We are a deeply distracted culture. Monitors and screens seem to exist everywhere we go, constantly drawing us in by their alluring images like Harry from the movie A Bug’s Life who couldn’t resist the beautiful light of the bug zapper. Our smartphones are perpetually in our pockets, buzzing and beeping to pay attention to them. We receive information and communicate in bite-sized chunks—we think in brief tweets, speak in sound bites, and can’t read more than a few paragraphs before becoming distracted and jumping over to something that doesn’t require as much mental focus and attention, like more cat video compilations.
And we do this to ourselves. No one is forcing media and technology on us. We desire it. We long for it. We can’t imagine even a couple hours without these treasured diversions, let alone an entire day. We would much rather be entertained than endure reading a book. We often choose to post about our meal rather than pay attention to the person we’re having lunch with. It is easy to place the blame on modern technology instead of assuming it ourselves. It is easy to take on the role of victim and talk about how hard it is nowadays. But the fact of the matter is that this is how we have chosen to live our lives.
We Are Addicted to Distractions
Addiction to distraction is not a modern phenomenon attributed to the rise of technology. It has been around as long as man has desired what is easy, pleasurable, and entertaining over matters of truth and ultimate significance. Blaise Pascal was a philosopher in France during the 1600’s and he noticed that people even then were much more desirous of being diverted by hunting, games, billiards, and other amusements as opposed to thinking about and discussing the “big questions of life.” He said that, “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” If someone did that then they would have to think about life, God, mortality, eternity, and truth, and that is not nearly as fun as entertaining distractions. Pondering these things is intimidating because the answers to the deep questions of life might be different than we expected, or they might require more of us than we’re willing to give. It is easier to just avoid these topics by amusing ourselves to death.
Their forms of distraction were different from ours, but their desires were the same. Sin causes us to desire things that are not ultimately good for us, as well as desire good things in an unhealthy way that turns them into ultimate things. But only God should be ultimate in our lives because only He is ultimate in the universe—being eternal and the Creator of all things. Sin dwarfs our desires for truth, and, therefore, wisdom. And sin enlarges our struggles and feelings of unhappiness. But we need knowledge of God’s truth to have wisdom, and we need wisdom to know how to live our lives well in light of God’s truth in the world that God has created. But it is hard to pursue any of these things when we are too busy binge-watching Netflix.
A Surprising Motivator for Gaining Wisdom
It may surprise you to think that a good starting point for addressing our addiction to distraction and our pursuit of healthy habits begins with recognizing the shortness of our lives here on earth. Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days carefully so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.” The average lifespan in America is roughly 78 years. For those of us who are young that seems like so much time. We hardly believe that we’ll ever get to that age. But when we get to be 50 or 60 years old (should the Lord grant us that many years) we won’t be saying that. And 78 years is barely a blip on the radar in light of eternity. We often live like we have far more time on this earth than we really do, engaging in things that squander the years God has given us and ignoring the important things that carry eternal weight. But Psalm 90:12 tells us that accepting the reality that we will all die one day should be strong motivation to pursue wisdom in our hearts now.
Wisdom is knowledge of God’s truth that is lived out in everyday life. Philosopher Douglas Groothuis says in his book The Soul in Cyber-Space, “Wisdom is truth applied to the soul as guided by divine love.” We want to live well in light of truth, motivated by love for God and others. God is truth (John 14:6) and God is love (1 John 4:8). Knowing the truth and receiving love are only found by knowing God, the source and embodiment of both. And we come to know God by placing our faith in Christ so that we may be saved and reconciled to God. But this is not just a form of fire insurance so that we can escape Hell and make it to Heaven when we die. We are to enjoy new life in Christ now and wisely serve Christ with however many days He graciously chooses to grant us.
But this is often not what we do with our 78 years on this earth. The average American will spend 3 of those years surfing the internet and upwards of 15 years watching TV. In fact, we’ll spend just 1 year just looking for something to watch. That amounts to almost a quarter of our lives spent on distraction, entertainment, and fleeting pleasures. And when we take into account that 1/3 of our lives are spent sleeping, 10-13 years are spent working, and 4 years are spent eating, we realize that we don’t have much time left in our 78 years after that is all added up.
