The world has changed, hasn’t it? The world we live in today is not the world as it was a few years ago. In just the past few decades we have entered into a digital world, and you and I are the ones who are learning how to live in it, and how to live in it with virtue. We are the trailblazers here, learning how to use these incredible, world-changing technologies to carry out the commission God has given us. These new technologies can be used to do so much good, but they can also be used to do such evil.
When the Bible tells us how to live as Christians, it so often tells us that we need to put on and put off. It tells us that there are habits, patterns, and behaviors we need to stop, and new habits, patterns, and behaviors we need to begin. Today I want to look at 3 things we need to put off and put on as individuals, and tomorrow I will look at 3 things that we need to put off and put on as families.
(Note: Just yesterday Zondervan released a second edition of my book The Next Story and it comes complete with a few updates, an added chapter, and a new subtitle: Faith, Friends, Family, and the Digital World. It covers some of this material, plus a whole lot more.)
Reject Distraction, Embrace Focus
Put off the distraction that pollutes this digital world and instead embrace deep focus. It is no great secret that this digital world brings all kinds of new ways to be distracted. Our technologies seem to evolve toward distraction, so that every new generation of device finds new ways to call us away from one thing and toward another. Our devices beep, buzz, flash, and chirp—whatever they need to do to gain our attention. Over time we have trained ourselves to obey them, which makes me wonder: If we need to respond to our phones every time they beep or buzz, do we own them, or do they own us? As our devices evolve toward distraction, my concern is that we are becoming people who love and long for distraction. We enjoy those distractions and almost come to depend upon them.
There is a cost to this. As Christians we are responsible to grow in wisdom, but wisdom comes only with effort. Information is easy—we are surrounded by it all the time—, but wisdom comes through concentration and meditation, and through carefully applying the truths of Scripture to our lives. How can we meditate and concentrate if we are always distracted? I used a printed Bible for many years and it never once beeped or buzzed or otherwise distracted me. But when I read the Bible on my phone, I am only ever a flash or chirp away from being completely side-tracked. I am only ever a click or swipe away from indulging in Netflix or YouTube or any other number of distractions.
The consistent call of the Bible is to be people who ponder God’s Word, who ponder the world around us, and who constantly grow in wisdom. We can only do this when we break away from our distractions and choose to focus. So Christian, put off distraction and put on concentration and meditation. Control your devices so they serve you as you grow in wisdom and grow in godliness.
Reject Isolation, Embrace Visibility
Put off the isolation of anonymity and put on the accountability that comes with visibility. I have often pondered what the Admiral Lord Nelson once said, that beyond Gibraltar every man is a bachelor. What he meant is that once British sailors sailed beyond the borders of their own land and empire, they very suddenly became different people. Once they moved beyond the accountability that came with visibility, they changed. As they sailed away from civilization, and wives, and parents, and families, they also sailed away from civilized behavior. Where they were alone and unknown they were free to behave however they wanted. And they behaved very badly.
On the Internet it is easy for us to live beyond Gibraltar. It is easy for us to inhabit places where we are anonymous, where we lose all of that accountability that comes through visibility. One of very first Christian books I ever read was a book on character and it deeply shaped me. The author warned that character is who you are when no one is looking. Do want to know who you really are and how spiritually mature you are? Then take an accounting of what you do when everyone else is gone, the night is dark, and you are all alone. That’s who you are, right then and there. You reveal far more of your true character in isolation than in community.
When you are alone, when it is just you, your computer, and the Internet, who are you? What do you do? How do you behave? Who are you when you go beyond Gibraltar? Do you indulge in pornography? Do you indulge in rumor and gossip? Do you read things you have no business reading or do things you have no business doing? Too many people hide out in the dark corners of the Internet, going far beyond Gibraltar and leaving behind Christian love and charity. And so much of this happens because people refuse and reject visibility. They do not open up their lives to Christian brothers or sisters, and they do not seek input and counsel from others. They use their digital technologies to feed the flesh instead of serve the Lord.
Christian, you need to reject the isolation that comes so easily in this digital world, and in its place you need to embrace visibility. You need to have people who will speak into your life, and you need to listen. You need to live the same life online as you live offline. You need to be the same person behind your screen as away from it. Put off anonymity and put on accountability.
Reject Indulgence, Embrace Self-Control
Finally, you need to put off indulgence and in its place put on self-control. Every year the Oxford English Dictionary evaluates the English language, and chooses some old words to remove and a few new words to add. It seems significant that in new edition they added binge-watch. “Binge-watch: Watch multiple episodes of (a television program) in rapid succession, typically by means of DVDs or digital streaming.” Binge does not strike me as the kind of word that ought to be associated with Christians, yet who hasn’t fallen prey at one time or another, especially now that the newest trend in television is not to release episodes week-by-week, but to release an entire series at once. This is binge-watching, and it is just one of the ways we allow ourselves indulgence in this digital world. There are many more we could talk about: compulsively checking email, or checking Facebook hundreds of times each day, or even feeling the necessity to respond to every single text message. And it makes me wonder, whatever happened to self-control?
I have said before that self-control is lost virtue (or a misplaced one, anyway). Yet the Bible consistently calls us to self-control and even says that it is an undeniable and irreplaceable fruit of the Spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” Meanwhile, this fast-paced digital world caters to our ugly desire for indulgence. But here’s the thing: Once we relax self-control in one area of life, we allow the spirit of indulgence to creep in, and we are never far from letting go of control in other areas. So much of what our digital world brings us is good, but like so much else, it is good only in moderation.
When we let go of self-control, we inevitably find diminishing returns. We become enslaved to the thing that controls us and we enjoy it less and less. This is true of chocolate, it is true of sex, it is true of Netflix. So Christian, reject indulgence and display self-control. Put to death those compulsive behaviors, and bring to life the fruit of the Spirit. Take ownership of your devices and all of your great technologies before they take ownership of you.
I am thrilled to live in this time, and eager to use all of these new technologies for good. But I know, and you know, that we need to use them well, and to use them for God’s glory.
Tomorrow we will look at 3 things that we need to put off and put on as families.
(If you prefer to watch than read, you may be interested in watching this talk I did at the recent Ligonier Ministries National Conference.)
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