Sometimes, it’s hard to remember life before cell phones, internet, and social media. Once upon a time, we left our homes without a phone, drove without GPS, got our news in the morning with the newspaper or in the evening on one of three TV channels. We had a handful of flesh-and-blood friends instead of hundreds (or thousands!) of virtual ones. Once upon a time, if we wanted to know someone’s opinion or thoughts on a topic, we needed to have a conversation with them. Back then, it was more difficult to be hurtful, spiteful, and untruthful toward someone you knew personally without looking them in the eye. The closest thing we had to social media was graffiti on the bathroom walls of schools or gas stations, or just old-fashioned gossip.
I’m no luddite. I appreciate the technology we have. I use it every day to accomplish tasks I’d never be able to do otherwise. I’m connected in a lot of good ways through technology. Frankly, technology is keeping us connected during these times when we aren’t able to be together in person. But this same technology is intrusive in so many ways. I remember when I got my first Palm Pilot. Remember those? Personal digital assistants. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It took the place of my cumbersome planner and could fit in my pocket. Coupled with my cell phone, I was a walking office. But I also remember standing on the deck of the Mayflower when my wife and I were on vacation in New England way back in 2003, and I had to fire an employee at my store IN OREGON. Even though we were on vacation, thousands of miles away, I was not free. I was still tethered to life and work back home. We’ve only become even more tethered since then.
This is how I feel it is for us every day, except that we have become so used to constant connectedness that we feel almost naked when our phones die or don’t have a signal. Just witness how quickly an airport terminal descends into a scene from The Lord of the Flies when there are no outlets available to charge one’s myriad devices. The looks of desperation and despair are everywhere!
Maybe this isn’t an issue for you, but for most of us, we’re continuously interrupted by notifications from apps, emails, and social media. We’re reminded by our FitBits that we need to get up and get our steps in. Our trains of thought are derailed by texts and unrelated conversations that divide our focus from whatever task or conversation is before us. A group of people can be seated around a dinner table, each a part of a gathering in some other place, as if no one else at the table existed. There’s a constant pull to be informed, entertained, or just distracted. And there’s the constant pull to be even more productive by devoting home/family/personal time to our jobs. We can be anywhere and still at work. We can be anywhere and still be somewhere else. Being fully present feels like a luxury–or like missing out.
For as much as we are reliant on our various technologies, and as much as we would like to regain some level of independence from them, we certainly can’t expect things to go back to the way they were. And, in some ways, that’s a good thing. So, we have to be intentional about unplugging from the “matrix”, as it were.
The early disciples had it “easy”. They had Jesus, in the flesh, right in front of them. They had few distractions to take their attention away. They weren’t snapping pics of the loaves and fish and putting them on Instagram, or uploading vids of Jesus’ performing miracles to their YouTube channel. They weren’t concerned if they were trending on Twitter. They weren’t buried under a mountain of emails, or trying to keep up with text and SnapChat conversations. They didn’t have 250+ TV channels or an endless supply of drool-inducing drivel begging for their attention via the internet. Sometimes, I think it would have been easier following Jesus back then. Then again, it was no picnic. They faced real hardships and threats. We mainly face distraction…
It’s not just our digital devices that can master us, but all the things that those digital devices connect us to. Before COVID, we were overscheduled, overworked, and just overwhelmed. Then COVID hit, and we just learned how to be overscheduled, overworked and overwhelmed from home. Turns out we don’t need to leave home to burn the candle at both ends. Life is complicated and complex. The idea of simplifying our lives may seem ludicrous. There are simply too many things to juggle and we’re not willing to drop any of them. I think many of us would describe the new normal in the same way the comedian Jim Gaffigan describes life with four children: “It’s like drowning and then someone hands you a baby.” If life was complicated before quarantines, lockdowns, remote learning, working from home, social distancing, isolation, the politicization of common sense, etc. and etc., it’s just that much more now…
Our souls need and long for moments of an unplugged and simplified life. As I’ve shared the last couple of weeks about silencing the noise and slowing down our lives, we can also add unplugging and simplifying as necessary spiritual disciplines for nurturing our relationship with God. The more we squeeze into our lives, the more we tend to squeeze God out. We have to find ways to not just squeeze God back in, but to give Him pride of place in how we organize and structure our lives.
I want to take a moment and look at two passages regarding unfaithfulness. They’re largely set in the context of marital unfaithfulness, and you may wonder why I would talk about adultery and such when we’ve been talking about simplifying (and unplugging) our lives for the sake of our relationship with God. Ask any wife who can’t have a conversation with her husband because he won’t turn off the TV, or a husband who can’t get his wife’s attention away from Instragram, or a parent trying to get their kid to put down a video game for more than two minutes and you start to get the picture.
Take a moment to read Matthew 5:27-30 and Malachi 2:10-16.
Both passages speak against unfaithfulness. Unfaithfulness begins in the heart. It doesn’t have to lead to action, but it often does. Malachi specifically highlights the unfaithfulness of God’s people toward others in their community, their wives, and God.
Both passages call for extreme measures to avoid falling into sin and being cut off from the community of faith. Jesus’ words in Matthew are hyperbole…maybe. At least that’s how we prefer to take them. But sometimes drastic measures need to taken. The offending thing or things have to be dealt with. If your phone causes you to sin, get rid of it. If your schedule causes you to sin by making gods out of activities or other obligations, throw it out. I’m not suggesting being a Pharisee, but being honest with ourselves about the clutter in our lives, of all sorts.
Learn to say “no” to things, especially those that interfere with the time you spend with God. If the commitments in your life leave little or no time for intentional and meaningful time with God–alone and with other believers–something has to give. Be willing to do what’s necessary.
Living a simplified and unplugged life can start simply. Set the “Do Not Disturb” function on your phone and set a timer for a certain amount of time, 10 – 20 minutes to start, and then build up from there. If the timer can be separate from your phone, even better. If you can, put your phone in a drawer or someplace that isn’t within sight or reach. Get away from your TV, computer, or anything else likely to distract. Practice silence. Practice listening. Go analog and use a physical bible instead of a digital one. Dedicate the time to being present in the moment, with your Heavenly Father who wants to spend undistracted time with you. Make this time about Him, and not about you.
Along with silence and slowing, simpifiying and unplugging are spiritual disciplines. They take practice to get comfortable with them and to reap the benefits.
There is so much noise and clutter in our lives that create wedges and obstacles to following Jesus. There are so many competing voices and loyalties that threaten to (or have already) taken pride of place in our lives. So many of us are struggling and wayward because we claim to have a depth of relationship with God that doesn’t really exist. We need to slow down, simplify, unplug, be still, and get silent so we can just be in His presence and hear His voice. Because right now–and always–His is the voice we need to hear above all others.