs need morality: they remind me of drug dealers - they and their kids hesitantly touch their devices because they know they hold terrible, subtle dangers, but they happily get rich off our addiction to it.
  • But, addiction? Is that too strong of language? You may be familiar with this, but the brain science actually shows this to be true. Dopamine is the “happy” drug released in our brains release to reward us for particular behaviors. If the action is easy, there is a strong danger for harmful addictions to be created - like snorting cocaine, pulling the lever of a slot machine, or checking our phones. Our brain compulsively tells our body to repeat.
    • Workers within app developers like Facebook openly admit that their apps are designed to take advantage of the addictive cycles created through dopamine releases. The dings we hear, buzzes we feel, and likes we get are carefully designed to release dopamine and keep us addicted to their platform. Social media apps like Instagram even manipulate the timing of “like” notifications in order to keep us addicted to their apps. (See “Dopamine, Smartphones, and You,” Trevor Haynes)
    • But we don’t need brain science to tell us this. In the survey I sent out, 82% of us stated in one way or another that we engage in compulsive time-wasting on our screens. Have you felt this? All is well, but our bodies compulsively reach for the phone or tv remote. Our brains just told our hands to look for another hit, another dopamine release. What stinks is that these dopamine releases pull us into habits that we find little to no enjoyment in - email checking and newsfeed scrolling.
  • But why is it so tough to put down the phone or remote once we pick them up? There’s a lot that goes into this, but one reason is because of the absence of stopping cues. Media used to be filled with stopping cues. Newspapers were confined to a particular amount of pages, so you had to put it down when you finished. TV shows ended, so you had to wait until next week. But our demand for media is strong, so developers are helping us partake without stopping cues. We read our local news or social newsfeed and what do we do? Scroll, scroll, scroll. There’s no end to the page. Finish an episode on Netflix or Hulu? We only have 5-10 seconds to climb out of the rabbit hole before the next one begins. By the way, we aren’t giving them money, but apps and websites make more money the more addicted we are. We give them our time for free, and they sell it to advertisers for billions.

 

Bible Distraction and Screen Meditations

But is there really a danger here for Christians? Next time, we will talk about the impact of screens on our emotional health and communities. But this week we will ask how this could impact our ability to enjoy life and grow in the Lord. Let me share two biblical truths to help us think critically about this question.

1. Lasting happiness, stability, and fruit-bearing are a result of meditating on God’s word.  Psalm 1:1–3 (NIV11-GK), “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked… but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.” Do we want to live a blessed life, full of longterm happiness? Do we want stability in terrible times? Do we want to be fruitful and prosper in everything we do? Psalm 1 makes a bold claim: the person who delights in and meditates on God’s words day and night will have all this. Meditation: quiet focus and contemplation on God’s word. In the words of Deuteronomy 6, the word should be in our hearts, strapped to our hands, and between our eyes. But is this really what we do with God’s word, or our phones?

 

Are we able to quietly contemplate and mull over God’s word? Why can this be such a challenge for many of us? First, constant inundation with screens changes the way we think. Nicholas Carr, writing for The Atlantic Magazine in 2008 put his experience like this. 

 

"Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” 

"And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

 

The danger is obvious: our minds are being trained to skim on the surface, but the Bible is deep meditation literature. I was born just early enough in life that I know a little bit about what it is like for my mind to not be completely hijacked by screens. I fear our addiction to distraction may cause future generations to be so confused by God’s call to meditate that they will read over it or redefine it, because the word will have lost its meaning.

