Jeremy Sarber

Ignoring our phones

How does one occupy time while waiting in line at the grocery store or, if you’re like me, waiting for a coffeehouse barista to remember she started your pour-over ten minutes ago but never finished? Most of us opt for the easiest distraction. We reach for the computer in our pocket, text a friend or two, and check Snapgram or Twitbook for new notifications. Though it may be harmless, this routine is rarely premeditated. We can’t help ourselves. The smartphone is a tailor-made antidote for moments of boredom that never stops singing its siren song.

Years ago, I stopped for a latte at a little-known spot called Creek Coffee, which sits in the middle of a college campus. By late-afternoon, students fill every square foot. I arrived shortly after four, and the line to order was eight bodies deep, so I waited, iPhone in hand. I deleted a few emails, glanced at the weekend forecast, and sent a humorous message to my wife. Then, I looked up.

On any other day, I would have noticed little more than my proximity to the front of the line. Only three more to go. This day, however, was different. This time I saw heads down with eyes fixed to tiny, glowing screens. Even the young lady attempting to order a drink was staring at her phone. Couples seated across a table from one another gave their attention, not to their companion, but their phones. Every last person in the place was on his or her phone. I don’t know who slipped me the red pill, but the sight was jarring.

I began noticing this phenomenon everywhere, from public spaces to family gatherings—countless human beings seemingly enslaved to a handheld plastic and glass box. I, of course, already knew smartphones existed and that owners used them often, but I had never observed the strangeness of it all until that day. At least thirty people were in the same room at the same time, yet everyone was paradoxically somewhere else. Science fiction meets reality.

I’ll admit I possess a contrarian spirit. I don’t necessarily want to be different, but I also don’t want to be the same as everyone else for the sake of being the same. If you ask me, this attitude is distinctly Christian. Do not be conformed to this age,” the Bible says, but nowhere does it instruct us to be intentionally peculiar unless moral or spiritual matters are at stake (Ro 12:2). If those around me worship idols, I’ll have to swim against the current. As long as they consider neckties appropriate business attire, I’ll continue wearing one despite my personal distaste.

Since that day at Creek Coffee, I have become increasingly contrarian regarding my cellphone usage. Perhaps our phones share more similarities with idols than neckties. Using a mobile device to pass the time at every checkout line, stoplight, and then some may be the current normal, but I’m not convinced it’s healthy. I think more than a few experts in related fields of study would agree.

I left Creek Coffee with a new, stunning awareness of the phone in my pocket, suddenly understanding its subtle yet persistent demand for my attention. My resolve to ignore it more often grew steadily over the months that followed. It still tempted me, but I made several deliberate, moment-by-moment decisions to remain bored, choosing to stare at a wall or the back of someone’s head rather than my phone.

This small tweak of my behavior led to others. I soon deleted most of my apps. I turned off nearly every notification. After a while, my iPhone was little more than an audio player for the car and, well, a phone. When nieces and nephews asked to play Angry Birds or some other game, I’d encounter a puzzled look after responding, Sorry, I don’t have any.” While my minimal phone setup perplexed children, not to mention a few adults, I felt lighter somehow—freer.

As I said, the impulse to frequently unlock my phone and begin mindlessly tapping without any explicit reason to do so never left me. Whenever I felt its drawing power, I’d think of the apostle Paul. I’d imagine him, afflicted in every way but not crushed, writing his most thankful and joyous epistle from the confines of Roman imprisonment (2Co 4:8). He told the Philippians:

I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself. I know how to make do with little, and I know how to make do with a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content. (Philippians 4:11, 12)

Though Paul did not own a smartphone or share our trivial first-world struggles, his words have implications nonetheless. Personally, they caused me to question whether I knew the secret of being content (Php 4:12). If I needed entertaining stimulation every dull moment of the day, was I truly content?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not promoting a modern form of asceticism. One does not become more righteous by denying himself the innocent pleasures of Steve Job’s clever invention. Then again, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Several months into experimenting with much lighter cellphone use, I was back at Creek Coffee for another latte. Once again, I waited to order. Only this time, my phone was out of sight and out of mind. I left it in the car, leaving me without much to do but study my surroundings. That’s when I noticed Rick.

Rick sat alone at the counter nursing a shot of espresso. He appeared dazed. Perhaps he was merely lost in thought, but something about his disposition told me he wasn’t just alone. He was lonely. Accurate or not, my empathy antenna detected someone in need, and after two or three minutes of awkwardly waiting for eye contact, I had my chance to act.

Hi. How are you?” I said. Rick stared back at me quizzically, then glanced over his shoulder, uncertain whether I addressed him.

Uh, good,” he said. You?”

I’m fine. Thanks.” Unprepared for the rest of this conversation yet undeterred, I scrambled to find my next words. He didn’t look away, which I interpreted as an invitation to keep talking.

So, do you go to school here?” I asked.

No, I’m a programmer. I work for—” I don’t remember the name of the company. Since I mostly work from home, I like to come here to get out of the office.” We had that in common.

As I discovered, Rick and I had a lot in common. We both dabbled in web development. We both liked to read and were quick to recommend our favorite books. Most notably, we were both Christians.

We were both Christians. Don’t breeze by that statement too quickly. Before I go any further, I need to stress the eternal significance of a believer’s relationship to another. We are the family of God, who calls us to love one another and live together for all eternity. God’s children share a profound intimacy that the outside world can’t begin to understand. Christ’s disciples are closer to one another than an unbelieving father, mother, son, or daughter (Mt 10:37).

Rick and I were not strangers after all. We were brothers, permanently united by the blood of Jesus. The Holy Spirit poured the same love into both of our hearts and turned our affections in the same direction (Ro 5:5). Though I haven’t seen him since, we’ll be roommates soon enough. See John 14:2, 3.

If you wonder what my encounter with Rick in the coffeehouse that day has to do with my smartphone, I’ll tell you. The short answer is everything. Had I not made a deliberate choice to leave my phone in the car, I may have never met him—this side of heaven, that is. If my intuition was correct, I might not have noticed a young man sitting alone in need of someone, anyone, to give him an ounce of compassion in the form of companionship. Instead, I may have tweeted, texted, and emailed my way right by him.

Like most of our daily rituals, thumbing through apps on a smartphone to kill time may be morally benign, but it’s also thoughtless. We do it without conscious effort. It’s almost an involuntary action similar to taking a shower each morning. Most of us don’t wake up and think, Should I shower today? Let me weigh the pros and cons. No, we may be drying our hair before we’re alert enough to know a new day has started. I can be halfway to work.

Keep in mind that our lack of intentionality isn’t always harmless. The human heart is deceitful (Jer 17:9). Naturally, no one seeks God or does what is good (Ro 3:11, 12). Apart from divinely motivated self-discipline, we’re all prone to walk off spiritual cliffs while staring at metaphorical cellphones. As members of fallen humanity, our first inclinations lean hard away from God and goodness. Left unchecked, our flesh will pursue sin with its inevitable misery and destruction every time.

Consider Paul. Even the great apostle Paul confessed:

In my inner self I delight in God’s law, but I see a different law in the parts of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body. What a wretched man I am! (Romans 7:22-24)

Paul is quite candid about his distress over the tension between his mind and body. Though he was a new creation in Christ, his flesh remained corrupted, tainted by Adam’s sin (2Co 5:17). It pulled him left despite his desire to go right. From his rebirth to his death, he lived the struggle of every Christian before and since. He also understood that winning this ongoing battle requires determination. He put it this way: I discipline my body and bring it under strict control (1Co 9:27).

Making application of Paul’s self-regulating practice is both obvious and subtle. As for the obvious, we all know the intensity by which we should fight against temptations to sin. Even if you slept through most of your Sunday school classes, no one has to tell you murder, adultery, and drunkenness are wrong. You already know. Chances are, you also know we should do everything within our power, by the grace of God, to avoid them. Run away if possible. Beat your lustful body into submission when necessary.

I, however, have my mind on more subtle applications. Do the math with me. If our natural propensity is to sin, and we run much of our lives on autopilot, how likely are we, borrowing a phrase from James, to keep ourselves unstained from the world? (Jas 1:27). Pure and undefiled religion is difficult to practice when whims and impulse determine so many choices we make throughout the day. Maybe we’ll reject the advances of Potiphar’s wife, but will we feed the hungry, help strangers in need, care for the sick, or visit those in prison? Most good deeds demand deliberate resolution followed by intentional action. They don’t happen by accident.

Think of all the potentially wasted hours spent playing on our phones while standing in line or waiting at the dentist’s office. Meaningful, perhaps life-changing conversations could have taken place instead. We could have shared the gospel and witnessed salvation unfold right before us. Open your eyes,” Jesus said. The fields are ready for harvest (Jn 4:35). Swinging a sickle, however, may be uncomfortable and certainly requires effort.

The last apostle says we should make the most of our time because the days are evil (Eph 5:16). I would like to add my own advice to that wisdom, not that I have a command from the Lord, but I do give an opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is faithful, I pray (1Co 7:25). If we value the time God gives us, we must learn to be deliberate.

My story about Rick is just one example of many. Ignoring our smartphones is only the beginning of the small, purposeful choices we can make to accomplish much, much more. The church can turn the world upside down, assuming the next text message can wait (Ac 17:6). All we need, at least to start, is an honest measure of self-examination and a few thoughtful, intentional tweaks to our daily routines.