Attention in the Digital Age (II Thessalonians 3:6-13)
Attention in the Digital Age
II Thessalonians 3:6-13
(One Truth: In All Things)
February 3rd, 2019
I. Why Discipline?
Think for a minute about the power that's present in most of our pockets and purses.
For example did you know the GPS app that runs on most smartphones in this room, “possesses [according to one author] thirty thousand times the processing speed of the seventy-pound onboard navigational computer that guided Apollo 11 to the surface of the moon.” (Reinke)
Or think about the ability of your smartphone to take pictures, to record audio and video, to edit those videos, to watch movies. These are all tasks that fifty years ago would have required hundreds and hundreds of pounds of audio/video equipment.
And the list could go. Your phone is a technological marvel. But as Peter Parker famously learned, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Or we might say, 'with power comes the need for discipline'.
What is discipline? Well the definition I have in mind goes something like this: discipline is training that corrects, molds, or perfects one's mental faculties, moral character, and/or physical abilities.
Discipline can take many forms: the athlete who gets up to run every morning, the teenager who practices piano every afternoon, the grandmother who counts her calories at dinner. But all of those examples are also connected with power: athletic power, artistic power, nutritional power. Think about it: without discipline it is very difficult to harness that power, and to do so in a healthy way. For example, many people have practiced dietary disciplines, but have done so for all the wrong reasons, and sometimes to unhealthy extremes.
Did you know the Bible talks about discipline? Here's one example from the Apostle Paul:
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.  Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness;  for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (I Timothy 4:6–8)
This training in godliness that Paul mentions would include practices, habits like prayer, Bible reading/study/meditation, fellowship. Not surprisingly, Christians have traditionally called these practices spiritual disciplines.
But this morning, I want to suggest that as those following Jesus in this day and age, in this digital day and age, we also need to adopt and practice digital disciplines.
Why? Because the unique power of our digital devices, when it's combined with human nature, calls for thoughtful and disciplined usage. Let's see if we can unpack that idea by looking together at God's word. Turn over to II Thessalonians chapter 3.
II. The Passage: "Not Busy... But Busybodies" (3:16-13)
Listen to what Paul tells the believers in Thessalonica. II Thessalonians 3, verse 6...
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.  For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you,  nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.  It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.  For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.  For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.  Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.  As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.
Now, it would be understandable if you were scratching your head at this point. What does this passage have to do with adopting and practicing digital disciplines? I don't think Paul was writing here because the slackers in Thessalonica were spending too much time on their phones or tablets. So what is the connection?
Well, to explain why I chose to begin with these verses, let me point out three basic ideas we find in this passage. These ideas are insights into human nature. For example, we read here that...
1. People Can Struggle With Doing What's Profitable (vs. 6-10)
The specific example that Paul is addressing here is the fact that some of the believers in the Thessalonian church were (v. 6) “walking in idleness”. The context makes it clear in terms of specifics: these idle disciples were not gainfully employed. And so, because they were not earning an income and providing for themselves, they were mooching off other people.
The Apostle is quick to remind them that this was not the example that he and his associates set for them when they were living and ministering among them. He reminds them that he and his team did not (v. 8) eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. This is why Paul gives the command he gives in verse 10: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.
Now, most of us have known people like this, inside and outside the church. Maybe some of us have fallen into this mindset at some point in our lives. But the broader reality to which all of us should be able to relate is the idea that human beings struggle with regularly doing what's profitable. Every single one of us struggles to use our time, to use our thoughts, to use our talents, to use our finances, to use everything in a consistently God-honoring way. Right?
You may not struggle with going to work each day, but don't all of us struggle with doing God's work each day? With doing that which is morally, spiritually, and eternally profitable? But notice what else is evident from this passage. We also see here that...
2. People's Idleness is Usually Idle-less (vs. 11, 12)
Look again at verse 11...
For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.
Verse 11 reveals such an important insight when it comes to human nature: being lazy almost never means doing nothing. It usually means we're not doing that which is proiftable... maybe because it's hard work, time-consuming, stressful, etc. So if idleness or laziness almost never means doing nothing, then what kind of something does it involve?
Well in the case of those at Thessalonica, it involved being “busybodies”. Those who decided they were not going to work instead used their time to meddle in other people's business. According to Paul in in I Timothy 5:13, some of the younger widows gave in to such temptations. He writes, ...they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.
So instead of engaging in things that matter, they focused on what didn't matter. Instead of using their time for that which was profitable, they spent their time on what was unprofitable.
Finally, we also read here that...
3. People Need a Command and Encouragement (v. 13)
In light of these issues of idleness and meddling, Paul goes on in verse 13 to give the whole church this exhortation: As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. This is connected to what he just told the slackers in verse 12: Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
So the idle meddlers needed a command end encouragement in light of their lazy lifestyles, and the church needed an encouragement in terms of dealing with those who were “walking in idleness”.
But again, this is fallen, sinful, me-centered human nature, isn't it? We need correctives. All of us do. Wonderfully, as we see exemplified here in connection with this issue of idleness, God's word gives us those correctives. And His correctives address and can be applied to every aspect of our lives... even our lives in this digital age.
Think for a minute about how these three insights into human nature connect to your daily digital experience. Number one, when it comes to our devices, we can so easily struggle with doing what's profitable. Which of us doesn't struggle with giving our attention to what is truly profitable. So what does God's word tell us about this struggle, the struggle to give our attention to what matters; to what is meaningful? Well think about these verses...
