Lucy Mills explores how, in this fast-paced technological age, we can still engage in the spiritual disciplines – and why we need to.
We live in an age of immediacy. We get in touch by tapping a finger to a screen. We keep abreast of news and gossip; we check the weather forecast while finding the way to our destination. We can respond instantly to any query. We are used to constant communication. It feels discomforting to be ‘out of touch’.
Communication – sharing – is the key to the success of these new tools. We see this in our personal lives. It’s easy to be a fly on the (Facebook) wall. We live in an exciting time with more opportunities to connect with others than ever before. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to deny some of the negative effects this technology can have on our behaviour.
In this fast-paced world, our brains have begun to adapt to the streams of information they receive. We are used to darting from one thought to the next. It becomes harder to focus; to stay in one mental place. We forget things because we are losing the ability to pay attention, and distraction gets in the way of recall.
THE DANGERS OF FORGETTING
My soul is battered by forgetfulness. It takes deliberate effort for me to focus on God, to take time to relate to him in the hidden places of my life. Forgetfulness stunts my spiritual growth. I live my days starving for something nourishing but filling myself with mediocre junk.
I’m often paralysed by doubt and uncertainty. I neglect to feed my faith. Do I expect to experience God’s presence on my own terms, as a kind of tourniquet for my injured soul, without ever turning towards him? He is God and worthy of my praise, but I rarely give him my full attention, let alone the adoration he is due. In this, I do myself harm. Grace has been offered, love given freely. If I don’t embrace it and dwell on it, I miss out. I live my life chasing empty distraction, playing with pieces of ribbon while leaving the gift unopened.
DO I EXPECT TO EXPERIENCE GOD’S PRESENCE ON MY OWN TERMS?
We are ‘soul-tired’. The very things we need feel like too much of an effort. If we ignore the problem, we condemn ourselves to constant distraction, resulting in a damaging forgetfulness. A forgetfulness that doesn’t recall who we are or who we are made to be, that doesn’t reflect on God and his purposes for us.
How can we begin to nurture our knowledge and memories of God? It’s important to recognise that we are all unique, in personality and in temperament. One person will thrive in busy discussion, another will need silence in order to think. One will enjoy a rapid response, another will need more time for reflection.
There will be times when we feel called to stretch ourselves, to move out of our comfort zones and to discipline ourselves for our own development. Some of us are more ‘hooked’ on technology than others. A good test is to consider what would happen if these were taken away from us. If you think you ‘can’t live’ without your phone, something isn’t right. We need to explore how we use the ‘things’ of our world. Or how they are using us.
The discipline to withdraw involves a rewrite at brain-deep level. The less we do something, the harder it becomes. Our brains are constantly forming new connections or ‘pathways’ and repeating an activity makes a pathway stronger.
Neglecting an activity has the opposite effect. Starting from scratch, with deliberate intent, feels hard. I can’t do this! Actually, you can. It’s just that you’re going against your brain’s preference. If you’re anything like me – with a cluttered and distracted mind – it can seem agonising.
If we want to develop and mature in our faith lives we need to give ourselves the space and time to do so. So much of life is based around busyness, filling every moment, hurrying from one thing to the next. If we want to be more attentive in a distracted world, we need to take action.
SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES: WHAT AND WHY?
When everything is about convenience and immediacy, filled with the urge and expectation to share information, what can we learn from traditional spiritual disciplines?
Our technologies are so accessible that discipline doesn’t really occur to us. If it does, we roll our eyes, bemoan our lack of self-control and sheepishly continue. Spiritual disciplines allow us to pursue a deeper relationship with God. They are a means, not the goal.
The idea is that, by doing these things, we become more like Christ. They aid us in the transformation of our hearts. We can think that those who practise spiritual disciplines are more advanced in the faith. In fact, as Dallas Willard put it in The Spirit of the Disciplines (HarperOne), the need for any discipline is ‘an indication of our weakness, not our strength’. We choose to practise them because something in our lives needs to change.
Traditional spiritual disciplines range from prayer and meditation to worship and study. They have different purposes. Some are particularly challenging in an immediacy-driven world. Solitude, for example, is often seen as a fundamental discipline – allowing us to move into other disciplines – but it can feel frightening. It requires us to disconnect, when everything we normally do is caught up with connecting. Silence has a similar effect.
