One of the most common conflicts in homes today is triggered by a smartphone. Someone in most homes has cultivated the habit of disconnecting from others in the room and constantly checking his phone. In fact, if you’re around long enough, it feels less like a habit and more like a right or basic need — air, food, sleep, and Facebook.
I’ve been that person in our home, and am making serious effort to change.
The message we’re really sending while sending one more quick text is: Better to be away from the family — the spouse, the children, the roommate, the guest — and at home with the phone. As Sherry Turkle has observed, our phones now present the potential to be with someone, but always somewhere else as well (Alone Together, 152). To constantly check our phone, then, is to put up an away message and declare that we’re not really there. We’re home together, yet home alone.
The same device that connects us with people all over the world alienates us from those just across the room. It’s the in-home home-wrecker. The trade-offs are pretty silly when we stop and look up long enough to weigh them. We trade the needs in front of us, the meaningful conversation with our spouse or children, the opportunity to truly know and be known, and for what?
None of them wrong, but none of them worth living or dying for, either. None worth straining a marriage, family, or friendship for.
The Lies That Bind
Satan presents a host of lies to keep us attached to our phones — a kind of twisted spiritual “upgrade” from the corded phone — and detached from those around us. Phones were once attached to walls; now we’re attached to them. There are more lies, of course, than I could identify or address here. Two lies, though, are especially compelling and sum up a lot of the others.
On the one hand, we’ve been taught that we’re each an indispensible part of the world’s engine, a hinge on which everyone else in our lives precariously hangs. What would they do without me? It would be selfish, even unloving, to close myself off completely from them. The world needs me.
On the other hand, we hang our hearts on the world, longing to be wanted, longing for the next affirmation, for that feeling of being important and included. We’ve been wired from birth to want love, and so we fall into a speed-dating world of work emails, social networks, and viral videos. We cling to our phones because we crave the world’s attention and affection. I need the world.
Gaining freedom from our phones requires being liberated from lies like these that bind the technology to us like links in a cold, steel chain.
Lie #1: The World Needs Me
For some of us, a savior complex tethers us to our phones. We’re afraid something will happen and someone will need us — and only us — immediately. What could they possibly do if we weren’t available? Well, probably whatever they did for thousands of years before the telephone existed, or for a couple hundred more while it was anchored to the wall. Or more likely, and yet strangely unthinkable to a me-centered generation, they’ll just call someone else.
If we put the phone down and went for a walk, we might be willing to admit we’re not as needed as we think or act. But that’s scary, too. We love being needed.
But the world doesn’t need me. God has governed, preserved, and prospered the world without me for most of history — thousands and thousands of years. If I suddenly died tomorrow, there would undoubtedly be significant pain, loss, and change for a few, but the world would survive, move forward, and be just fine. The omniscient and omnipotent God is still in control, and utterly committed to fulfilling his work everywhere on the planet.
He will take care of every detail with perfect love, perfect timing, and unlimited power. And he’ll be especially and graciously attentive when it comes to protecting and providing for those who love him (Matthew 6:26, 30). That truth relieves us of trying to play God’s part and enables us to serve the small (yet significant) role he’s given each of us.
Ironically, by trying to “save” the world with our incessant availability — checking and checking and checking — we’re abandoning the world that needs us most, the people under our own roof. The people who need us most — and who we need most, if we’ll admit it — typically aren’t on the other end of an email or Tweet, but on the other end of the couch.
The face time you have with the people you live and work with cannot be replaced with Facetime (or Facebook, or Instagram, and certainly not by Buzzfeed). God has placed all of you — mind, body, and soul — in only one place at any one time, so all of you is only available, face to face, to a few.
The apostles knew that in the long run even personal handwritten letters were not enough (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 John 12; 3 John 13). Paul and John wanted to see these people (Romans 1:11). Tone, body language, facial expressions, and physical touch mattered in these relationships. We’ve lost track of the immeasurable and irreplaceable value of physical presence in relationships. That value puts a premium on the love we give and receive in our homes, our neighborhoods, our church families, and our workplaces.
Lie #2: I Need the World
We have a need to be needed. We love the idea that someone might text or call or tweet to get our attention. We don’t want to miss that moment when someone else thought of us. We need the world. Alert after alert, our phones justify and praise our existence. They reassure us that we are considered talented, important, and loved by someone — even if the affection is often shallow, superficial, and short-lived.
Our smartphones make us feel needed, and they give us control, or at least the mirage of control. Turkle writes, “Today, our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control. This can’t happen when one is face-to-face with a person” (157).
We decide when to click, what apps to add, and who to engage. Face-to-face relationships aren’t as convenient as Facebook friends or Twitter followers. You can’t swipe a spouse or child away for a little while. But those relationships are the frontlines of faithfulness as well as the opportunities with the greatest potential for lasting impact.
The information age has transformed us all into need-to-know, nosy people. Like a desperate, sleep-deprived reporter, we check our sources every few minutes, looking for the next headline — sports, eating, politics, and parenting. We work hard to be in the know, but end up knowing everything about nothing. Tragically, we know the latest trends on Twitter, the funniest videos on Facebook, and the Instagrammed milestones of others’ infants, but we have a harder time answering questions about our own family or roommates.
As believers in Jesus and the gospel, our identity is never in how much we’re needed in this life, or in what we control, or in how much we know. Our life is measured by the life that was given for us, by the price that was paid to secure and satisfy us forever (1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Peter 1:19). We were made and saved not to be loved by social media, but by the almighty God of holiness and mercy.
Do Not Disturb
One practical way forward is to set up and use a Do Not Disturb feature on your phone. You can choose to still receive calls from particular people, or from people who call multiple times in an emergency, but you eliminate the vast majority of notifications. You can schedule it every night at a certain time or turn it on for an hour or two while you eat dinner or work on a project or spend time with your family.
If work is the reason you keep your phone so close, you probably have allowed work to creep too far into your life. Very, very few jobs require (or even expect) you to be available every minute of every day. In fact, your endless availability probably says more about your own needs than theirs.
To some, it may sound unloving or anti-social, but ironically it may be the most loving and inviting decision you make today. The truth is many of us have a Do No Disturb sign up most of the time. The question is whether it faces the world around us or the people beside us.
By shutting out the world for a few moments, you welcome those next to you in and give them more attention than they’re used to receiving (perhaps from anyone). You also remind your own heart, against all of Satan’s false promises (Matthew 4:8–9), where your treasure and security truly lie.
Undivided, undistracted attention is a precious commodity and gift today, like some handcrafted artifact from the ancient world. Surprise someone you love by ignoring your phone, leaving it out of sight, turning off alerts, and listening well.