At no time in human history has the practice of prayer been easy. Even in Paul’s day, he had to instruct the Colossian church to devote themselves to prayer and to stay alert in it. The disciples who were with the Lord Jesus on the night before he died succumbed to sleep instead of giving even an hour to prayer.
So, while prayer has never been an easy practice to give ourselves to, the age in which we live seems to add additional obstacles. We can access millions of web pages and the thoughts of thousands of people with a device that fits in our pockets. I can pull out my phone and watch any episode of my favorite TV shows. A quick scroll through Twitter can send me down a wormhole of links. In this environment, it is easy to see why we struggle to pray.
When I look on the landscape of our current culture, I see five temptations that we face which make prayer particularly difficult.
We Occupy Ourselves with the Trivial
Prayer makes us focus on the most important truths in the world and on the greatest problems that we face. To really spend time in prayer is to kneel before the living God because of the death of his Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. When we pray, we are forced to think about our own sins, our friends who do not know Christ, and the struggles that we are facing in our everyday lives.
The nature of life in the digital world steers us away from the kind of seriousness that prayer demands. Most days, navigating social media means encountering controversies that seem to be of immense importance, but next week we won’t even remember what this week’s controversy was. Bright, bold letters tell us that we won’t believe what this celebrity looks like today or that we won’t believe what so and so said. The vast majority of it does not matter one iota, but it wants us to think that it does, and this pulls us away from the discipline that prayer requires.
We Struggle to Stay Focused
Yesterday, Cal Newport pointed out an interesting discussion with comedian Aziz Ansari. Aziz talked about how often he was checking his phone and he realized that he was doing this just because he wanted to encounter something new. He said that when he thought about it, even most of the things that he “had” to look up were not important. He had just become addicted to the feeling of seeing something different and new.
As I have been writing this post on the difficulty of staying focused on prayer in the digital age, I have had to work to not click the Google Chrome icon on my laptop. Writing this post is not easy, but staring at pictures, links, and other people’s random thoughts takes no effort whatsoever.
Think about how this affects our prayer lives. When we grow accustomed to checking our phones every few minutes, we cannot stay in the moment in prayer. Our minds drift enough already, our addiction to the internet is only making this problem worse.
We Start Thinking the Worst of Others
We need to all be honest with ourselves and admit how often other people make us angry on the internet. Whether it is a comment on an article, a post in a Facebook group, or the strong opinion of a “friend,”
It is difficult to pray when we harbor bitterness in our heart towards people. We cannot be in fellowship with God when we are cross with other people. The internet provides hundreds of occasions every day for us to think the worst about people. And, it always happens without seeing them face to face. They have been reduced to words on a screen.
We Lose our Sense of Gratitude
A recent study determined how unhappy people were after using various social media platforms. I assumed people would be the most unhappy after using Facebook because there are so many people using it. Instead, the platform that made people the unhappiest was Instagram.
This makes perfect sense when you think about it. On Instagram, you get to see everyone at their filtered best. That friend of yours looks stunning in every photo that she takes. What you don’t get to see are the forty-nine different pictures that she didn’t post. Another friend may post their incredible vacations, their trips to multiple sporting events a year, or pictures of the great view from their backyard. I get envious of the people who post pictures with every one of their children actually looking at the camera. (I have four kids and cannot make this happen to save my life.)
Gratitude is at the heart of prayer. In Colossians 4, Paul speaks of our being devoted to prayer and offering it with thanksgiving. In Philippians 4, he says that we are not to be anxious, but to present our prayers to the Lord “with thanksgiving.” Even as we pray for the things we need, we pray with gratitude because we know how much the Lord has already given. However, this impulse for thanksgiving in prayer dries up when we constantly compare our lives with other’s seemingly perfect lives.
We Think Our Answers are a Click Away
We live in a world where all the answers seem easy to find. If you wonder whether that restaurant is good or not, instead of going to try it, you can read reviews on Yelp. Gone are the days of my youth where you had to “look it up, dear.” Simply type your query into Google and thousands of pages of information is at your fingertips.
The problem with access to this much information is that we lose our sense of wonder at the complexity of the world. We tend to think that everything can be boiled down to simple explanations that you can discover by quickly scanning an article. But, if you read the Psalms, you see those who have gone before us wrestling with complex issues before the Lord because they had nowhere else to go. Sometimes the answers we need can’t be found in a search engine. We’ve got to go somewhere much deeper and wait there for a while.