Abstaining from something results in discomfort. We’re not keen on discomfort. We crave the accessible, the hassle-free. This is what our technologies are designed to do, to make life more convenient. But what if we need a bit of hassle in order to grow in spiritual maturity? How do we react when faced with a slow Internet connection, and what does this say about us?
Spiritual disciplines are meant to be practised regularly, not just tried out for a day. We live in a world where if results aren’t seen immediately, efforts can be marked out as failures. But every new endeavour needs time to take root, to become embedded in our lives.
Discipline isn’t a popular concept in an age where satisfaction is held in high regard; where what we want must be the right thing because we want it to be. We’re not keen on making sacrifices and, if we do make them, we expect some kind of recognition or reward.
What about the discipline of secrecy? We share everything, from what we had for breakfast, to who upset us earlier, to what we think about a hot topic. It’s an effort not to share. But doesn’t discipline always require some effort?
In Matthew 6:1, Jesus says, ‘Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.’
A lot of our tools persuade us to be seen; to be followed or befriended; to publicise ourselves; to be inspirational – or, yes, righteous – in the eyes of others. Jesus says that we should hide our righteousness, not announcing it when we give towards the needs of others. We are to pray in secret, behind closed doors, not standing on ‘street corners’ (v5). When we fast, we are not to make a big deal about it.
Do we perform the online equivalent of the street corner prayers that Jesus condemned? Do we make a show of donating to charity? At Lent some of us engage in pseudo-fasting, giving up something we love or usually crave. But if this is in any way related to biblical fasting, then surely we shouldn’t tell anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary. Yet we always ask: what are you giving up for Lent?
In this we store up earthly treasures – including human approval – not treasures in heaven. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:21). According to your life, where is your treasure?
We are as consumed by human approval as we have ever been, and this addiction is fuelled by a world of instant reaction. We hate the idea of people thinking badly of us and we rush to disprove their verdicts. It’s not what you think! Look, I’ve done this, and this! Take a good look at my righteousness.
Practising the secrecy Jesus suggests means that people don’t see our prayers, our service or our acts of generosity.
There will be times when it’s appropriate to share and to celebrate what God has done for us. Testimony is powerful and can change lives. But are we sharing for sharing’s sake? Or do we share because there are some things we should shout from the rooftops?
And is it possible sometimes that we share too much too soon, not leaving room for wisdom and reflection? We need to give time to the process of discernment, allowing ourselves space to listen for God’s guidance. This is another discipline.
Some disciplines will involve deliberate withdrawal, while others involve different degrees of sharing. Celebration is a discipline in which sharing can be positive. Corporate worship and prayer facilitate sharing with one another before God. Confession is another ‘sharing’ style of discipline, but we need to take care how we do this.
I’VE GOT AN APP FOR THAT
Our technological devices are helpful, and let’s make them live up to this. We use them to remind ourselves of what needs doing and when we should be somewhere. We can let someone know what’s happening so that they don’t worry about us. We have the facility to call for help in an emergency.
They can also be useful in our spiritual journey. We have access to diverse thought and theologies, conversing with others across the globe. We can find a Bible verse easily online or use a Bible-reading app on our smartphones. We have facilities to share our prayer needs promptly and widely. We can speak out against injustice.
There are wonderful ways to use our tools for good and for God’s glory. We just need to use them wisely, with the understanding that not everyone will find the same tools useful.
There are times when our tools help, resource and inspire us. There are also times when we need to put them down, to develop a ‘hidden life’ in a busy age in which sharing is the norm.
We need the Spirit of God to guide us in how to do this. Trying to work it out ourselves will only lead us towards self-righteousness and self-reliance. We need to develop sensitivity to the Spirit, who intercedes and grieves for us, who
counsels us on our journey.
We don’t embark on spiritual disciplines to make ourselves happy, but to make us more like Christ, who offered us abundant life (John 10:10). In that abundance, we are offered not circumstantial or temporary pleasure but deep-rooted joy.
During a technological age in which we often stick to the shallows, spiritual disciplines may be exactly what we need.
Questions to ask before you share on social media
(But don’t let this put you off sharing cute pictures of your cat)
Why am I sharing this?
Will this build up and encourage others, or will it simply build up and encourage myself?
Am I glorifying God?
Am I demonstrating grace?
Have I allowed time for adequate reflection?