 

Meditation on God’s word is also challenging because, second, we can compulsively use digital distractions to keep solitude and serious thoughts away. Are you like me? For a couple seconds there is silence - nothing new to occupy our eyes or ears. Anxiety starts creeping in, but we may not even notice it because our bodies are trained to quickly grab phones and remotes the moment this happens. Before cellphones, one Christian writer put it this way: 

 

“‘We run away like conscientious little bugs, scared rabbits… on our machines, our slaves, our masters’ — clicking, scrolling, tapping, liking, sharing… anything. ‘We think we want peace and silence and freedom and leisure, but deep down we know that this would be unendurable to us.” In fact, “we want to complexify our lives. We don’t have to, we want to. We want to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very thing we complain about. For if we had leisure, we would look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it.’” (Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans… quoted from Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You)

 

Our screens have become a socially acceptable drug, but their overuse is making us addicted to distraction. This reminds me of Isaiah’s words to Judah in Isaiah 28-30. Judgment was coming, but the people were happy and high on life because they thought Egypt would rescue them. Isaiah called out, but they were too drunk on success, wealth, and wine to hear. God’s word became boring and childlike to them. They responded to Isaiah with the Hebrew equivalent of “blah blah blah.” So God poured out a sleep on them so that people who could read looked at what Isaiah said and their response was - “Nah, I can’t read that.”

 

The writers of God’s word are calling out for us to slow down and meditate on what they have written so we can find real life, but are we too drunk on digital distractions to hear and obey?

 

2. Gazing at God’s glory in the gospel transforms us into God’s image (2 Corinthians 3-4). A sub-message of 2 Corinthians 3-4 is this: we become and we carry around what we look at. 2 Corinthians 3:3 (ESV), “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” Who is taking up a pen and writing a letter on our hearts? Theoretically, Christ is taking up the pen of the Spirit and etching a letter on our hearts that can be read clearly by everyone. But is that the letter people read when they see and speak with us?

 

2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV), “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” We are blank canvases who carry around the image we look at. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6-7, we are clay jars carrying around the treasure of our heart. Are we regularly sitting before the glory of God in the face of Jesus, or are we sitting before the faint glow of something else too much?

 

Too much of anything - work or hobbies, travel or sports, phones or tvs - causes us to be remade in the image of the obsession. I fear that when others watch and hear us, they may not see a true treasure in us. When they hear us, we most naturally ooze out the latest viral video, shocking sport’s score, urgent news clip, or silly status. “We have this meme, snap, tweet in jars of clay.” “And we all with unveiled face, beholding the world through the lens of Fox News, CNN, and Facebook are being transformed into their image.”

 

Preliminary Recommendations

I don’t want to mandate uniform answers, but to help us ask questions. But some have asked for help here in practical application, so I will share a couple of simple resources via e-mail that have helped me have healthier interactions with screens. For now, Dr. Kimberly Young suggests we think about our interaction with screens in terms of “digital diet and nutrition.”

 

Diet. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:16 that to be wise we must make “the best use of the time.” Let’s consider setting limits on how much time we spend in front of screens. Limit the number of shows we watch in a week and have a chalkboard displaying the count. For phones, Apple’s new “screen-time” feature is quite helpful. If you turn it on, it will tell you how much time you look at the screen each day. You can use this feature to force time and content limits. Put your phone on “do not disturb” at regular intervals. When you are at home, work, or meditating on Scripture, consider placing your phone in a bag or an unseen station outside of your bedroom. One common rule among tech execs is to not allow children screen access in their rooms - both because of content and time-addiction dangers.

 

Nutrition. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:8 to think on things that are honorable, pure, and commendable. Ask of your screen usage, does this pass the HPC test? Is it honorable? Is it pure? Could I commend it to others? This question alone forced me just yesterday to stop watching a favorite show of mine. One thing I enjoyed about the survey was seeing the different ways screens have made good, fruitful things possible. From educational videos to powerful programs, there are great possibilities. Bible-related podcasts have had a tremendous impact on my life. Use and share helpful resources and tools, but delete fruitless time-wasters. Let’s use tools as tools and not letting them take control of our lives.

 

Can we enjoy occasional family movie nights? Of course! The goal isn’t to never look at a screen. But, let’s make the best use of the time. Let’s meditate on the things of God. Let’s carry around the knowledge of him in these clay jars.

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