You know how you sometimes have those moments of clarity where you stop where you’re going about your ordinary life and then you stop and think, “Wait, what am I doing here?”
Well, I had a moment like that not too long ago, specifically as it relates to technology.
A few years ago I was really into this one game called Adventure Capitalist where you start out selling lemonade and you keep investing in your business and eventually you’re making quadrillions of dollars a second.
It’s what’s called an “idle” game. Which means it works in real-world time. Even when you’re not playing the game you’re still selling lemonade in the background. And when you fire it back up you have even more money to invest. You’re incentivized to keep checking in.
Which I did. A lot. I found myself playing the game the moment I woke up. I checked in on it a few times during work. I’d launch it the second I got home.
And then there was a moment I caught myself planning it into my day. Thinking, “Ok, I’ll get dressed, then I can play for a few minutes, and then I can leave.”
That was my wake up call. That’s when I was like, “Wait. What am I DOING here?!?”
“This game, which adds literally zero value to my life, is now dictating how I spend my time?”
Warning! Warning! It was a major red flag.
In that moment of clarity I realized that something other than me was in control. I thought it was what I wanted to do, but it was eating me alive.
So I deleted the game, and in fact I now have a personal rule that I don’t play “idle” games anymore because I know how easy it is for me to get addicted.
Here’s why I’m telling you all this. You may not struggle with games. But you’re living in 2024 America in the heyday of the digital revolution. And I bet if you are honest with yourself, there is something in your technological world which is calling the shots in your life.
• Whether it’s endless social media scrolling that you can’t seem to stop doing
• or the binge-watching Netflix shows that has replaced your social life
• relentless notifications on your smartwatch that take you out of whatever moment you’re in
• or hours you’re pouring into TikTok or YouTube every day…
In some way we are all at the mercy of a ravenous digital world and it’s trying to grind us into dust.
What do we do when the technology meant to help us master our lives instead begins to master us?
Welcome back to “Virtual Reality.” A series where we are seeking wisdom from the Bible about how to live as followers of Christ in the digital world.
A quick recap. I know that it’s tempting to think that the proper response to all the harmful effects of our technological world is just to withdraw. To pull back.
But I’ve been arguing in this series that that is not an option for us as followers of Christ. Why? Because even though we are called to be “holy,” to be distinct and different from the rest of the world, but we are also sent into the world with a purpose.
We can’t just let humanity go to hell in a hand basket, because it’s our job to move into the brokenness of our world and help heal it in Jesus’ name. And that includes the brokenness of our digital world. Which is why our first biblical principle for the series is this:
Principle 1: You are on a mission.
We’re the first Christians in human history to have to navigate the uncharted territory of faith in a digital world and we don’t have the option to sit on the sidelines.
Last week, we talked about the importance of paying attention to the content we consume because it has a big influence on the kinds of people we become.
Principle 2: Garbage in, garbage out.
If we are called to bring healing into our technological world as new creations in Christ, we can’t let ourselves be shaped by garbage that drags us back down to the people we used to be.
We’re not of this world, even though we’re sent into it.
COGS IN THE MACHINE
Today we’re going to talk about the hyper-addictive nature of so much of our technology.
In week 1 I compared the digital revolution of our time with the Industrial Revolution of Victorian England. And how, in the early days of industrialization people were chewed up by all these new technologies.
Right? Everyone was breathing in thick smog, 4-year-olds working in coal mines, and cocaine in the cough medicine… It was insane! Humans were treated as little more than cogs in the machine of progress and their lives had little value.
And while we look back on the excesses of that time and shake our heads, I wonder… Is our world really so different? 150 years from now will people look back and think that we were insane?
We’ve moved beyond child labor, but we jack our kids into the world of screens and social media at younger and younger ages.
We’ve made progress towards cleaner air, but divisive rhetoric and hate-fueled misinformation is choking the atmosphere of our society.
We don’t put cocaine in cough medicine, but we are all addicted to the dopamine hit that comes from the slot-machine of infinite scroll.
“Oooo what video will TikTok show me next? Maybe the next post on Instagram will make me happy.” It might as well be opium for what it does to our brain.
We are cogs in the machine of the attention economy.
Extremely powerful algorithms keep us clicking, playing, scrolling, watching… all so multibillion dollar companies can sell ads and make even more money.
