It doesn’t take a particularly sharp observer of culture to see that technology is becoming an increasingly large part of everyone’s lives — Christians and non-Christians, young and old. A recent article by Brett McCracken cited research that during the pandemic, technology usage was up to 13 hours a day for the average adult, or about 90 hours a week. Technology often takes on the role of distraction in our lives — keeping us passively glued to our phones, TVs, or computers when we could be doing more useful things. (If you’ve ever done the endless scroll on Facebook to avoid working on a project, you might know what I’m talking about.)
These trends, along with growing proof of the addictive nature of technology, are spurring a new genre of books that explore what can be done to free ourselves from unhealthy habits of excessive technology use and the distractions that come along with it. One such book, Indistractable by Nir Eyal, seeks to help people free themselves from the habit-forming products that tech companies continue to create.
Indistractable is made up of short, memorable chapters that are very skimmable if you don’t have much time to devote to self-help books. I found many parts of this book to be helpful, but the concept that has stuck with me the longest is this: we need to deal with the internal triggers that lead to distraction, because “time management is pain management.” This observation rings true to me, but Eyal (who is not a Christian, so far as I know) explains this through the lens of evolution. I would contend that the Christian worldview more accurately explains the internal factors that lead to distraction, and if we can put those distractions in a theological framework, the Bible would best give the solutions.
So first, what does it mean that “time management is pain management”? Eyal explains it this way: “distraction is just another way our brains attempt to deal with pain” (p. 27). We all live in a constant state of restlessness and discomfort, and the way we use our time is an attempt to deal with that. Eyal cites several types of discomfort that perpetuate distractions in our lives: boredom (people prefer doing anything to avoid being alone with their thoughts), the tendency to ruminate on bad experiences, and the feeling that there is something more out there that would make us happy if only we could find it (aha…sounds familiar).
I think Eyal has some good points here. If you’ve ever picked up a magazine in a waiting room just because it’s there, you know the desperate need to alleviate boredom. Now imagine that you have a distraction in your pocket 24/7. And you use it not only to alleviate boredom in the waiting room but to zone out when your kids are driving you crazy. Or when there’s something unpleasant you’d rather not think about. Or when you just plain feel the itch to do something that will make you happy (but will take absolutely no effort on your part). For many of us, this is the role that technology has come to play in our lives.
However, Eyal’s reason for these feelings falls flat. He attributes this perpetual dissatisfaction to evolution – “feeling contented isn’t good for the species” (p. 28). His solution is equally unhelpful. If we just recognize that these feelings are a normal part of the human experience, we will be able to deal with the discomfort in a way other than giving in to distractions. Skin deep problem, skin deep solution.
Is there a better explanation?
Christians might point to the theological concept of sin. The reason why we all experience pain in our lives at some level – ranging from simple discomfort to outright tragedy – is because our relationship with God has been broken. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). We no longer live in perfect fellowship with God, and as a result, our hearts are bent towards destruction, and creation itself is in “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21). This sense of constant discontentment in our lives is because something is not right. We were not created to be this way.
If the problem is sin rather than biology, then how can we deal with discomfort and pain in our lives in a biblical way? Needless to say, technology is not the answer. No one ever finished a Netflix binge with a renewed sense of purpose and a feeling that all is right in the world. While not an exhaustive list, here are several suggestions that stem from biblical thought.
1. Recognize that the more we are looking for can only be found in God
Take a page from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The writer, Qoheleth, searched in many places for satisfaction and found none. He claims, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14). And yet, Qoheleth knew that God sees the purpose for everything that happens in life. He says, “I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves. He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end” (Eccl. 3:10-11).
We don’t always understand the “Why” of our existence. We don’t know why we labor, only to labor again. We don’t understand why we can live life in a godly manner, yet see others who are foolish being rewarded. God has hidden the “big picture” from our eyes. Yet Qoheleth concludes, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God” (Ecc. 3:12-13).
We strive to understand, and that is a good thing. God has “set eternity in our heart” so that we are always searching. The appropriate response to our searching is to look to the One who does know the purpose of all things and to put our trust in Him.
When we recognize that the restlessness inside of us is a desire for God, we can cease trying to fill the void with other things and concentrate on doing what God has put in front of us. We do this with the knowledge that “from the Lord you will receive your inheritance as a reward” (Col. 3:24). Not only is God himself the answer, but also ordering our values according to His will.
2. Develop godly habits of thought
Our minds are fallen just as the rest of us; we tend to dwell on the negative. We need to give ourselves food to think about when we face boredom or the potential to fall into the pit of negativity. Perhaps this is why Paul has such a high standard for what our thought life should look like: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). In addition, the Scripture constantly encourages meditation on God’s Word. The blessed man in Psalm 1 meditates on God’s Word “day and night,” and as a result, he prospers.
Of course, technology can be a help with that! I’ve found a Bible memory app that is very useful in helping me learn and review Bible verses. The danger is that I pick up my phone to review my verses, and then continue on to other distractions rather than truly spending the time meditating on God’s word. For some of us, old-fashioned notecards might be best. Whatever the case, it is essential to be purposeful with our thought life.
3. Face tasks in the strength that God supplies.
Avoiding the tasks God has put in front of me through the passive distraction of technology is one of my worst struggles. As I put things off, my feelings of responsibility are gradually deadened until I convince myself that there’s no need to exert myself in the tasks at hand. Ephesians 2:10 is a wake-up call for me: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” An elder at my previous church used to say that he put his feet on the floor every morning and prayed, “Lord, I want to serve you today” — and he has a life of long and faithful obedience to show for it. That simple reorientation of thought, that I’m here not to serve myself but the Lord, and that He equipped me for the tasks he has called me to, is what I need to escape the deadening effect of technology in my life.
But what about when the situation we are escaping isn’t just uncomfortable or distasteful? What about when it is downright painful? First, I should note that distractions can serve a purpose. Losing yourself in some form of entertainment might be a way to break a crippling cycle of anxiety, or to take a break from a stressful situation, but it can’t be the ultimate answer. Living in an attitude of dependence on the Lord, believing that his “grace is sufficient” (2 Cor. 12:9) is essential. There is a good chance he has taken you beyond your strength for the purpose of causing you to rely on him (2 Cor. 1:9).
There is much more that could be written on this subject. The issue of technology use and the problems it presents only shows signs of growing, and I’m convinced that as more secular writers take on this topic, we need to sift through their thoughts, evaluate them from a Christian perspective, and make use of that which may be helpful for dialogue in our Christian communities. If we don’t begin the conversation now, we run the risk that the next generation of Christians will be sidelined not by outright rejection of God’s commands, but by mindless distractions.