How many times has this happened to you?

I sat down at my desk, opened some books, readied pen and paper (yes, “old school,” I know) preparing to get into a good session of study, when all of a sudden, “ding”! My phone let me know that someone just sent me a text. Well, I can’t ignore that, now, can I? It could be important. And since it’s a text, someone expects to hear back from me right away.

Yep, you’ve done it, too. I picked up the phone to see the message…then respond…then get a response…then respond to the response…then get a response to my response to their response…. Before you know it, ten minutes have gone by. Well, at this point, I might as well check my email—after all, I haven’t done so in at least 45 minutes! Sure enough, embedded in all the fluff mail are a couple that need a response. By the time I get done responding, there goes another twenty minutes. And as long as the browser is open, I wonder what’s new on Facebook? Down the rabbit hole I descend. You do know how time flies down the rabbit hole, right?

“Yikes!” I realize, I’ve got to get back at it! After several minutes regrouping, I can finally begin the study I’d started an hour ago. Then the phone rings. I check caller ID and it’s clearly it’s some kind of sales call that I let go to voicemail. Of course, I can hear the whole process as the machine goes through the spiel, the beep, and then the dial tone. Back to the books. Finally, focus returns, concentration zeroes in, and I’m in “the zone.” Fifteen minutes later, “ding!”

Clearly, I’m not alone in this new world of ready distraction. I belong to a reading group that selects and reads a different book each month. This month’s title is Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport. The book is a sort of sequel to Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Before finishing Digital Minimalism, I ordered Deep Work, and am more than halfway through. I’ve found both works insightful, challenging, and very helpful in minimizing distractions. For example, Newport recommends the app Freedom, which allows the user to schedule hours during the day when the internet is unavailable, all notifications are shut off, and the phone is set to “Do Not Disturb.” I can customize it, by the way, to allow certain contacts to get through – i.e. my wife and immediate family. These two books contain a bunch of other powerful tools and ideas to regain focus and engage in deep, undistracted work. Many of these ideas are helpful in establishing boundaries for couples and family times, too. Perhaps I’ll share some of those in a future post.

On a pastoral level, one of the things that struck me in reading these two books is the spiritual reality behind the whole issue of distraction and how it affects the Christian life. It’s an angle the author, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, never explores. “Distraction” can be – oops, hold on, the phone’s ringing….

It was the Police Officers Support Association wanting to count on me for a small donation when I get their mailing.

Let’s see, where was I? Oh yes, “distraction” — it can be a malicious part of “the world” that Christians are told not to love. Let me explain. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s a demon in your phone or PC (although sometimes I wonder!), or that the phone call that just interrupted me a minute ago was the result of Joe Shmoe being controlled by the devil who prompted him to call right in the middle of my writing project. What I am suggesting is that multitudinous distractions are built into the whole world system of commerce and social interaction.

For example, did you know that developers of various apps such as Facebook spend a small fortune finding ways to keep you scrolling? Why? Because the longer you’re “in,” the more ads you see; the more ads you see, the more money Facebook makes. So you’ve logged on to Facebook to see what’s new with your friends and family—could be in and out in just a few minutes. But before you know it, an hour’s gone by! And a couple hours later, you’re “in” again…and again!

Now, I really don’t think Mark Zuckerberg is sitting in his posh suite trying to come up with ways to get you to sin. His company is trying to make a buck. Well, OK, several billion of them. But here’s the thing. If I’m allowing myself to be distracted away from the work that God has called me to do to waste my time, focus, and energy on something else—even if it’s not inherently wrong—it becomes sin for me. As Paul put it, “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.… ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” [1 Corinthians 6:12, 10:23]

Now, to be sure, when the phone rang a few minutes ago, the fact that my ears heard the ringing and that I picked up the phone wasn’t sin. Nor was it sin when my brother sent me a text earlier today. But I need to deal with those kinds of distractions in light of the biblical exhortation of Ephesians 5:15-17:

Look carefully then how you walk [or conduct your life], not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of time, because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

Generally speaking, I know how the Lord wants me to invest my time each day. So I need to find wise, sane ways to minimize, eliminate, or respond rightly to spontaneous external distractions that vie for my attention. And I definitely need to avoid yielding to the little voice inside telling me to put a few more bucks in Zuckerberg’s wallet when I should be writing a Pastor’s Page post!