In Philippians 4:8 Paul writes:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (ESV)
Similarly, Paul tell the Colossians to set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (3:2) Paul writes to the married and the unmarried in I Corinthians 7 in order to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (v. 35). He wants the Philippians to follow his example of forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [to] press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (3:13, 14) In similar language the writer to the Hebrews call his readers to ...lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and... run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (12:1, 2)
How might this focus be lived out in the everyday? Well, listen to Paul in I Thessalonians 5:16–18... Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. We could add what the psalmist tells us about the man who is blessed... his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:2)
The point of all these verses is not to dictate to us about making sure every waking minute is somehow given over to some specific religious act. No. The point of verses like these is to nurture us; to nurture in us a spirit of attentiveness to God and his will; to cultivate that spirit in which we daily walk. You see, as we learned from our third insight, we desperately need this corrective. Why? Because we are prone to distraction. Remember our second insight: our struggle with doing what is profitable does not mean we do nothing. No. We are never doing nothing.
Listen to what philosopher Peter Kreeft says about attentiveness and distraction in our digital age (interestingly, this is inspired by what Blaise Pascal wrote back in 1670):
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)
In his book “Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You”, Tony Reinke writes this about attentiveness and distraction:
Our ever-present phones offer endless diversions, from ten-second downloads to one-touch purchases. Our pings, alerts, and push notifications all redirect us from our greatest needs and realities... [he goes on to write this about the broader consequences of these digital distractions] ...Behavioral scientists and psychologists offer statistical proof in study after study: the more addicted you become to your phone, the more prone you are to depression and anxiety, and the less able you are to concentrate at work and sleep at night. Digital distractions are no game.
Brothers and sisters, please don't forget how in the parable of the seed and sower, we learn that “the cares of the world” helped “choke the word”, so that it proved “unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). Please don't forget that ...Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. That's why Peter urges his readers to be sober-minded; be watchful. (I Peter 5:8)
When it comes to your attentiveness, to your focus, to where you set your thoughts and how you use your time, is your phone or your tablet or your laptop or your gaming console, is it a trusted tool in your efforts to know God and do his will? Or is it a digital distraction? Think about some of these diagnostic that Tony Reinke provides for us:
Do my smartphone habits expose an underlying addiction to untimely amusements? ...Do my smartphone habits distract me from genuine communion with God? ...Do my smartphone habits provide an easy escape from sobered thinking about my death, the return of Christ, and eternal realities? ...Do my smartphone habits mute the sporadic leading of God’s Spirit in my life? ...Do my smartphone habits center on what is necessary to me and beneficial to others?
Brothers and sisters, do you see why we desperately need to adopt and practice digital disciplines? Your digital device is engineered to capture and keep your attention. It's designed to reward you and keep you coming back for more. In his helpful booklet, “Obsessed with Your Phone?”, William P. Smith writes...
...the device's creator... can't help but build their values into it. Those values, mediated through technology, incline you to prioritize certain things over others.... in that sense, technology is never neutral in its impact on human beings.
Remember, the power of your digital devices can certainly be directed toward meaningful ends. This is possible when you allow the grace, greatness, and glory of God to inform what is profitable in terms of your time and attention. The deep hunger that drives every human being will only be satisfied in Him. But again, we have to be deliberate and disciplined. As William Smith reminds us...
That inner hunger lead us to engage even good things in an unhealthy way, because we never feel like we've had enough. And so we compulsively click, swipe, and tap, trying to convince ourselves that we're in the know; that we're like, noticed, and wanted; that our contributions are valued—or, if none of that is currently satisfying, we'll settle for entertainment that numbs the emptiness.
All of this brings us back to the encouragement that God gave us through Paul. Consider this in light of this issue, that is, whether your life marked by healthy digital disciplines, or an unhealthy digital distracted-ness. Ephesians 5:15, 16... Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.
III. A Satisfied Gaze
Now, at this point, we might be tempted to check out mentally, overcome by deliberations, rationales, and/or feelings of guilt. But please don't. Please hear this final part.
Effective digital disciplines are not driven by guilt or worldly ideas about self-improvement. They are driven by a satisfied gaze. Listen to David in Psalm 27:4...
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.
The only truly effective safeguard against digital distraction, and the only truly effective starting point for digital discipline, is a spiritual gaze satisfied with the goodness, with the grace, with the greatness, with the glory of God himself. But... how can sinners like us, who are prone to distraction, how can we have this appetite and attentiveness? We can look to the Him who was never distracted from what truly matters.
John 4:34... Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” Jesus was satisfied with the Father's will.
John 8:29... “And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” Jesus always did the Father's will.
As we heard earlier in Hebrews 12:2, a satisfied gaze means... looking to Jesus... [why Jesus? Because he is...] the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Thank God Jesus was never distracted from what truly matters; from a spirit of attentiveness to God and his will. It's through Christ, it's by his grace, it's by his cross and empty tomb that we can be forgiven and born again with a new set of eyes; with new appetites; with a spiritual focus fueled by God's grace and God's Spirit.
Do you own that phone in your pocket or purse... or does it own you? The invitation of Jesus in Mark 6:31 is still one he issues to his disciples in the midst of all the busyness and distractions: “Come away by yourselves to a [quiet] place and rest a while.”
More in Digital Disciplines
February 24, 2019Knowledge in the Digital Age (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)
February 17, 2019Affirmation in the Digital Age (John 5:44)
February 10, 2019Relationships in the Digital Age (II John 12)