If we are a distracted people, a distracted society, it stands to reason that we would also be a distracted church, a church with a diminished ability to think deeply, to cultivate concentration, to emphasize slow, deliberate, thoughtful meditation. What Paul said of the unbelieving Jews of his day could likely be said of many of us today:
I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. – Romans 10:2
Christians may be excited about God, but because they have become a product of our digital world, they have a diminished ability to think deeply about Him, to truly know Him as He is. More and more of us are finding that we just can’t stop long enough to read. We can’t sustain our attention long enough to study. We can’t find the time to meet with our Father. Where prayer used to be the first activity of the day, we now begin our daily routine by checking e-mail. Where the Bible used to be a special Book we read and studied, now it’s an e-book that competes with our voice mail, text messages, e-mails, and the ever-present lure of the Internet.
Here is one of the great dangers we face as Christians: With the ever-present distractions in our lives, we are quickly becoming a people of shallow thoughts, and shallow thoughts will lead to shallow living. There is a simple and inevitable progression at work here:
Distraction — > Shallow Thinking — > Shallow Living
All of this distraction is reshaping us in two dangerous ways. First, we are tempted to forsake quality for quantity, believing the lie that virtue comes through speed, productivity, and efficiency. We think that more must be better, and so we drive ourselves to do more, accomplish more, be more. And second, as this happens, we lose our ability to engage in deeper ways of thinking — concentrated, focused thought that requires time and cannot be rushed. Instead of focusing our efforts in a few directions, we give scant attention to many things, skimming instead of studying. We live rushed lives and forget how to move slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully through life.
The challenge facing us is clear. We need to relearn how to think, and we need to discipline ourselves to think deeply, conquering the distractions in our lives so that we can live deeply.
We must rediscover how to be truly thoughtful Christians, as we seek to live with virtue in the aftermath of the digital explosion.
A recent study by Synovate found that more than 4 in 10 Americans say they can’t live without their mobile phone; 82 percent say they never leave home without it; nearly half of them sleep with it nearby. It is not enough for them to send text messages all day; they need to have their phones with them in case something happens during the night. Meanwhile, more and more of us are taking our cell phones and computers on vacation with us, mixing work time with leisure time. Just glance around your church on a Sunday morning, and you may well notice people sending text messages during the service. I was looking at a thanksgiving service recording here in Brooklyn and while the “mother” was praying she was checking her messages on the phone. One of her children removed the phone and turned it off. We mix worship with our work and pleasure. Why are we surprised when we can only give partial attention to any one of them?
We look to our heroes — we look to our Saviour — and see a life that is contemplative, a life that takes time to ponder the deep things.
King Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, and his life gave little indication of speed. Rather, his life showed the virtue of deliberate meditation, deliberate slowness. He knew 3,000 proverbs, each of which took time to commit to memory and each of which only had value in the time taken to ponder it. Here is just one example of how Solomon grew in wisdom and understanding:
I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber and want like an armed man. — Proverbs 24:30-34
It was only through his willingness to slow down, to take time, that he drew a lesson from this foolish man and his misused land.
Virtue was found not in hastening by but in taking time to slow down, to pause, to think.
He did not immediately dash off a Twitter update or snap a photo to post to Facebook. He stopped; he watched; he learned.
Christians have long understood that productivity is not easily measured by any spiritual metric. And when we turn to the Bible we see little demand for constant productivity. We read of Jesus, who maintained a ministry in which He was always in demand. As He went from one town to the next, the crowds pressed around Him, asking Him to go this way and that, to heal the sick, to cure the lame. And yet Jesus constantly retreated. He would go into the wilderness by Himself for extended periods of quiet communion with His Father; He would enjoy an intimate dinner with a handful of friends; He would gather His few disciples around Him and savor their company. As the pace grew, Jesus would constantly slow it down in order to keep His focus on what was most important. Where we might keep count of the number of people Jesus healed and those who professed Him as Lord — and measure Jesus’ productivity in this way — He kept Himself accountable to a higher measure. Much of His time was not productive in any way we could easily measure. And yet His time was sacred, every moment dedicated to the Father.
Few of us today have such self-control, such dedication to what matters most. Re-created in the image of speedy and productive devices, we find meaning in speed and constant productivity. Yet many of us wish that life would slow down and become less overwhelming. We know that there must be something more than the constant distraction, the constant velocity.
In the midst of all of this distraction, the cure is to refocus our attention on what matters most. If our distracted existence is the fruit of allowing beeps to control our lives and of turning speed and capacity into divine virtues, then we must respond by silencing the beeps and relearning how to focus.
The Christian Mind
The Christian faith requires that Christians use their God-given minds, their God-renewed minds, in order to know what is true and to reject what is false. Writing to the Colossian church, Paul states:
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. – Colossians 1:9-10
We are to study God by studying the Word of God, and, on that basis, then to live for Him. We are to be like the noble Bereans, who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). These Berean Christians used their minds to search the Bible to ensure that Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.
If we are to do any of this, we will need to work tirelessly to eliminate distractions and to focus on what matters most, without being drawn aside by the beeps and buzzes and the demand for efficiency. God created us in such a way that we naturally respond to stimuli within our environment. When we hear a noise, we listen and respond with a turning of the head; when we see a flashing light, we see and respond with a turning of attention.
God created us this way for our own good and protection. Yet too much stimulus can keep us from focusing our attention on one thing. There is a good reason that libraries are places of quiet and that there are no strobe lights in church sanctuaries.
Christians have long understood the importance of quiet solitude.
David knew this, which is why he rose early in the day, before he could be distracted, to spend time alone with God.
My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on Your promise. – Psalm 119:148
David knew that a life of virtue required a life of thoughtful meditation. David did not have to contend with a cell phone that would ring whether he was awake or asleep, working or worshiping. He did not have to contend with the fast pace of e-mail or text messaging. He did not have to wrestle with whether to begin the day in worship or in checking his Facebook account. If we are to live with virtue in this digital age, we need to recognize that we are engaged in a battle, at war with distraction. We must learn to discover what distracts us, destroy it, cultivate concentration, and seek out solitude regularly and habitually.
Heart, Soul, Mind, Strength
As Christians, we should not be surprised that our technologies often seem to work against us. We know that technology, like everything in creation, is subject to the curse.
Distraction will never completely disappear.
As Christians, we know that God calls us to live with virtue, to live thoughtfully before Him, to use our God-given minds to live in a way that honours Him. If we are to take our responsibilities seriously, we must learn to ignore the buzzes, the beeps, and the distractions that threaten to drown out serious thought and reflection. We must learn to remain undistracted, to wholeheartedly focus our attention on the things that matter most, and to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.