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A Great Servant; An Evil Master

It’s a question you’ve probably asked. Why is it that when you are looking for a house, driving slowly down a darkened street straining to see the numbers on the fronts of the homes or on the mailboxes at the end of the driveways, you automatically turn down the car radio? Why do you need silence when focusing, concentrating? You do so, I suppose, because you instinctively know that music and voices are a distraction. You know on a subconscious level that you cannot focus as well on the task at-hand when there is noise in the background. Noise is a distraction.

I find that when I am writing, and especially writing something that requires deep thought and consistent logic, I need to remove background distractions, whether that means I turn down the music playing from my computer or close the door to my office to drown out the sounds of squabbling or playing children. I do this without thinking about it. As I strain to collect my thoughts and to put words to them, I automatically turn down the music (as I did just now). I am often surprised, when I have finished my writing, to find that the music has been turned off or the door has been closed. I may have no recollection of doing so. It must be a natural reaction.

Many years ago I heard a sermon, one of the few I remember from my younger days, in which the pastor suggested that we try turning off the stereos in our cars, especially when we are driving alone, and spend the time thinking or praying. He had apparently developed the practice of praying aloud when driving alone. It earned him some bemused looks from other drivers who saw him talking, apparently to himself, but because he found it a beneficial practice he swallowed his pride and continued to talk to God. I guess this was in the day before bluetooth headsets; today it seems as if every driver is talking to himself. I often make a decision—and it has to be a deliberate decision since I am accustomed to pressing the “play” button immediately after starting the car—to turn off the radio or MP3 player when I drive. I have found such times extremely valuable. My mind can process things and mull things over far better where there is silence. This is particularly true if the song I might be listening to is one that is familiar to me as then, whether I am aware of it or not, I tend to sing along. It is hard to think deeply when singing!

In our culture we have allowed ourselves to become notoriously busy. And all the time, while we are busily going through life, there is a great deal of “noise” in the background of our lives. It may be music that plays when we drive, when we work and when we play. It may be a television that is turned on every time we have a few minutes to spare. Perhaps when we find fifteen empty minutes between picking the kids up from school and beginning to cook dinner we watch an episode of Judge Judy or catch a re-run of The Simpsons. The background noise may be a Blackberry that constantly beeps and buzzes as it receives emails or stock quotes, even when we are far away from the office. It may be a cell phone that keeps customers or employees in contact with us even on weekends and holidays.

It seems to me that, as society continues to move in its current direction, and as we become ever more “wired,” Christians have to be increasingly deliberate about moderating and perhaps removing some of this ever-present background noise. If we are to be thinking people, people who think deeply and deliberately about spiritual matters, we simply cannot allow our lives to be overshadowed by the noise of technology.

I wonder how much we miss because of our busyness. I am often challenged to think just how much of life I miss while I check my email for the seventh time in a given evening or while I follow along online with a football game that I really don’t care about. Technology, it seems, is a great distractor. Technology sticks its foot in the door of so many areas of my life. When I sit down to read to my children we may be interrupted by a phone call. As we head outdoors to play, I may do a quick check of my email and spend fifteen minutes typing out a reply that could easily wait until the next day; and then, while I play with the children, I am distracted, mulling over what I might have or should have said. Maybe we duck out of church before the time of fellowship is complete so we will have time to get home, make a sandwich and fluff the cushions on the couch before kickoff time.

Truthfully, I cannot think of anything that distracts us so fully and completely and consistently as technology. For too many of us, technology is a master and not a servant. It is our owner, not our possession. We let it run and rule our lives. We allow technology to determine the course of our lives, taking us where it leads. We determine our schedules with TV Guide in one hand, a Blackberry calendar in the other. We invest countless hours in online friendships, many of which are shallow and insignificant, while ignoring people in our local churches and communities. Perhaps while ignoring even our own families.

Technology is a great servant but an evil master. Technology is proof of the greatness and grace of God and something we ought to be thankful for. But why, then, have so many of us allowed it to rule and govern our lives? Why do we allow it to play such an important, transcendent role in our lives and in our families?

It may be as simple as escapism. Technology, and especially its many applications to entertainment, provide unparalleled opportunities to escape from reality, even if only for a few minutes. Through technology we can leave the drudgery of our lives to listen to music that glorifies freedom or to watch television or film where what happens is far more thrilling than what we experience at home and in the office. The purpose of much of modern technology is to allow us to take our entertainment with us no matter where we go. MP3 players allow us to take thousands or tens of thousands of songs with us in the car or on the train. Video iPods allow us to escape from work or school for a few minutes by watching (ironically enough) The Office or unlimited amounts of pornography. Portable DVD players allow us to keep the children quiet in the car while we take a vacation. No matter who or where we are, we can use technology as a brief escape.

Perhaps we use technology to hide. Maybe we hate to be alone with our thoughts. We have become so accustomed to constant noise that, like a baby who can only sleep in a room with a white noise machine softly humming, we can barely stand the sound of silence. Maybe we have lost the ability to think or even the desire to think, and so we anesthetize our intellects, we lull them into inactivity, by replacing them with noise.

Maybe we need constant noise from the cell phone or laptop so we feel like we are accomplishing anything. Perhaps we have bought into the lie that we need to be accomplishing something significant—something that either pays the bills or leaves us with another bill to pay—at all times. And so we take phone calls during dinner and answer emails in church. We check email compulsively and work while we should be resting.

Or it could be that we prefer the anonymity and safety of online relationships, relationships that allow us to be almost exhibitionist in what we reveal about ourselves, all the while hiding behind a mask of secrecy. We would rather tell our deepest secrets to strangers on the other side of the continent, strangers we know only by their online personas, than find and nurture deep and lasting friendships close to home.

We are busy. We are distracted. Too often we hide behind the noise. As Christians we need to ensure that we are mastering the noise, not allowing it to master us. We need to be in control of our cell phones, Blackberries, laptops and inboxes. We can and often should use this technology, but we must not allow it to control us.