People of the beep? Prayer in an age of digital distraction

How many beeps, buzzes, or bings interrupt you in a day? Think about…

  • alarm clocks
  • food timers
  • laundry machines
  • phone calls
  • texts
  • social media pings
  • emails

… Each of which throws open your attention like a mental Kramer and shouts, “Drop everything! Answer me!”

In his book The Next Story, pastor and blogger Tim Challies devotes a chapter to distraction and focus in our digital world. The rise of mobile communications technology in particular (think iPhone), with its constant invasions of beeps, has had such a profound effect on us that it actually threatens to change how we think. Once we become too used to being interrupted, he writes:

Eventually the problem of distraction becomes more than something that just happens to us; it defines our identity. We become distracted people. We begin to flit from one thing to the next, whether or not there is a beep to summon us. We become so shaped by our devices that we lose our ability to focus. We are transformed from people who respond to the beep to people of the beep. (116)

That phrase “people of the beep” struck me. It’s a warning that I can run the risk of becoming so accustomed to distraction that I actually come to live in distraction; in what technology specialist Linda Stone has described as continuous partial attention. Rather than focusing on one task at a time – or even giving our hands over to one task and our minds to another (think folding laundry while talking on the phone), our conscious attention hops from input to input, skimming or scanning the world without focusing. The pressure of a beep-driven life pushes us toward being so unused to focusing on one thing at a time that we become simply incapable of it.

The enemy of prayer

Now, if this doesn’t give you the heebie-jeebies on its own, I’m thinking about this particularly in light of our sermon series on prayer. Because, like we’ve talked about already, our gracious God isn’t counting the undistracted minutes of time we give him. But the Bible itself and the historic church have insisted that prayer and meditation are essential to long-term growth in spiritual maturity.

Here’s a sampling:

  • This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. (Joshua 1:8)
  • Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)
  • Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12)
  • Therefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning, watching in prayer, persevering in fasting, beseeching in our supplications the all-seeing God not to lead us into temptation. (Polycarp)
  • The beginning of all evil temptations is inconstancy of mind, and small confidence in God. (Thomas a Kempis)
  • By humble and faithful prayer, the soul acquires, with time and perseverance, every virtue. (Catherine of Siena)
  • Prayer is beyond any question the highest activity of the human soul. … Ultimately, therefore, a man discovers the real condition of his spiritual life when he examines himself in prayer, when he is alone with God. (Martyn Lloyd-Jones)

Meditation, contemplation, prayer: in and through these things, we build a deep relationship with God. We learn to think through our lives with wisdom. We let him knead truth into our hearts like leaven into dough. The danger of a perpetually distracted life isn’t just that it competes with prayer and meditation in our attention; it’s that it even poisons the time we do try to give to prayer.

Defeating Distraction

How can we push back against our cultural slide toward distraction? How can we break ourselves out of becoming “people of the beep?” and cultivate focus on God?

Challies gives four practical suggestions:

1. Discover Distraction. His first suggestion is to identify the distractions in your life. Where do they come from? How do they reach you? What distractions do you seek out (social media, TV, etc.)? Make special note of distractions you can eliminate or remove from yourself.

2. Downsize Distraction. Next, he says, find ways to cut out unnecessary distractions or at least make them harder to access. This might include:

  • Turning off email or social media notifications
  • Unsubscribing from services or sites you don’t need
  • Putting your phone on Airplane Mode or “Do Not Disturb” more often
  • Not keeping your phone in the room where you sleep
  • Create “electronics-free zones” in your house or your schedule

3. Cultivate Concentration. Third, adopt practices that encourage you to focus. Read a paper book/Bible instead of an electronic one. Journal. Practice silence.

4. Seek Solitude. Finally, Challies recommends, try to replace distraction with solitude. Try (if you can! I have two tiny children who make this very hard) to do prayer or meditation in a space free of all distractions. Close yourself off from the world when you pray. Maybe consider a digital vacation, where you take time apart from screens and phones.

Image: “Augustine in His Study,” by Vittore Carpaccio

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