Three practices to help us notice how technology is affecting our souls, relationships, and our attentiveness to God’s presence.
As we continue along in our Rule of Life series and explore spiritual practices that we can integrate into our daily and weekly rhythms, I wanted to introduce a few practices that have been particularly meaningful for both of us in this season. These three practices are specifically geared towards helping us to discern how our use of technology affects our souls:
Turning our phones off for one hour every day.
Reading scripture before looking at our phones when we wake up.
Limiting media intake to a few hours a week.
All three are straight out of Justin Whitmel Earley’s The Common Rule, and he categorizes them as “practices of resistance” because they help us to become aware of how our habits are shaping and forming us, and how we can intentionally resist any habits or messages that are forming us into something other than the image of Christ. He writes,
"Our world is full of a thousand invisible habits of fear, anger, anxiety, and envy that we unconsciously and consciously adopt. Should we do nothing, we will be taught to love the very things that tear us apart. So we must take up the fight, open our eyes to the way media form us in fear and hate, the way screens form us in absence, and see the way excess and laziness train us to love ourselves above all else. But remember that resistance has a purpose: love. The habits of resistance aren’t supposed to shield you from the world but to turn you toward it. They aren’t so you can feel good about you’ve done for you. They exist so you can feel peace about what God has done for you” (The Common Rule, 25).
I love the way Earley reminds us that any practice we do is not in an effort to protect us from the world, but to posture ourselves in love toward it—because God has done the same for us. But He didn’t just turn toward us. God Himself became physically embodied in the person of Jesus, living the full breadth of the human experience. And then He gave us the gift of His presence through the Holy Spirit, indwelling us and with us wherever we go. But the wildest part of the Incarnation is that God has chosen us—His people, His Kingdom—as His conduit of love to the world. The Holy Spirit is continuing incarnational work in and through us. It boggles my mind that the God who spoke the universe into existence would fill me with His Spirit and choose me as a messenger of the gospel. Tell me I’m not alone in getting lost in the wonder of this truth!
We are embodied, incarnational beings who, unlike God, are only present in place, in one moment at a time. And while modern technology has made so many beautiful things possible, it’s also making it increasingly difficult for us to actually be present wherever we are. Adam McHugh wrote about this in The Listening Life:
“The internet, smartphones, and social media are changing the physical characteristics of our brains by rerouting our neural pathways. We like to think that we are the ones acting on our devices, but the truth is that our devices also act on us. Many neurological studies demonstrate that our technology is reshaping our brains so that it not only seems more difficult to concentrate on one thing, it IS harder to concentrate on one thing. If we’re immersed in technology day after day, our brains are automatically branching out to do several tasks at once, making it difficult to focus our attention on any one thing.
Technology writer Linda Stone says that our brains seem stuck in ‘continuous partial attention.’ In other words, we are actually taking on the characteristics of our technology, our brains echoing the patterns of social media. Our brains buzz with tweets and soundbites and rapid-fire video, popping with short bursts of disparate information, leaving us at times close to circuit overload. Our technology is producing a splintering effect in us and stripping us of the ability to be fully present.” (p. 27)
Earley calls it a “fractured presence” in The Common Rule. Trying to multiply our presence and attention by being on social media, checking our email, responding to a text, adding something to our digital to-do list, and half-listening to the person next to us all in the span of 60 seconds, is actually making us absent. We become disconnected not only from our own presence or the presence of others, but also from the presence of God.
I recently read an article by Kutter Calloway in Fuller Seminary’s magazine that argued the online world we live in is having an “excarnational” effect on us, rather than incarnational. We were meant to be connected to one another and to God, and social media was supposed to be a medium of human connection. Instead, it can often contribute to the fracturing of our presence and disembodiment of ourselves.
Now, I will say this: I’m not anti-technology or anti-social media. I happen to believe that God can and does move through these mediums, and I believe they can actually provide opportunities for genuine human connection. However, it’s worth noting how our daily engagement with our phones, tablets, computers, TVs, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, email, texting, and app after app is impacting the state of our souls. How are they distracting us from being fully present to ourselves and to one another, and making space for us to be attentive to God’s presence?
