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Have you noticed: You’re more easily distracted lately? You forget the details of your life more often than you used to? You get easily agitated and have trouble resting, even though you’re more tired than you remember ever being? You struggle to pray, to read the Scriptures, to be still and know that God is God?
Technology has greatly improved much of our lives, but in the process our brains are being daily rewired, and our capacity to be centered in our souls is at risk. We live in an increasingly disorienting digital age.
Bible Gateway interviewed Tricia McCary Rhodes (@soulrest) about her book, The Wired Soul: Finding Spiritual Balance in a Hyperconnected Age (NavPress, 2016).
Why do you believe the Internet has fueled a heightened sense of unrest among people?
Tricia McCary Rhodes: Most people would say they live with an internal angst that they can’t always put their finger on. This is because the Internet has changed our very way of being in this world, compelling us to be perpetually “on”—from our cars to our computers, our tablets to our smartphones, our desks to our living rooms or dining tables, our churches to our libraries to our schools. This 24/7 connection means we’re never really free and we always feel behind. The Internet also continually entices us to explore its options through hyperlinks and ads so we can spend a lot of time on things for which we have little to show, adding to our unrest.
The reality is that most of us are rarely, if ever, alone with our own minds and souls. Even when we do find a few minutes of quiet, we’re driven to check our devices for emails, texts, etc.; to surf the Web or to post on social media. I might add that even if you’ve managed to remain a Luddite—one who resists technology—you’re surrounded by people who don’t, so you’re affected more than you may realize.
Because this monumental digital shift has taken place so fast, we haven’t really had time or invested the energy to evaluate what this is doing to our culture, or how it’s impacting us as individuals—physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I can’t help but think of the prophet Isaiah’s words to the Israelites when they had blindly assimilated the surrounding culture’s values: In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it (Isaiah 30:15 NIV).
How has technology-driven culture affected spiritual formation among Christians?
Tricia McCary Rhodes: I open my seminary classes with a guided prayer and two minutes of silence, and last week one of my students commented that he couldn’t remember a time when he had two minutes of silence for any reason, much less to press into God. This may be the most damaging effect of technology on our spiritual formation—our loss of the capacity to be still and know (Psalm 46:10), to sit in prayerful meditation or contemplation, to listen for God’s voice and learn of his character and ways. This is critical to our spiritual formation for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is found in Paul’s words to the Corinthians: And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV).
This verse holds a mystery, which is that one of the primary ways we’re formed into Christlikeness is by learning to contemplate God’s glory—his presence, beauty, attributes, and ways, listening to what the Spirit says, and yielding with an obedient heart. Thus, if we can’t even spend a short amount of time each day with God in solitude, our spiritual formation will be seriously stunted.
Most people that I talk to about this, including seminary students who will lead the church in the next generation, find it extremely difficult—if not impossible—to focus in prayer. Distraction, which David Wells calls “the affliction of this age,” troubles them like a pesky fly buzzing around their head that won’t go away. Most people just give up after a few minutes of this and feel guilty or embarrassed at their lack. It’s always been hard to focus in prayer; the technology has upped the ante exponentially.
The reality is that living digitally rewires our brains for perpetual motion, shallow surface thinking, and compulsive/addictive behaviors. Because our world is only going to become more tech-driven with each passing day, unless we find ways to counterbalance these detrimental effects, we’ll remain spiritual babes, drinking milk for the rest of our lives instead of the solid food God has for us (1 Corinthians 3:2).
What is your love-hate relationship with technology?
Tricia McCary Rhodes: I’m dependent on technology like most 21st century human beings. More and more I need to be “connected” in order to communicate with family, teach seminary, minister to my community, and write as I’m called to do. Beyond that, I love the ease that technology offers—allowing me to communicate with long-lost friends or far-away missionaries; giving me that verse within seconds that I couldn’t think of; the ability to pay my bills or order gifts or groceries without having to leave home; saving me immense amounts of time. These are just a few of the things I love.
But I hate the way that I can so easily get sucked into feeling like I have to be “wired,” that I too must be available 24/7. I’m frustrated with the fact that it’s harder to remember things now because I can so easily find them on the Web. I hate the way I have to work at reading; a pastime that once brought nothing but relaxation and joy. I hate the Internet’s addictive qualities, as I watch my own grandchildren—whose brains are still being developed—want to be on devices so much. I hate what technology bodes for our culture, but even more for the body of Christ.
Thus, my love-hate relationship with technology. I think it boils down to learning how to be countercultural here; to learn how to be in the digital world, but not of it (John 17:14-16).
What are the spiritual implications of the phrase, “cells that fire together, wire together”?
Tricia McCary Rhodes: Neural science, which is the study of the brain, tells us that we have up to one billion brain cells with thousands of branches that communicate with each other much like a complex highway system. The more we attend to something, or the more we engage in certain behaviors, the more those particular cells communicate and the pathways between them deepen. This is how our values, our beliefs, and our motivations are actually formed.
As Christ-followers, we know we can only avoid being shaped by our culture through the renewal of our minds; a word that means complete renovation (Romans 12:2). From a brain science perspective, this happens as we engage in godly habits or focus and apply God’s truth often enough and long enough to ensure those cells fire together until they’re wired together and a deep pathway between them is formed. This means that the renewal of our minds—a work requiring God’s grace and guidance—is more about what we do than what we know; or in other words, more about the spiritual habits we keep than the amount of biblical information we might attain.
What are three ways a smartphone can improve a person’s walk with God?
Tricia McCary Rhodes: The question I ask myself daily is whether my smartphone has been my servant or a silent taskmaster. The truth is that our devices can serve us greatly in our walk with God, even in helping us rewire our brains in positive ways. I use a couple of different apps for Bible study, including Bible Gateway; I use a reminder app to draw my attention to God several times throughout the day, and a prayer app to remind me to pray for various things and be more aware of how God answers. And of course I love my music app and the edifying podcasts that are always available.
I hope people reading this interview, along with my own blog at soulatrest.com find some spiritual sustenance!
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Tricia McCary Rhodes: Bible Gateway is like an old friend to me. It was the first Bible program I learned to use online and is still my “go-to” when I need to read a passage in its context, compare versions, or find references, etc.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Tricia McCary Rhodes: Just that there’s hope. We don’t have to be victims of the spiritual fall-out of the digital age. It does take some serious intentionality to combat the cultural compulsion for connection that surrounds us, but it’s worth it. Digital natives and immigrants alike cannot afford to take this lightly, for in the words of that great sage, Solomon: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it“ (Proverbs 4:23).
Bio: Tricia McCary Rhodes is a writer and teacher whose works include The Soul at Rest, Contemplating the Cross, Intimate Intercession: The Sacred Joy of Praying for Others, and Sacred Chaos: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life You Have. Together she and her husband, Joe, founded New Hope Church in San Diego, California, and have served there for more than 25 years.