Thinking Theologically About Technology
When was the last time you checked your email or your cell phone? Have you accidentally left your phone somewhere or lost it? How did you feel? Have you been at a family function and pulled out your phone and started looking at it rather than talking to others? Has someone asked you if you are listening to them or looking at your phone?
Phones are all around us. A recent study has shown that 95% of Americans own cell phones and that 77% of Americans own smartphones (up from 35% just 6 years ago, so likely to continue to grow), which in many ways are the best symbol of technology in our world since it gives immediate access to the internet. The average person checks their cell phone every 4.3 waking minutes, and many have the phone as the first thing they look at in the morning and last thing they look at before bed.
If you have a smartphone (or the internet in general) have you ever considered if you are addicted to it and if your use of it is changing and shaping you? I was confronted by that question this summer as I listened to a sermon series on the topic by a church whose sermons I download on a podcast (and listen to on my phone, ironically enough). It has caused me to think about my use of technology. I am by no means a techie (in fact, I am a slow and reluctant adopted of new technology), but I use technology and, as a follower of Christ, need to use it thoughtfully and to the glory of God.
Recognize That Technology Shapes Us
Back in 1964, Marshall McLuhan stated, “The medium is the message,” pointing out that the delivery mechanism for information helps shape the message we receive. If the content can change the way we think, feel, or act, so can the mechanism (the medium). This idea of being shaped by the medium as well as the message has been considered in more detail concerning the cell phone in the recent book 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017). In the book, Reinke notes how phones and social media causes us to be distracted and ignore people and relationships; while being more connected, we are also more lonely (and at times mean towards others). Phones can cause us to be more focused on what we don’t have (and afraid of missing out) and not ponder the deep things of life. We become more focused on being “liked” than on God’s approval and thoughts on our life. (for the list of all 12 ways, see this video). As I read this book, I started to think how I have noticed some of these elements appearing in my life.
Know That Technology Can Used to Glorify God
Reinke’s solution - and mine - is not to reject technology. Just as the Apostle Paul notes that the law is good if used lawfully (1 Timothy 1:8), so technology can be good if used well. While many people will harp on the negative things that technology does, there is also good things that happen because of technology. A mentor of mine told me that his dad became a follower of Jesus Christ through watching a Billy Graham Crusade on TV - technology changed the father’s life, the son’s life, and ultimately my life. I have no clue how I would have written my dissertation (both in the sense of the actual writing but also in the sense of the research to write it) without computers. I type these words (and you read them!) because of the internet. Technology can be used to glorify God, to cause people to love God more and love others more.
Use Technology Well
As Paul noted in 1 Corinthians, all things are permissible but not all things build up and we should not be enslaved by anything (see 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23). Here are some questions I think we should ask when we use technology that can help us think if technology is building up or if it is enslaving us:
- Does my use of technology help me love God and love others? Jesus told us the greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself. Does technology make me love God and others more?
- Does my use of technology distract me from what is most important? Like Martha in Luke 10:38-42, we can be caught up in other things and miss Jesus being right in front of us - and the ability to learn from him at his feet. Am I more prone to pray or to check the internet?
- Does my use of technology lead to me building up treasures on earth or in heaven, of seeking God’s kingdom or other things? In the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 6:19-33), Jesus told his disciples not to build up on treasures on earth but to build up treasures in heaven, to seek God and his kingdom and not worry about the things on this earth. In some ways he is critiquing the Pharisees, who were interested in looking good to others - so treasures on earth might not be always about money but about image (being liked or having likes!). Does my use of technology lead to a “fear of missing out” when I see things I don’t have - or does it direct me to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done”?
- Does my use of technology cultivate the fruit of the Spirit or fuel other desires? Paul tells us that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Am I becoming more patient, more loving, more gentle, etc.? Do I practice self-control?
Some Possible Tips
If the solution is not eliminating technology, what should I do? You could ask others about your habits. You could find ways to accomplish the same things but without using your phone if you find it a problem (e.g., use a real alarm clock, print out maps and get directions that way, etc.). You could have your default on your phone or home be to have the wifi off rather than on (or turn it off at family gatherings). When you are with friends and family, you can turn your phone off or leave it in the car. Delete apps on your phone and/or find apps that monitor your time. Don’t feel the need to respond to every message right away. Find ways to limit your use if it is becoming distracting. May we be thoughtful in the use of technology and use it to help us love God and love others more.
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