We see that wisdom is desperately needed because the reality is that we don’t want to spend 25% of our lives on entertaining distractions like social media and Netflix. We want our lives to matter. And God does too. He wants our short lives to count for His glory and for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. But we often don’t choose to recognize the fleeting nature of our lives (James 4:14), develop godly wisdom, and live our lives well for God’s glory. Instead we often choose to turn up the volume on the TV to drown out the call of Christ to die to ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him (Matt. 16:24-26) because that sounds too difficult and demanding, and Netflix is telling me that the next episode will start playing in 8 seconds…
Pursuing Truth and Holiness Online
To develop wisdom in our hearts (which, biblically, refers to the most important parts of our inner person and is the seat of our desires, affections, emotions, motivations, and choices) we must gain an understanding of God’s truth. And modern technology, especially the internet and our phones, are not optimally conducive to an earnest pursuit of truth. Studies show that when we go online we are too distracted to be able to focus well enough to fully understand what we’re reading and to be able to commit it to our long-term memory to be properly able to say that we have gained a knowledge of the truth (Physical books are better for being able to focus on what we’re reading and commit what we learn to memory). We are often barraged by information online and surpass our brain’s ability to process it all. So, distractions become even more distracting and we can’t tell relevant information from irrelevant information. And the internet not only causes us to be distracted, it actually trains our brains to desire distraction. Repeated use of the internet forms neurological pathways in our brains that cause us to continually want to go back to the internet because our brain enjoys using the neurological pathways that are the strongest.
And while this does not mean that we can’t learn online, studies show that when we go online we are prone to skim and scan what we’re reading, and then we quickly forget it. Not a good recipe for gaining wisdom. Not to mention that so much time online often does not aid us in loving others well, cultivating gospel-centered community, resting in our identity in Christ, or enjoying God’s good creation. And, oftentimes, it both frustrates our pursuit of holiness and encourages sinfulness. There is a lot of bad content online (pornography accounts for 30% of all internet traffic) that faithful Christians are to steer clear of. But just being online gives us a false sense of secrecy and anonymity (false, because God sees all and knows our thoughts and intentions), which is where sin tends to thrive.
While there is a lot of great gospel-centered content online, just going online causes us to be distracted and unfocused, not remember what we learn very well, and want to go back online to be distracted and entertained, not to gain wisdom. Therefore, we can, and should, use online resources to learn more about God’s truth and to gain wisdom, but we also need wisdom to know how to cultivate healthy online habits and get the most out of the internet. We should use technology on purpose and with our eternal purposes in mind rather than go to merely be distracted and entertained.
Making the Most of Our Short Lives
Psalm 90:12 tells us that intentionally reflecting on our mortality is a good motivation to pursuing wisdom. But we often forget the reality that our lives on this earth are short and we will all die one day because if we truly grasped these things then we would engage in distraction and entertainment far less and spend far more time enjoying God and the good gifts He gives to us, pursuing holiness, and being obedient to all that Christ has called us to for His glory. Being called to Christ Himself and being called to grow in Christ-likeness means that there is a moral dimension to everything that we do. Scripture does not give us a percentage of our lives that we are to live wise and holy lives, but instead says:
-Proverbs 4:5- Get wisdom; get insight
-Titus 2:11-12: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.
- 1 Peter 1:14-16: As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
-Luke 10:27- You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
-1 Corinthians 10:31- So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
We don’t get to clock in and out as Christians. It is the single most important thing about us, and the defining characteristic of our lives. Knowing and serving Christ should affect everything that we think, say, and do at every moment. But we often forget these things and opt to be entertained rather than intentionally pursue wisdom and godly living. We tend to lose our grasp of time when we engage in distraction—both the fleeting nature of our short lives and how our lives matter in light of eternity—and just do what we feel like doing to get us through the day. But, as Tony Reinke says in his book 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, “We don’t have time to kill, we have time to redeem.” God calls us to Himself so that our lives can matter for His eternal glory, our ultimate good, and for the blessing and benefit of others. This is God’s plan for our lives, but Satan has a counter-plan. We’ll take a closer look at this counter-plan in part two of this blog series.
-By Kevin Tapscott
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées.
 See Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death.
 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, 125.