I’ve only ever given something up for Lent twice and the first one doesn’t really count. When I was about 8 my sisters and I gave up chocolate for Lent and when I say gave up, what I really mean is stored up. I don’t think we really understood what we were meant to do and so instead of forgoing our weekly chocolate/sweet allowance we simply piled them up in our sweet containers (which happened for some reason I cannot now recall, to be different coloured plastic dustbins. Mine was the blue one). So my first experience of Lent wasn’t one of sacrifice but rather growing excitement at the mountain of sugary goodness I was going to feast on when Lent was over – only enhanced by the fact that the end of Lent is Easter, and what does Easter mean? Chocolate! (and resurrection of course, but I was only 8).
This year I have given up YouTube for Lent which happened pretty much by accident in my kitchen the day before Lent started. About a week before I had stumbled upon some stats on my YouTube usage and was mildly horrified to discover that my average YouTube usage was running at nearly an hour per day. Then in the kitchen the day before Lent was to begin I was talking to my wife Hannah about how I had no plans to give anything up when I remembered this stat and blurted out “actually I’m going to give up YouTube”. That was about as much thought as I gave it. Hannah, probably with a bit more thought, said she was going to give up Facebook.
Having an extra hour released into my day has not gone unnoticed and allowed me to recently read a very apt book; “12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You” by Tony Reinke. It has been an interesting and challenging read. It’s certainly made me not want to repeat 8-year-old Paul’s experience of Lent by making up for lost time binge-watching nothing much on YouTube in a couple of weeks.
Much of the book is stuff we know; that our smartphones and particularly social media cause unhelpful comparison with others, FOMO induced anxiety, the opportunity for festering secret sin and endless, mindless, time-wasting distractions. However, having it all written down in one place and explained with a depth of Scripture and theology to back it up really brings home the impact of these issues and how often we just don’t think about them. The way we use our smartphones does have the potential to wield great power and influence over our lives and the lives of others, so how should we handle them with integrity before God?
These are not new questions, but this book has helped me consider them, helpfully in a time when I’ve got at least an hour a day’s more head-space to think about them. It isn’t a light read. I don’t know why I expected it to be. Reinke brings a weight of Scripture and theology to these questions that means I’m probably going to need to read it again, more slowly and prayerfully to get the most out of it. And by ‘the most’ I mean the freedom that God intends for us and has gladly won for us. The exact freedom that social media, smartphones, tablets and technology have the power to take away, if we’re not careful.
Here are some of my favourite quotes:
“What we want to become, we worship. And what we worship shapes our becoming.” (p.113)
“Smartphones make it possible for users to help themselves to fresh forbidden fruit at any moment of any day, and thereby destroy themselves in secret.” (p.136)
“The ultimate cost of free porn on future marriages is enormous” (p.136)
“Digital consumerism is directly at odds with many of the most fundamental convictions of the gospel” (p.138). Ouch!
Reinke is not just quotable though. He brings some profound, smack-you-in-the-face insights such as how texting and driving is breaking one of God’s two greatest commandments; to love your neighbour. And the reason we do it is because we’re coveting God’s omnipresence and multi-tasking mastery. Had you ever thought of it in that way before? No, neither had I.
Does the constant barrage of audio and video we happily subject ourselves to mean we find it hard to handle solitude and true quietness? Could this affect our ability to hear God for ourselves and others? “Be still and what was it now?” “Earnestly desire your smartphone, especially that you may drown out the voice of God.” No wait, that’s not it. Are we unwittingly training ourselves out of the prophetic? I hope not! But it should make us think.
And does our snap-happy photo-junkiness mean more than our inability to simply enjoy the moment but rather point to a potential hidden unbelief in the glory of our eternal future? Do we so need to find, remember, cherish and project the greatness of our moment by moment lives because we’re not living in the fullness of the promise of unthinkable glory to come? Deep!
Personally, I’m not anti-technology or anti-social-media but I am pro-Jesus, pro-holiness, pro-growing in maturity in Christ and that does make me handle technology and social media in a particular way. For me, a lot of it is to do with time (which was the driver behind my current YouTube abstinence). To be honest I want to live a simple life before God (1 Thessalonians 4:11). I know much of what I’m called to do – currently, be a (hopefully improving) husband and father, teach people the truths of the gospel and reach out to the poorest in our community – all in Coventry. I also know I don’t have the time, resources or head-space to engage in all the things that get thrown up in social media. I want to stay focused on what I’m called to do, not get distracted even by good things. Or in the words of Reinke, “I do not have ‘time to kill’ – I have time to redeem” (p.180).
It isn’t a perfect book, which will come as no surprise. It probably could have been 10 ways your phone is changing you rather than 12. A couple of the points felt slightly repetitive.
Also, it occasionally sounded like from the author’s point of view, the only positive or God-honouring way to use our smartphones is to read the Bible on them or post directly and/or evangelistically about God on social media. I’m not sure I agree entirely and to be fair, I’m not sure the author would either, but it did read like this at points.
However, I would recommend this book and more importantly recommend you consider some of the questions it raises; does your use of technology and social media have a generally positive or negative affect on your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual life? What impact does it have on your relationships with friends and family? If you have them, what would your children say? Do I need mobile web access at all times of the day and night? When is it not helpful for me and what can I do about it?
These are helpful and important questions which should make us stop and consider. They certainly have for me. God chooses the times and places we’re to live (Acts 17:26) so we’re called to engage with the world as it is now. We shouldn’t shy away from the technological age. But we should also live in it as wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16), making the best use of the time (Ephesians 5:16).
These are helpful and important questions if we’re going to reach a generation with smartphones and social media as the only experience of life they have known; to understand the world, the pressures, the temptations and the insecurities they’re living with, and to make sure we don’t fall into those same pressures, temptations and insecurities too. To quote Reinke again, “If people see us bored with God, absorbed with ourselves, and conformed to worldly celebrities, they will not see the image of Jesus reflected in us. If we fail to reflect Christ, we fail to be what God created us to be” (p.115). It’s important we look like we have something different, and wonderful, to offer – because we do!
Ultimately, I don’t know about you but one day, I want to stand before Jesus and hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” rather than to have unwittingly turned away from him and said myself, “Well done, good and faithful smartphone”. What about you?