Who We’re Becoming and The Stories We Engage
These practices of resistance are helping us to say no to distraction, fractured presence, absence--and to say “yes” to being fully present where we are so that we can be attentive to God’s presence with us. We want to be a people that are shaped and formed by Jesus Christ, and to become like Him and reflect Him and His love to the world around us.
In 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, Paul tells us: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 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. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
Philosopher-theologian Jamie Smith writes about how we will orient our lives toward whatever it is we love and desire most, whatever we think will give us full, flourishing life. Whatever we orient our lives toward is what we worship, and we will start to reflect the image of what we worship. Disciplines of resistance help us to become aware of what it is that’s holding our gaze and our attention, and how those things are shaping, forming, and molding us into their image.
The Common Rule suggests that we also spend some time really giving thought to the media that we choose to expose ourselves to, and Justin Earley recommends limiting it to four hours a week. He talks about how we are story-telling and story-shaped creatures, and we live in a world full of stories. He suggests that we seek stories that uphold beauty, teach us to love justice, and turn us towards community (125). I started reading Les Miserables a few weeks ago, and this story is just wrecking me. It’s screaming the gospel to me, through its characters and narrative and beautiful prose. It’s not only beautifully written, but it’s making me pay attention to how I can seek justice and have eyes for those around me.
These three practices I’ve suggested are not necessarily about resistance to technology — they are about teaching us to carefully curate what technology, stories, and media we expose ourselves to. We can easily apply the same intention to other things that may be formative in our lives, remembering that we worship what we behold, and we become like what we worship.
Here’s a brief rundown of my experience with the practices mentioned above:
Turn your phone off for one hour a day.
All kinds of “what if” scenarios may be running through your mind, worrying that some emergency will happen the moment you’re inaccessible or something like that. But trust me — this practice is not only freeing, it’s an act of faith and humility. At least, it has been for me!
It’s also caused me to turn notifications off on most of my apps, so that I’m not constantly triggered by a rush of adrenaline every time someone likes or comments on one of my posts (and subsequently triggered by anxiety when a post doesn’t receive the response I’d hoped for…). I’m learning to be more and more at peace when my phone is off, and to lean into being present where I am in the moment.
Reach for your bible before your phone when you wake up in the morning.
This might mean charging your phone in another room at night so you’re not tempted to grab it first thing. It may also mean reading scripture in a format that is not digital, so you’re not unconsciously closing your bible app and checking your other apps before you’ve even read two verses.
Making this a regular habit for the last few weeks has completely shifted the posture of my heart throughout the day. I’m less prone to judgment and insecurity, and I’m extending more grace. I’m seeing fruit of the Spirit actually being worked out within me. This is a practice I will definitely keep in my own rule of life for the foreseeable future!
Limit media intake throughout your week.
Earley suggests limiting ALL media exposure (social media, TV and movies, news, etc) to four hours or less each week, and I’ll be honest: this one’s been tough for me. I don’t think I’ve quite made it less than 8 hours a week, and that’s considerably less than my average Instagram-scrolling, Netflix-watching, or news-ingesting habits! I intend to keep working on it, and to pay attention to the reasons why I’m constantly feeling the need to be distracted or entertained. Carefully choosing which stories I engage is becoming another practice I think I’ll hang onto for a while.
So, my friends, I invite you to give these practices a try in the coming weeks, and see what happens! See if they help you to notice God’s presence and develop a heart that is open and ready to hear Him. See if your anxiety lessens and you become more compassionate and loving toward others. And, if you like what these practices are doing for your heart and your relationships, make them a part of your regular rhythms!
A brief caveat: Anytime we engage any kind of spiritual practice, whether it’s a bible reading plan or centering prayer or fasting, we can be tempted to let it take on an air of legalism or pride, and these practices are no different! We can start to believe that our ability to resist something makes us more holy than those who don’t. Spiritual practices don’t earn us anything with God. They are simply a means of grace, or a conduit of encounter, because they help us to pay attention to Him. They help us to quiet the noise and make space to listen to His voice—which I firmly believe is always speaking to us. If you give these practices a try, let them be avenues for creating space to encounter Him.
“Spaciousness is always a beginning, a possibility, a potential, a capacity for birth.” -Gerald May