What can rescue me from unbearable boredom as I wait for my train? What can help me avoid eye contact with this far-too-friendly street fundraiser? What can give instant relief when work or study starts to stress me out?
The magical glowing rectangle in my left pocket.
It’s saved the day too many times to count. But like many people, I experience a nagging doubt that it’s doing more harm than good. Is it connected to this mild spiritual apathy I often find myself feeling? Is it somehow drying up my thirst for God?
For a while, the Christian approach to technology was pretty straightforward: avoid pornography and treat people kindly online. But I wonder if there’s more to it than that. I wonder if we’re missing a trick—in particular, one of Satan’s tricks.
The nothing strategy
I came across an unlikely source of insight in a book written 75 years before the release of the iPhone: CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.1 In it, Lewis depicts a senior demon named Screwtape writing letters of advice to his novice nephew Wormwood on how to lead Wormwood’s “patient” (a young man) away from “the Enemy” (God). Lewis’s description of the “nothing” strategy struck me as an almost prophetic insight into today’s world:
… you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do … All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, “I see now that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” (chapter XII, p. 59)
Rather than telling lies about God, the tactic Screwtape recommends to Wormwood is to keep the mind from thoughts of God altogether, instead soothing his patient into a state of spiritual slumber. The man’s attention is the prize, and anything—or nothing—can be used to win it away from God. It is not the object, but the extent of the distraction that matters in the end—not what distracts, but how much it distracts. Wormwood doesn’t need to use the real pleasures of this world, but something so trivial or mindless that it produces what Lewis calls “a dreary flickering of the mind” (chapter XII, p. 60). My scrolling through social media certainly fits that description!
Part of the power of the nothing strategy is that it’s subtle and seemingly harmless. Screwtape signs off his letter with this chilling advice:
But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (chapter XII, p. 60)
For Satan, pornography is no better than Instagram if Instagram can do the trick. Nor is online betting better than Candy Crush if Candy Crush can do the trick. A life of digital distractions can result in drifting away from God and “into the nothing”.
The battle for our attention
Never before has Satan had so much nothing to utilise than in this internet-everywhere age. Part of the reason is that our attention is now one of the most valuable commodities in the world: every view, click, double-tap and share is putting money in someone’s pocket. So tech companies are employing Captologists—that is, experts in capturing attention—whose job is to make their products as addictive as possible.
For the media producers, the battle for your attention is an economic one. But for Christians, it is spiritual one. Netflix wants our attention for their bottom line, but God wants it for his glory and for our joy. Our task in the digital age is summed up well by Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:18: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” In comparison, Satan wants us fascinated by the things of earth and bored with the things of Christ. He wants to give us the short-term pleasure of digital dopamine hits, but he leaves us ultimately unsatisfied.
Countering the nothing strategy
So how do we counter the nothing strategy? It’s one thing to know the enemy’s tactics; it’s another to come up with a counter-strategy. It could involve big decisions—like deleting your social media accounts or completely ditching your smartphone. But I think that, for most of us, it will be about understanding and utilising the power of habit. We are shaped far more by our routines and patterns than we think. As Annie Dillard puts it, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”2 It’s no accident that the Apostle Paul’s go-to metaphor for living the Christian life is walking (e.g. Col 2:6 ESV): one small step after another is what makes a life. We need new and adjusted habits.
I’ve found it helpful to think of this spiritual battle in sporting terms: we need an offence and a defence. As any sporting team knows, it’s not much use having one without the other.3 We need new life disciplines and habits that both help us guard against the pull of the seen (defensive) and fix our eyes on the unseen (offensive).
A defensive strategy might involve managing notifications and apps—for example, using “Do Not Disturb” mode most of the day, or deleting apps that are permissible but probably not helpful. It might also mean doing a digital “detox” one day a week—taking an internet Sabbath and going offline.
An “offensive” strategy could involve spending time in the Word and in prayer first thing in the morning—setting your mind on things above before the things of earth arrive for the day. Or perhaps using the “gaps” of life to pray, instead of flicking through articles on your phone or checking social media.
Of course, there is no silver bullet; we’ll all be works-in-progress until the end. But on that last day, God-willing, we will be able to look our Saviour and Brother in the eye and know that we have something more glorious than any screen can display.
1 HarperCollins, London, 2012. Reprinted 2016. First published 1942.
2 Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, HarperCollins, New York, 1989, p. 32.
3 And if you’re an Everton supporter like me, you know having neither certainly doesn’t work.