If you and I get ground into dust by the process, well, that’s just the cost of doing business.
So what do we do?
Well, I’ve got some good news. Technology changes, human nature doesn’t. So even though the Bible in an ancient book, it gives us some great wisdom and some useful tools for breaking free from the chains that bind us.
So let’s dive in to our third principle for the series. Before we do that, though, let’s pray together.
GROUND INTO DUST
If you read the Bible cover to cover, you’ll see one specific tension weaving throughout the entire narrative. It’s the conflict between humanity trusting in God to meet our needs or trusting our own self-sufficiency.
But here’s the twist. People always seem to think the key to joy and abundance and plenty is to take matters into our own hands. To work harder. To make others work harder for us.
We do what seems right in our own eyes and end up in chains.
Enslaved to the struggle for survival. Imprisoned by our own selfish impulses and addictions.
Enslaving others to make ourselves more wealthy and powerful which inevitably leads to our corruption and death.
Always in pursuit of the dream - that if I can just be the master of my own universe - I’ll finally be satisfied.
But all of it - this slavery to self - inevitably grinds humanity into dust. We work and we work and we work and it doesn’t lead to life. We resort to war and oppression and slavery and things only get worse.
Which is why God calls a people - the Israelites - to be different. Set apart. Freed from this spiral of self.
A people who can learn how to trust in their Creator. The Israelites were called to be a people who could show the rest of humanity that there is another way to live.
When we first meet Israel as a nation, they are being ground into dust just like everybody else. They’re slaves in Egypt. Working endlessly for Pharaoh’s benefit.
Long story short, God rescues them out of slavery, he gives them their own land, and he teaches them wisdom - Torah. How to be freed from this spiral of self-sufficiency and to trust in God instead.
Today I want to look at one specific command that he gives them. Because God knows that even though the Israelites are no longer enslaved to the Egyptians, this inevitable cycle of self-sufficiency will repeat again.
When they have their own land and they’re growing their own food, it won’t take long for them to be ground into dust again, this time by the struggle to survive.
Let me show you what I mean. Turn with me to Deuteronomy 5, Page ______.
In this passage (part of the 10 commandments) God gives the Israelites the command to sabbath - to stop or cease. To stop all kinds of work in Israel one day a week.
Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the LORD your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your oxen and donkeys and other livestock, and any foreigners living among you. All your male and female servants must rest as you do.
Now, this idea may seem familiar to us, but I want to emphasize how radical of an idea sabbath is in the ancient world. If you are a subsistence farmer, everything depends on the work you do. The only way your family eats is if you slave away on your farm. If you are ground into dust by your work.
So the idea that everyone - and I mean everyone: kids, servants, livestock - have a day of complete rest once a week instead of getting anything done is truly wild.
Why would God ask this of the people? Well, take a look at verse 15.
Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the LORD your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the LORD your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.
Remember you were slaves in Egypt. And what happened in Egypt? The people were ground into dust by work.
Now that they have their own land, what’s happening? They’re being ground into dust by work. Their master isn’t Pharaoh anymore. Their master is self-sufficiency.
The solution, according to God, is for the Israelites to stop the grind. Don’t do what seems right in your own eyes (working every day). Instead trust in the provision and abundance of God.
Trusting that if they stop working, God will more than provide for their needs. Better crops, bigger harvests, more rain… that’s the promise. A return to an Eden kind of life. A life of freedom, not slavery - even freedom from their own struggle to survive.
The people of Israel were called to be set apart. To no longer be chained to work & self-sufficiency like the rest of the world, but to show humanity that there is another way to live. The way of trust. The way of sabbath.
YOU WERE ONCE SLAVES
So that’s the biblical principle of sabbath in a nutshell. Let’s get back to the topic at hand. How does that apply to technology?
Well, even though almost none of us are subsistence farmers, as I said before we are all in many ways still being ground into dust by our digital lives. Right? We’re doing what’s right in our own eyes and it’s eating us alive.
• Whether it’s the hours we are pouring into watching mindless media
• or the ways we’re chained to additive games or apps
• the demands of keeping up our social media presence (if you’re trying to be an influencer you can’t rest)
• or even the always-on expectations of our work (you can’t just switch off anymore).
