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This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox.
ASK MISSION CENTRAL: QUESTION TWENTY-FOUR
How can we maintain good emotional health in a media landscape that can be emotionally exhausting?
In Part 1, we looked at three challenges that today’s media landscape poses to healthy engagement:
- Divided purposes
In this post, I’d like to look at three disciplines that can help us stay healthy in our media engagement:
- Asking why
- Balancing our media and embodied-engagement diet
- Scrolling with Jesus
Children are comically distractible. Recently, my godchildren were watching a show, and I asked them if they wanted to read a book instead. They said “no.” Undeterred, I sat down on the couch next to them with a great children’s book and just started reading it out loud. Within a minute they had paused the show to listen. It was a distraction hacking triumph.
Part of adult maturity is taking responsibility for our attention. There will always be distraction hackers vying for more and more minutes of our mental energy, and not always with the benevolent intentions of a godparent. Directing our attention is part of self-control, without which we are vulnerable to attack. As Proverbs warns, “Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control” (25:28 NRSV). To state it positively, as we grow in self-control, we are well-defended. Instead of leaving ourselves at the mercy of every post, notification, and message that comes our way, we can choose to direct our attention.
We can start directing our attention by asking why. Why am I reading this blog post? Why am I checking my email? Why am I scrolling through Instagram right now? If a serious challenge to thoughtful engagement is a sense of divided purposes, asking why can help us clarify our purposes.
Let’s return for a moment to the list of possible desires connected to social media engagement that I mentioned in Part 1:
- A way to touch base with friends
- A sense of connection with extended family
- An awareness of recent events beyond my immediate circle
What would it feel like to decide on one of these objectives consciously and intentionally before deciding on which app to open? If we stop opening apps in response to an urge, and start opening them in response to a chosen purpose, we’ll gain a stronger sense of confidence and control over our interactions with media.
Even more importantly, as we clarify for ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing and viewing what we’re viewing, we can align our habits more intentionally with God’s purposes for our lives. We can turn from asking why to asking how. What would it be like to ask yourself, “How can I encourage someone on social media today?” Or, coming back to Richard Foster’s guidance: “How can I read the news with a prayerful heart?” We can also prepare for the pitfalls. Come up with a “pivot prayer”: something you can stop and say if you find yourself stuck scrolling in a way that’s amping up your anxiety. Recently, I’ve been putting my hand over my heart and saying, as I learned from Dallas Willard, “The world is a perfectly safe place for me to be.”
Balancing our Media and Embodied-Engagement Diet
In Part 1, I suggested that the disembodiment of mediated communication is not sinful, but is often an occasion for sin. The Bible itself weighs in on both sides of this duality. As a written document, it presupposes the value and utility of a form of communication in which the writer and speaker are distant in both time and space. At the same time, the climax of the Bible’s narrative is the coming of Jesus as Messiah, whose work of redemption was accomplished in a specific body and place and time. His ministry was manifestly concrete. Jesus didn’t heal people through email; he used his hands and voice.
In the Bible, our communion with Christ is also constantly emphasized in terms of God’s presence with us, in our very bodies. To take just one beautiful verse as an example, consider Romans 8:11: “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (NIV). The Holy Spirit does not dwell in our smartphones or abide in our news feeds, but rather makes his home in our flesh and blood. Jesus is as close to us as the air we breathe. God accomplished redemption in a human body and incorporated us into his family by dwelling in our bodies. That strongly suggests that Christians should have a bias towards embodied, face-to-face relationships, work, and ministry.
The Bible also explicitly addresses this tension. John writes to the believers he loves, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12 NIV). We see the medium’s value presupposed (“I have much to write”) but also held in check (“I do not want to use paper and ink”), with a clear preference for embodied interactions (“talk with you face to face”). It’s a healthy preference for us to adopt, too.
We can look at how to maximize embodied relationships while minimizing our habits of mediated connection. That doesn’t mean ruling out the rightful place of tools like Zoom, FaceTime, email, streaming, and social media. The pandemic has underscored the utility and true helpfulness of these platforms when wisdom requires distance. But it does mean that we seek to form our habits with an eye toward a greater proportion of face-to-face interaction, when possible. If we imagine our consumption like a diet, we need to use certain streams sparingly.
Writer Brett McCracken popularized a justly-viral vision of balancing our media-and-relationships diet as follows:
Balancing a diet takes effort. But, just like with physical food and drink, it pays off. It changes our life by changing us.
SCROLLING WITH JESUS
Asking why can help us clarify our purposes in media engagement. Asking how can help us align with God’s purposes for our lives. One of God’s intentions for us is that we can simply share life—all of life—with him. That is our ultimate destiny as members of God’s family. The prophetic word promises that, “I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Ezekiel 37:26-27 NIV). We will share a home and a life with God and each other, forever.
But we don’t have to wait forever to get started on that. As we saw above, the Spirit already dwells within us. Jesus is always with us. That means that the mundane moments of life do not have to be separate from our fellowship with God. Each moment of our day is a moment we can share with Jesus, remembering his presence: buying groceries, commuting to work, catching up our budgets, shoveling the driveway, and even scrolling through social media.
My brother-in-law has a delightful habit. In the quiet moments at a family gathering, when the various members of my wife Katie’s family are each contentedly reading a book or looking at something on their phone, he will nudge Katie and show her the post he just saw that made him chuckle. Then, two minutes later, he’ll do it again. And then again after that. He’s scrolling, but not alone. He’s scrolling with Katie, inviting her into the experience. It’s a moment that actually deepens their friendship as brother and sister. It’s not a replacement for more important forms of connection, but as far as scrolling goes, it’s a pretty healthy version of it.
So, before you open the app or the inbox or click the link, pause for just a moment. Ask why, and ask how. If you can fulfill the purpose by going “further down” the wisdom pyramid, put your phone away and choose a more embodied option. Otherwise, if it is indeed a good moment to scroll, welcome the Spirit’s influence into that moment of your life. Engage media as an act of prayer. Then, scroll with Jesus. He’ll meet you right where you are.
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