Our modern world is filled with constant alerts and updates. We are at the beck and call of our phones twenty-four-seven, always ready for the next buzz or beep in our pocket. Sometimes our readiness is out of fear we might miss something. Other times we see it as a necessity. Our continued existence is predicated on always being responsive (whether for our jobs or other social pressures). Yet, ironically, it’s in always making ourselves available that we miss out on the most important thing: a close relationship with God.
When we aren’t present with those around us (instead of on our phones) or take time out of our lives for daily prayer, it shows something integral about our hearts. It shows what we value and what we trust. Even as Christians, we can be terrible with this. We might spend an hour or more on social media (throughout the day) and devote only seconds to God (reading a verse we might have seen on Twitter). When we do this, we are no different from the rest of the world. Yet breaking free of the pull of our phones can be a constant struggle even if we are aware of it. So how do we get past this? I believe there is one practice in particular that can help. It’s called asceticism.
Learning From The Past
Now, when you think of asceticism, you probably think of monks living in modest conditions, cut off from the world, living a simple and humble life. Or maybe you think of Puritans with their simple clothing and lifestyle, denying themselves any pleasure and living a pious life. That lifestyle seems strange to us, but we shouldn’t allow that to keep us from learning from the past.
We can’t get hung up on stereotypes. We need to get beyond practices that outwardly appeared legalistic and instead look at them objectively. The rules they followed weren’t about working their way to heaven. Both Puritans and Monks already knew they were sinners saved by God’s grace and that these practices didn’t change that. Instead, the goal of these practices was to cut out the distractions that drew them away from God. By living a simpler life, they made room for God in their lives, and in that space, they were able to draw closer to him.
By dressing the same, the Puritans removed a distraction from their lives. By living in a monastery, the monks also removed distractions from their lives. In the space created, they could devote more of their waking hours to prayer and seeking God’s will. Both knew the rules they made weren’t requirements from God but helpful aids in their pursuit of a relationship with God.
The Big Question
We don’t have to all wear black and white clothing or go live in a monastery, but we can learn a lot from these practices. If nothing else, then just like the monks and puritans looked at their lives and asked where the distractions are, we can do the same. We can seek a simpler life. Because in living a simpler life (cutting out the distractions that pile up in our lives), we also make room for God and open the door to living a life that glorifies and honors him. When we fill our lives with all kinds of things, there’s no room to understand and seek God’s will. No amount of Christian memes can ever replace the wisdom we gain from setting aside time for God.
As we consider living a simpler life, we must also be careful how we go about it. Instead of asking ourselves the question that famous Feng Shui minimalist Marie Kondo asks, “Does this bring me joy?” We must ask a different question. We must ask, “Does this honor God?” Ultimately, does whatever we are doing glorify or distract from him? These questions are best answered in silent prayer. We must not be quick to dismiss them offhandedly or allow ourselves to confuse does honor with could honor. We may tell ourselves that we could use Facebook to glorify God in the future and ignore the fact we haven’t spent any time with our kids or in God’s word today. We place the value of our focus on rationalized gains and not on the eternal good we could do in this moment (grow closer to God or spend time loving those we care for).
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe social media is evil or can’t be useful. Still, we all have to ask ourselves, am I personally honoring God with this activity? Are the people I’m interacting with on Facebook or the shows I’m watching on Netflix, or the things I’m shopping for on Amazon glorifying God or distracting from him?
I hope this doesn’t sound like a lecture, but I know all this from first-hand experience. Over the past year, my family has gotten off social media, cut out much of mainstream news, and rid ourselves of popular streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. It’s funny to think that though our normal lives aren’t drastically different, some might consider us digital hermits because of this. And though we aren’t hermits, we have found digital asceticism helpful in our walk with Christ.
Truthfully it felt strange at first when we cut these things out. It felt bizarre. As the alerts, updates, and many of the distractions stopped, we found ourselves seeking to fill this void with other things. Instead of having pointless conversations on Facebook or watching Netflix, we began listening to Christian podcasts (Breakpoint, Renewing Your Mind with RC Sproul, Mama Bear Apologetics) and Christian streaming services (Answers in Genesis, Pureflix, Yippee). In essence, we filled some of the void with media that expands our understanding of God and brings us closer to him.
