I never find the time to be alone with God during the week, so I’ve dedicated this Sunday afternoon to prayer. But before I do I should check my e-mail so I won’t be distracted. It won’t take long before. . . Thirty-two new messages, including one from the boss? I better reply right now. They might be important.
Some invitations from Facebook. Those are easy to clear out so let me accept them and I’m . . . hmm, I didn’t realize I had more notifications. Looks like Stacy finally launched a blog; I’ll just click through really quickly to check it out. Some great stuff. I really should add her blog to my RSS reader before I forget. What, “More than 100+ items”? Didn’t I just check this yesterday? I should really whittle these down a bit before it gets worse.
Wow, here I was about to focus on prayer and Bible study and my favorite theology-blogger has an excellent post on spiritual disciples. I have to share that with my own blog readers. That’s a topic that’s really on my heart today, and it won’t take long.
Hmm, looks like some comments are hung up in our spam filter again. Better fix that, or people will be discouraged from commenting. Oh man, does this guy misrepresent what I wrote. I can’t let that go unchallenged. Readers might be led astray. It won’t take long.
OK, now I need to buckle down and pray. Let me check the time on my iPhone—no way, it’s been four hours?—and who are these voicemails from?
I better check them in case my boss is calling to see why I didn’t answer that email, which would be really rude of him since this is Sunday, and I told everyone that I now devote Sunday to church and prayer and Bible Study and—no, not him, it’s my buddy asking if I got his e-mail. All right, that’s it. I really need to spend some quality time with the Lord.
But before I get started I should check my e-mail. It’s been four hours . . .
We consider it peculiar that Muslims stop five times a day to offer prayers to Allah, yet we stop what we do five times an hour to pay homage to our e-mail. “One of the most basic biblical insights,” says theologian J.I. Packer, “is that whatever controls and shapes one’s life is in effect the god one worships.” For many of us, the one true god to whom we give our devotion is the deity known as IT: information technology.
My work (my career revolves around the web), my schedule (everything carefully structured on my Google Calendar), my habits (checking my e-mail is both the first and last thing I do every day), are all defined by my relationship with the god of IT. Am I alone? Am I the only one who has sung a hymn about spending eternity worshipping God and secretly believed that heaven must be an incredible bore? (No e-mail? No YouTube? No First Things Online?)
When I look at how I spend my time it becomes obvious where my true devotion lies. And like Jehovah, Technology is a jealous god.
But an ancient practice has helped me dethrone this idol: Sabbath-keeping. In Surviving Information Overload, Keith Miller recommends taking an “info-techno Sabbath,” a 24-hour period when we turn off the cell phone, leave the iPad in the drawer, and stay away from the computer.
The Sabbath . . . had two purposes: rest and remembrance of God. An info-techno Sabbath, as I dub it, has the same goals: rest for our minds and over stimulated senses and remembrance that life is bigger than the news stories, stock quotes, and sports scores. It’s bigger than our selves. There is, in fact, a God. And we are not it.
After putting Miller’s idea into practice for several months I quickly came to two realizations: Sabbath-keeping is very difficult, and it pays dividends I could never have imagined.
The benefits everyone has to discover for himself. I don’t have the words to describe how God filled this new quiet space in my life. And unexpectedly, this rest from information has also helped me understand and process all the information I receive. Reflection and rest is the only way to sift through the huge stockpiles of data to find the kernels of wisdom.
As for the difficulty, though, I’ve learned certain lessons worth passing along to those willing to give this a try:
• Choose your own Sabbath. An info-techno Sabbath does not have to overlap with normal Sabbath observance. Choose a 24-hour period that works best for you. Following the example of Judaism, where the day runs from sunset to sunset, I’ve found that sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday works best for me. The break allows me time to rest before preparing for the week ahead.
• Begin and end with prayer. Take time to pray and dedicate the time to God. End it with a spiritual discipline of solitude, Bible study, and more prayer.
• Let people know you are unplugging. Friends and family know that they won’t be able to reach me on my cell phone during my Sabbath, since it is dedicated to personal, face-to-face connections. Once people know that you are “off the info grid” they’ll be less likely to bother you with minor interruptions.
• Avoid legalism. A few weeks into the experiment I found myself lost on the way to a friend’s house. I had my cell phone (turned off) but didn’t want to “break my Sabbath” by using it to get direction. After stressing over what to do, I realized that I was developing legalistic rules that negated the purpose of my Sabbath. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Why not take an info-techno Sabbath this weekend? It won't be pleasant for your synapses will scream from the perceived dehydration. After drinking from the firehose of information, a day without info tech will seem like a year-long drought. But by unplugging the God of Technology you might just find something new: a still small voice sharing the information that truly matters.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.