Practicing Digital Disciplines: Four Areas to Keep in Mind
Like the operator of a nuclear power station, effectively handling the power of your digital device requires careful consideration and consistent discipline. Without this mindset, experiencing a relational or emotional or mental or spiritual 'meltdown' is a very real possibility (just do an online search of “digital dangers” or “smartphone addiction” to see what I mean). Discipline is not a new idea when it comes to the Christian life. The Apostle Paul instructed Timothy to “train yourself for godliness” (I Timothy 4:7). If Jesus Christ is truly Lord, then he is Lord over every area of your life, including your digital devices. If you haven't already, how might you begin to cultivate Scripture-informed disciplines when it comes to your devices? Let me suggest four areas to keep in mind:
1. Because digital devices can dominate your attention, it's important to be clear about who/what matters most in terms of your time.
If your priorities are out of whack, it will be reflected in how you use your devices. The husband who is ignoring his wife and kids, struggling at work, and always feeling tired because of his unhealthy tech habits, is forgetting what matters most. His digital device is becoming a digital distraction.
If you're unclear about what matters most, then God can help. Did you know when God created human beings, he designed us to flourish most when we love him above everything else, with everything that is in us (cf. Matthew 22:37, 38)? And Jesus died in order to make that possible. In pointing us to verses like Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5, author Tony Reinke reminds us,
I am not my own. I am owned by my Lord. I have been bought with a price, which means I must glorify Christ with my thumbs, my ears, my eyes, and my time. And that leads me to my point: I do not have “time to kill”—I have time to redeem. (from “12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You”)
The God who truly has all dominion should be the only One who “dominates” your attention. When that's true, He, by his grace, helps us prioritize our lives according to his wisdom.
2. Because digital devices are 'relationship tools', it's important you use them, first and foremost, to extend and enhance your real-life connections.
FaceTime may be a popular app for connecting digitally, but the “face to face” verses of the Bible are far more helpful when it comes to having strong relationships. The New Testament has many such verses (II John 12; III John 14; I Thessalonians 2:17; 3:10), as well as verses that make the same point, even if they lack that lingo (cf. Romans 15:32; II Timothy 1:4). Listen to one of these “face to face” verses:
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face...
The incarnation ('en-fleshing') of God's Son in the person of Jesus was a clear statement from God about the importance of real-life, embodied relationships. The Apostle John affirms this 'power of being present' when it comes to our relationships. He doesn't reject first century technology (i.e., “paper and ink”). But he understands they are only tools to extend and enhance, not replace, real-life relationships.
Fact: people are difficult and relationships are hard. But let's resist the temptation to protect ourselves by 'hiding out' online. There's nothing wrong with online friendships, as long as they do not keep us from fully embracing the real-life connections God has given us. And in all our online relationships and conversation, may we treat one another in light of God's word and in light of this 'presence priority', that is, just as we would if we were “face to face”.
3. Because digital devices provide an online platform, it's important you understand the true source of your worth, instead of scrounging for the praise of others.
Connecting with others digitally can be a wonderful thing. But all of these ways to share and interact and discuss online can easily become opportunities for self-promotion; vehicles for human validation; supposed mechanisms to find meaning; ways to secure worth. Jesus touched on this very danger when he asked his listeners in John 5:44,
“How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”
Jesus was pointing to the sobering reality that the more you desire the praise of men, the less desirable he will seem to you. Digging for the earthly treasure of human approval will distract us from the true and lasting riches God himself offers. The true source of your worth can only be found in the One who made you. Thanks be to God that Jesus Christ came into the world to save misdirected, glory-seekers like us; that he died to make ultimate affirmation and ultimate validation possible
4. Because digital devices are pipelines for knowledge, it's important you're clear about your 'knowledge priorities' and 'knowledge limitations'.
Solomon's warning in Ecclesiastes 12:12 is especially relevant for our so-called 'information age': Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Solomon writes here about an 'information overload'. The web is certainly rich with information. But so much of what we are asked to consume online is ultimately, in light of God's word, useless knowledge. Even with 'the best of the web', there is the temptation to believe that knowing more will always make us safer, happier, smarter; that the glut of online information will somehow put us more in control. But ultimately, such thinking will only lead to spiritual (and physical) “weariness”.
But there is another temptation that is even more subtle: as we digitally collect and connect and consume even more, we are spreading ourselves thin relationally and spiritually. I may feel up-to-date on the posts of all my Facebook friends, but am I truly being a friend to my real-life neighbor, or to a brother or sister in my faith family? I may be more informed about missionary activity in dozens of countries, but am I being a missionary in the circle of lives into which God has placed me? I may have signed all the latest online petitions about this or that hot issue, but am I aware of the needs in my own community; and am I willing to lend a real hand, not just a virtual one?
The knowledge that should be our priority, at all times, offline and online, is the knowledge of God's word. Scripture alone (whether in print or in pixels, whether open on your lap, or open in an app) is...
...breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (Timothy 3:16–17).
Think for a moment: in terms of knowledge, can anything top the knowledge given by the One who knows all things?
Digital disciplines. The more we can think carefully about these four areas, the firmer the foundation we'll have on which to build healthy digital disciplines. Tony Reinke gives us this encouragement in light of God's calling in our digital age:
“Forget for a moment your virtual crowd of online followers and imagine all of your spiritual ancestors in the faith watching in the bleachers. Their times are legend; your time is now. Whether you were expecting it or not, the baton of faith, passed down from generation to generation, has now been slapped into your hands. Run!”
Amen! May God help each of us to adopt and practice such disciplines, that we might better “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1), by his grace alone, and for his glory alone.