Simultaneously there have been fewer distractions popping up in our time of prayer and with each other. So ultimately, there is a greater sense of peace in our lives. It has been an incredible joy and blessing.
As strange as it might seem, digital asceticism is not just a benefit to us but our evangelism as well. But, you might ask, how can that be? How can getting off social media help us evangelize? The simple fact is that the world is looking for meaning. It seeks something more but doesn’t know what that is. As Christians, we have a duty and an incredible opportunity to point others to the truth. Yet if we are not living differently, then our evangelism is ineffective because there is no visible power in our witness.
If we want our light to shine bright, we need to remove the things that distract from God (in the virtual and material world). In this, others will begin to see that we also live differently. When they seek to understand why we can show them, our focus is not on the trivial things of this world but the eternal. We cut these things out of our lives not because they are dangerous but because we needed to make room for the only thing that truly matters. God. It’s not about separating ourselves from negative conversations or rated R movies simply because they aren’t good but because they are a waste of time, and we want to create room for something that has value (drawing closer to God and living for his purposes).
But, But, But…
Practicing some form of digital asceticism might sound unrealistic. Maybe you are questioning if it is even realistic. I understand your doubts. But isn’t it worth considering? Especially if it meant finding more room in your life for God and your family crazy? The truth is you will never know the benefits until you try it. What do you think would happen if you fasted from Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon for a week, a month, or heaven forbid deleted your accounts? Would that make you an awful person? Would your life fall apart? Maybe. But maybe it wouldn’t. Perhaps you would still keep breathing.
Now forgive me for being overly dramatic. I’m not saying it won’t be strange at first, but God calls us to be different. He never called us to be of the world or have hundreds of imaginary relationships with people that we never talk to in real life. So instead of focusing on these thousands of relationships (that we have no real impact on), what if we focused our energy on the few relationships that we have an actual impact on?
The Pursuit of Pursuits
Now, digital asceticism is not accomplished overnight. Simply deleting your Facebook account or getting rid of Netflix doesn’t mean you’re done. Digital asceticism is a lifelong journey. It’s about periodically accessing our focus and getting rid of anything that doesn’t honor God or lead us closer to him. Pouring over the Bible and spending time in morning prayer is essential. Likewise, learning more about His word from podcasts, books and articles is also vital.
But we also must remember that we are seeking God and not ways to keep busy. In our effort to fill some of the void with Christian media, authors, and speakers, there is another danger. It’s that we again busy our minds. A mind continually focused on pursuits (even if those pursuits appear to glorify God) does itself a disservice. We need some silence each day. We mustn’t be quick to fill our days or become habitually preoccupied with pursuits. The beauty of silence is that it allows us to objectively look at everything we are doing and realize what’s important and what’s not. When we are constantly moving to the next thing, we are actually less effective than when we take time for silence and allow God to speak something to our heart that needs to change.
When we slow down and seek God’s presence in the moment we are in (without being drawn away to some other pursuit in our heads), we find contentment. We can see the undeserved gifts around us (family, friends, creation, etc.). This both glorifies God, magnifies our appreciation of His grace, and allows His love to work in (and through) us.
Now, you don’t need to become a Luddite or join the Amish to practice digital asceticism. Total abstinence isn’t a requirement. It’s not about abstaining from all digital content but being intentional about our digital lives in every way. Now, are there some things we may realize we need to refrain from because the only way we can be intentional is through abstinence? Yes, but it depends on the individual.
This isn’t about anyone rejecting the world (as some will claim) but focusing on God and consistently and purposefully seeking his will in all things. That’s the ultimate goal! Does that mean the silence created from digital asceticism won’t seem strange and awkward at first? No, it doesn’t, but we don’t have to fear it. On the contrary, digital silence can be one of the greatest tools to help us move closer to God.
Making digital silence a priority also differentiates us from the world. Some may look at us like we have two heads, but that’s a good thing. Because the questions others might ask might be the catalyst they need. The catalyst that helps them understand that the only place to find real fulfillment isn’t on Instagram but in God alone.