What is the intersection between ‘being plugged in’ (i.e. the use of technology) and our faith?
To answer this question, we should first acknowledge that technology can be a good thing- a gift given by God for our use. Technology should it to make our lives better; it should serve us well. But like anything else in our lives, technology can be harmful and even destructive to our lives if it become more than what it’s meant to be. In the Bible, when something becomes more than what it is, it becomes an idol.
What is an idol? How does someone/something become one in our lives?
Exodus 20:5, 23 provides a few clues: “ You shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them…You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.”
– It says that we make idols. Idolatry is directed at manufactured objects (as opposed to the living God of the Bible), and thus – anything can be an idol to us.
– Next it teaches us that we bow down to idols. Idolatry involves making symbolic gestures which honour the thing they are directed to.
– Third, we serve idols. Idolatry is like serving someone – it is a master or a king to you.
If you apply this definition to technology, we can see that technology can certainly be an idol for us:
(1) It’s man-made, so it qualifies.
(2) We bow down to it. This is more than a posture of the body – it’s a posture of the heart. We bow down to our technology when we define ourselves by it; when we find security in what we think it can do for us; when we allow it to dictate what we do with our lives.
(3) We serve it. We answer every time it vibrates or makes a sound. We spend hours on end focused on the information that it feeds us.
If an extra-terrestrial came to Earth for the purpose of examining human behavior, what do you think it would conclude? I think it would observe that human beings spend an extraordinary amount of time on, derive an enormous of pleasure from and immerse themselves in glowing entities. First, it would observe that a small glowing entity that beckons our attention constantly. It’s always near us – calling out to us and feeding us information. It’s the first thing we hold in the morning and the last thing we look at before we sleep. We find ourselves compulsively drawn toward it and immersed in it. Then there’s the medium-size glowing entity that we serve constantly. We sit in front of it for hours on end. We feel like a slave to it because it keeps us busy and tired. Our backs are literally broken after a long day of serving the medium-sized glowing entity. And lastly, there is the largest glowing entity (roughly 42” in size) from which we derive pleasure. We gather together as family units and spend hours in a semi-circle in front of the large glowing entity. We often use the word, “escape” to describe it. It’s a source of pleasure (men often brag about how great their glowing entity is) and an emotional outlet (women often laugh, smile or cry in front of it).
I contend that this is perhaps an exaggeration.
Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s not far from the truth. And that is the scary part. G.K. Beale famously wrote, “We become what we worship.” Technology can be a good thing and do great things in our lives – but it can also occupy a place in our hearts that it doesn’t deserve – that’s when it be harmful and even destructive. It can leave us much like technology itself: Mechanical, robotic and numb to life.
So what should our relationship with technology be? Let suggest we don’t start with modifying our behavior. We start with the heart.
Let’s examine Luke 5:16: “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Jesus teaches us 3 crucial lessons here:
(1) Unplugging must be done frequently (“[He] often withdrew”). Jesus was a busy dude. He was preaching, healing, going to parties, visiting the sick, and caring for all sorts of people. His iPhone calendar would be more full than yours or mine. But Jesus knew where to draw the line. He would often withdraw.
In today’s context, this means unplugging. It means having the courage to leave that phone behind and be in true solitude. I don’t know how that looks for you, but the principle is to do it frequently.
The danger of technology is not simply in the content that it can deliver; the danger also lies in the behavior that is necessitated by its usage. Owning a smart phone, for instance, brings expectations that we should never be alone.
Have we become a people – a church- that has committed itself to distraction? We will be so mastered by our constant urge to answer our email; to look at our smartphones every time they buzz; to check the sports scores or stocks or texts, that our ability to think about, to pray, to mull over and savor God’s truth has been nullified.
Is withdrawing from technology (or the internet) the solution?
Paul Miller was paid to be offline for 1 whole year. He abandoned email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Blogs, Google Maps for one year and he recorded his experiences. At the beginning of that year, he anticipated that he would be refreshed and recharged. He wanted to prove that technology was what was wrong with the world. And that’s what happened initially. But as time went on, he discovered something. He wrote, “I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.”
Mr. Miller thought that real life was to be found offline, but discovered that it’s more complex than that because the Internet can be a great place for relationship-building. What he discovered was that he as lonely offline as he had been online. Unplugging alone wasn’t sufficient. Jesus knew this. It’s vital to unplug frequently, but that’s not getting at the heart of the problem.
(2) Unplugging is difficult (“to lonely places”). It is not an easy process. Have you ever thought about why it’s so difficult to unplug – to not check that phone constantly? Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times in 2008, describes taking a break from technology for twenty-four hours. He remarked,“I woke up nervous, eager for my laptop . . . I was jumpy, twitchy, uneven.” Have you felt this way before? Have you ever wondered why?
I believe the answer is found in the words “lonely place” (Another way of translation tells us Jesus withdrew to the “wilderness” or “desert”). To be clear, Scripture is not telling all of us to live as hermits – avoiding human contact. It means – at the end of the day – we find our deepest connection in someone else besides other people.
If we unplug, it’s not easy. We long for connection. For community. For belonging. For security. For strength. When we unplug, we’re turning to God for all these things.
Joseph Carter, writer for Evangelical Outpost, made this observation:
“After drinking from the fire hose of information a day without info tech will seem like a year long drought. But by unplugging the god of Technology you might just find something new in the pause—a still small voice sharing the information that truly matters.”
(3) Unplugging means centering our lives around God (“[Jesus] prayed”). Prayer is centering our lives around God. It’s finding strength, joy, peace and hope in God. It’s listening to God’s voice and thus, discerning his will. It’s “plugging into” God’s power and thus, it’s a means by which we can be victorious in the spiritual, unseen battle facing each one of us daily.
Prayer – at its core – is the practice of the presence of God.
Jesus withdrew himself to a lonely place to practice the presence of God. That’s what it means to unplug. It is a physical act, but more importantly, it is a spiritual act of worship. Centering our lives around God is the most important thing you can ever do.
It’s what you were created to do. It’s what you were redeemed to do.
Ho-Ming Tsui is an associate pastor at Richmond Hill Christian Community Church.