A Nov. 23 article from Reuters tells of a special vacation in Hungcheon, South Korea, where, for $90 per night, one can be locked in a prison cell, away from the presence of all digital media. Business is booming. Co-founder Noh Ji-Hyang said the new venture was inspired by her husband, a prosecutor who often put in 100-hour workweeks. “After a stay in the prison, people say, ‘This is not a prison, the real prison is where we return to,’ ” she said.

It got me thinking: none of us ever set out to become technology addicts. “Likes” on Facebook are gratifying to the mind, but over time we often need more and more of them to generate a hit of dopamine. The average American looks at his or her cellphone 47 times per day. For those ages 18 to 24, that number is nearly doubled.

As baptized and redeemed folk of God’s ever-emerging reign, we are supposed to put God first above all things. Matthew 6:33 puts it more poetically: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” But sanctification is a lifelong project, and the results of it are not always easy to see or feel. Meanwhile there are myriad worldly options for instant gratification, perhaps none more immediate than a notification from a so-called smartphone. Eternal life or a critical mass of likes on a Facebook post—which is more important?

We need more God and less Snapchat. We need to communicate with God as often as we update our Instagram stories. … Only Jesus can help us in the midst of our weaknesses, and the Spirit will pray on our behalf with sighs “too deep for words.”

So often we act as if it’s the latter. Digital media, coupled with the ubiquity of the cellphone, has attempted to replace Jesus.

In 2019, we need more God and less Snapchat. We need to communicate with God as often as we update our Instagram stories. We need to be more present IRL (in real life) and less in the mindless scrolling of our Twitter feeds. We need a little more Jesus and a lot less YouTube. Only Jesus can help us in the midst of our weakness, and the Spirit will pray on our behalf with “sighs too deep for words” (talk about unlimited data!). In short, it’s time to put the phone and God in their proper contexts.

In his explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, Martin Luther wrote: “I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”

How can we stop idolizing digital media and make God our God again? Here are a few suggestions, some of which you could consider as New Year’s resolutions:

  • Stop putting your phone on the table at meals.
  • Leave your phone in the car unless there is a pending emergency.
  • Don’t delete all the apps on your smartphone. Instead, add one that tracks phone usage and/or an app that limits it.
  • Instruct your phone to reply to texts with the message: “I check text messages once a day [around/at this specific time]. If this is an emergency, call me.” Then only check and respond to messages daily at your dedicated time.
  • Start carrying a good book (dare I even suggest the Good Book!) to read something substantial in waiting rooms, airports and other idle moments.

Matthew 6 again reminds us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will also be (verse 21). I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to die only to discover that my only treasure has been a burst of pleasure resulting from cat videos. I’d rather lean into the everlasting arms of God and find peace, which surpasses all understanding.

As with many New Year’s resolutions, the journey to disown the God of technology is two steps forward, three steps back. Perhaps it is best to see the grace that pervades our human folly and know the Spirit is able to raise up from stones the new children of Abraham, even if it doesn’t make it to Facebook.

New Year’s blessings to you, and good luck to all my siblings in Christ who are seeking to grow closer to God’s intended purpose for creation in 2019.

Martin Zimmann
The Rev. Dr. Martin Otto Zimmann is an adjunct professor of church and society at United Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg campus. He holds a Ph.D. in American culture studies.

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