It never does for us to simply spell out the problems we struggle with while ignoring potential solutions. If you find yourself struggling to pray because of a short attention span, constant frustration with people, or preoccupation with trivial things, here are some steps that you can take to wean yourself from your addiction to technology and reconnect with the Lord in prayer.
Take 1 month off from the Internet as Entertainment
Often when we want to make changes in our lives, we struggle with consistency. This is why we need to make our goals time-bound. Matt Cutts gave a great TED Talk a few years ago on the breakthroughs he had made in his life by giving himself 30-day challenges. Imagine that there is a change you need to make in your life. Then, challenge yourself to try it for a month to see if you can make a dent.
If you are struggling with addiction to the internet, take a 30-day break from using the Internet for entertainment. For one month, don’t check your social media feeds, don’t watch anything on YouTube, and avoid binging on Netflix. Also, make sure that you do not announce to everyone that you are taking a break. Just walk away. Replace the time you would have spent on the Internet with reading, prayer, exercise, spending time with people, or just enjoying the silence. Over time you will find that your attention span increases and the impulse to constantly check your phone begins to fade.
Don’t Check Social Media Until You Have Prayed
Here is a good and simple principle for life- don’t do trivial things until you have given time to the things that are most important. For our purposes, this means stay off of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever social media draws your attention until you have spent time in prayer. In this way, you give the Lord the best of your time and your complete attention. In addition, it allows you to look at your social media feeds with a different lens.
Hide the People Who Anger You
I have good news for you. You are in complete control of what you see on your social media feed. Instead of complaining about the things that come across your feed. Take the active step of hiding things that anger you, annoy you, or cause you anxiety. Also, you don’t have to announce that you are hiding, unfollowing, or muting someone. Just do it.
Doing this will allow you the things you enjoy about social media without encountering things that drive you to frustration. Some people would counter that you need to run across ideas and people who disagree with you, but I would argue that this is the stuff that you should be doing in real life. In real life, you can dialogue with people and more naturally empathize with them because they are in front of your face. Social media is not real life and therefore you should not allow what you see on it to drive you to the point that you struggle to spend time with the Lord.
Cut the Cord Completely if You Have To
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that we should tear out our eyes and cut off our hands if they cause us to sin. Jesus uses hyperbole in this passage to remind us that we should take serious pains in our struggle against sin because it is better to go without something than to encounter the judgment of God.
In the same way, if the Internet consistently interferes with your time with the Lord, get rid of every bit of it that you can. Drop social media. Cancel Netflix. Block distracting websites. Ditch your smartphone. If those things are necessary to cultivate your walk with the Lord, then you should do all of them as soon as possible.
Remember the Beauty of Communion with God
Psalm 131 paints a beautiful picture that I cannot get out of my head. David says, “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Think about all of the controversies, trials, and dangers that David faced. Many times his life was in danger. Often the danger came from people he loved most. Yet, he says that his soul is quieted and calmed before the Lord like a child in his mother’s lap.
In the midst of the stresses, anxieties, and troubles in this present world, the Creator of the world invites us to lay our cares on him. Peter says that the Lord entreats us to do this because he cares for us. The one who loves us so much that he gave his only Son in our place beckons us to come to him. We have the privilege of presenting our requests to him, praising him for what he has done, and thanking him for his provision for us. While prayer is commanded, it’s also a great enjoyment. We should remember the amazing gift that prayer is and refuse to let lesser things draw us away from it.
Take a Walk and Remember the Beauty of the Created Order
Sometimes we need to completely disconnect and get outside. When we do, we encounter God’s handiwork everywhere we turn. Leave your phone in your pocket and don’t stop to take pictures. Simply let yourself be overwhelmed by the beauty of God’s world. When we see his handiwork and behold it in the stillness, we’re drawn to him. We find our hearts ready to commune with him in a way that we don’t when we are sitting on the couch staring at a screen.
Many good things have come into our lives because of technology, but we often miss the subtle ways that what we perceive as blessings can draw us away from the Lord. Let us remember that we need to stop, turn everything off, and give our whole selves to the Lord in the discipline of prayer.
“The Blessing of Selective Ignorance“
For Further Reading:
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter
12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke