“I don’t know what is wrong with me,” my friend Gina lamented as we enjoyed a rare afternoon cup of coffee together. “I’ve always loved my time with God, but lately I just feel antsy, like I’m being put in a timeout or something. Five minutes, and I’m done!”
I’ve been hearing this kind of thing a lot lately. People feel so harried that they can hardly find space for being alone with God, and if they do, their cluttered minds make it feel like a waste of time. Reading or meditating on God’s Word seems an exercise in futility, and meaningful interactions with God are the exception rather than the rule.
Of course, distraction is nothing new, and in fact the saints of old often expressed the same kinds of things as my friend. Consider these words by Augustine:
“When our hearts . . . hold crowds of these abundant distractions, then our prayers are often interrupted and disturbed by them. While we turn our voices to your ears in your presence, such an important matter is broken off by who knows what idle thoughts.” –St. Augustine, Confessions, 10.35
However, as someone who has walked with people through their spiritual journeys for over three decades, I would argue that this struggle with focus has increased exponentially—for myself and others—over the past few years. But here’s the thing. This isn’t necessarily because we don’t value prayerful communion with God, but because our brains have been rewired by technology in such a way that we simply aren’t able to “be still and know . . .”
You might even say it isn’t our fault.
Here’s why. Our brains have a property called plasticity, which simply means that they are always changing based upon the things we do on a regular basis. Our interaction with our digital devices—smartphones, tablets, e-readers, computers, etc.—is characterized by rapid shifts, shallow skimming, and addictive prompts. Not only do our minds flit back and forth with every beep, ping, little red number, or vibration, but when we do try to read on the internet, our focus is constantly interrupted by hyperlinks or ads. The net result is that our brains have become so accustomed to this that we’re losing our capacity for concentration, our ability to pay attention.
This is a huge problem for Christ followers, who are transformed only as we learn to listen for God’s voice in order to walk as Jesus walked in this world.
But there is hope. As neural scientists often say, “What has been wired in can be wired out.” In other words, there are things we can do to counteract the negative effects of technology. By establishing some new habits based on ancient Christian practices, we can cooperate with God’s Spirit to rewire our brains. Here are three practical suggestions that can help:
1. Read Scripture and devotional materials in print.
Numerous studies reveal that not only does onscreen reading wire our brains for perpetual motion, but our comprehension level is also much lower when we read from a screen. Plan to do a certain amount of reading every day—in God’s Word and otherwise—from hard-copy material.
2. Write in a journal with a pen.
Journaling forces us to slow down and helps our minds to focus. Even if you don’t like to write, take a few minutes each day to journal a prayer or even write out Scriptures or devotional thoughts.
3. Use your smartphone to remind you to be attentive.
Technology is only going to become more central to our lives, so we should learn ways to make it our servant rather than let it rule over us. Set a reminder app on your smartphone to go off at the top of every hour, calling you to check in with God and asking a simple question such as “Lord, am I being the person you want me to be right now?”
Neural science suggests that doing any of these three things or others like them for several minutes a day can begin to rewire our brains for focus in as little as two months. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by pressing into these kinds of simple practices.
For more tips and tools, see my book The Wired Soul: Finding Spiritual Balance in a Hyperconnected Age.
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