We are being ground to dust by the attention economy. Algorithms are our new slave masters. We are living in a technological Egypt of our own design.
“Our victories have come to resemble defeats. In spite of our triumphs, we have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us.” -Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
Our brave new digital world wants to grind us into dust. It’s a story literally as old as time.
But we are called, like the people of God from the very beginning, to be set apart - to be different from the world. Why? Because we are on a mission and that includes showing our friends and neighbors and classmates that there is another way to live.
Which is why I believe that the radical command to sabbath - to stop - can be one of the most useful tools in our arsenal, even today.
Principle 3: Sabbath breaks chains.
The practice of sabbath taught the Israelites to depend on God, not their own self-sufficiency. It can teach us the same thing.
“You were once slaves in Egypt but you’re not slaves anymore.”
So let’s talk about it. How do we apply the concept of sabbath to the digital world? Stopping some of the technological things that control us.
Well, let’s cover a few basics.
Sabbath is intentional.
The Israelites spent a significant amount of time before sabbath preparing to stop. Shopping, cooking, getting enough hay for the animals… It doesn’t just happen.
The same is true with a digital sabbath.
You have to make a choice to stop. What are you going to stop? How long are you going to stop it? And what are you going to do instead?
(By the way, we’re applying the concept of sabbath here, so it doesn’t have to be a 24-hour block.)
For example. If you are always on and you can’t stop checking your phone, sabbath could look like choosing an hour a day where you keep your phone in another room. To silence the demands and temptations of your device even for a moment.
Again, you have to be intentional. When will you do it? What will you do instead?
Another example. Sabbath could be a choice to turn off all work notifications when you’re home with your family. To stop the grind and focus on what really matters.
But you have to be intentional. It probably means having a conversation with your boss to set expectations.
One of the things I’ve started doing twice a year is to take a full month where I completely stop using a particular technology that I feel has a bit too much control over me.
Some months it’s video games. Sometimes it’s TikTok and Reddit. Whatever it is, I stop, intentionally, and I trust that God will make that time fruitful, just like the Israelites trusting God for better harvests.
Before those tech sabbaticals, I try to be intentional about what I’ll do to fill the void. Gardening? Reading?
It’s not always easy. It’s definitely not what my addicted, tech-addled brain wants. But remember: sabbath breaks chains. If you want to be freed up for mission in this digital world, you have to be intentional in what and how you stop.
Sabbath is transformative.
What I mean is, when you do stop - when you sabbath - inevitably your own addictions and dependencies will be brought into the light and you’ll have an opportunity to make changes that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
When you’re on a digital sabbath and you feel that deep urge to go and check your phone one more time, or you’ve got that yawning chasm of boredom when you’re not constantly being stimulated, or you look around and realize, “Oh, I barely spend any quality time with real people anymore.”
That’s when sabbath is a wake-up call. You see your life with fresh eyes. “I don’t want to be dependent on technology like this. I had no idea how addicted I was.”
This practice of stopping the grind is a great way of taking back your life. It breaks the power of our slave masters. “You were once slaves in Egypt, but now you are free.”
Sabbath helps you realize that you don’t have to be ground into dust by this digital world. You are free. Regardless of what form it takes, sabbath transforms the way we see our lives and invites us to live in that freedom.
Finally, remember that:
Sabbath is sacred.
It is not just a time for self-improvement. It’s a time for encountering God. For listening to his voice in the newly created stillness. For letting his breath fill you instead of the smog of our technological world.
Stopping the grind of our devices may seem like an impossible or horribly boring thing to do, but I believe it’s the kind of sacred time you will start to cherish. IF you trust God enough to give it a try.
And we’re going to be doing just that as a church. On Saturday, January 27 we will take a digital sabbath together.
No Screen Saturday Challenge (January 27)
One full day with no screens. Again, some of you are gripped with terror at the thought.
But ask anybody who tried it when we did it last time in 2019 and they will tell you it was a beautiful, sacred time. Analog activities with family and friends, long stretches of quiet time to do things that restore your soul and sharpen your mind.
A chance to listen to your body without just being swept away by the relentless demands of our digital world. It’s sacred time. It’s transformative time. But you have to make a choice.
Sabbath breaks chains. It builds our trust in God as he shapes us into people on a mission.
There is another way to live, even now. We get to show our broken world what it looks like.