Living a Life of Significance Offline

I got to know Chris Bowler through the internet. True story. My first introduciton to Chris was through his newsletter The Weekly Review. I was blown away by his writing. Not just his appreciation of fine journals, pens, and technology useage, but also in talking about spiritual life. Merely sharing what he's learned in his own journey with Christ.

As time went on, we corresponded over newsletter topics, work related projects, and a shared enjoyment for running. At every turn, I was impressed with Chris' desire to live a life of depth in friendship with God. It's been a privliege to not only get to know Chris as a friend, but hear is perspective as one a little further down the road. Like the rest of us, Chris is trying to figure out how to walk out a life of depth amidst the barrage of distractions and pulls we face on a daily basis. I think you'll find his thoughts on the topic provoking.

Isaac: I’d like to start this conversation at the intersection of our spiritual life and the internet. We’ll circle around these variables throughout the interview, but I'm hoping some clarity will emerge as it relates to our walk with God and our addiction (as a society) to living life, online.

I think it would be helpful to share a few assumptions I have leading in to this conversation, 1) the demand for our attention is now the highest currency in our economy, 2) our ability to focus and be present in day to day life is suffering as a result of the commercialization of our attention, and 3) our walk with God and living a life of significance offline is also in the crosshairs of the digital age we live in.

So with that in mind, how do we pursue growing in relationship with Christ amidst an anxiety inducing age of social media?

Chris: Well, this is quite the way to start a conversation 😀

This really is the question of our age, isn’t it? I don’t believe that social media is only to blame. The various services are problematic and designed to be addictive, for sure. But most of our digital tools are conducive to a scatterbrained approach. I’ve used social media far less over the past couple of years. But my work habits still show a lack of depth and ability to focus.

I believe tools like RescueTime and Screen Time on iOS will shift from focusing only on time spent on various activities to how often we switch between apps. Even if I’m spending all my time using tools for my work, how do I use them? It’s not only social media that’s a problem: our brains have been re-wired to seek new input, and that results in this freakish habit of constantly switching between my tools.

For those of us who believe in a creator and our need for salvation, the biggest issue we face is not whether we think spending time with our savior is valuable, but whether or not we can focus on him for long enough to benefit from the relationship. From what I’ve experienced in my own life and from the people I’ve talked to in our industry, we know that communion with God is valuable … but we’re just so distracted.

A couple years back I made my way through The Focus Course while also reading Deep Work and What’s Best Next. I came away from that exercise with a life goal to focus my years, quarters, months, and weeks. That goal?

To disciple Christians by encouraging depth & focus in the digital age.

That focus happens in my home, my church, but most frequently is a focus in my personal newsletter. And two years later, it feels like it’s more of a need than ever. And again, that comes from my own life as well as what I hear from others.

There are many weeks where I struggle with what to write about in my newsletter. Almost every time that happens, someone reaches out to mention an article or newsletter than impacted them. And each time I’m reminded this issue is still the issue of our time. Abortion, how we define marriage, oppression, and slavery — these are all huge issues that God’s people have faced over the years.

But we’ll never be able to make a difference — a real difference — with those issues if we cannot focus our hearts and minds on him.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5, ESV)

So all that to set the context for how I’d answer your question: how do we abide in and pursue Christ when we’re so distracted?

I wish I had a really great answer. But I’m struggling with this myself. However, I do have a couple of suggestions.

First, we have to view our relationship with Christ as a need. If depth and focus are essential for our work, surely it’s even more vital for our communion with God. It can’t be viewed as a “nice-to-have,” but must be thought of as all-encompassing. Our identity in Christ is central to anything we do.

Second, we have to change what we treasure. Because our hearts are attuned to the things we value the most; we seek them out naturally. When Christ becomes our treasure, we have no problem finding time for him in our busy schedule. Devotions no longer require discipline.

Again, I do not live this way every day. But I desire to make it so.

Isaac: Oh man, you hit on a few really big points here. The constant switching between modes and not allowing ourselves to focus on one thing for a prolonged period of time. Viewing our relationship and identity in Christ as essential to daily life. And finally, changing what we treasure. Each of those could be a book title.

All that to say, I love the context you’ve set for this dialog, “how do we abide in and pursue Christ when we’re so distracted?”

So, what are some of the ways you practice staying focused in daily life and how does that translate to your walk with God?

Chris: Well, I’ll start by repeating that I’m not where I’d like to be in all of this. I’ve made some progress over the years, but have so much to improve on. But I’m happy to share some of the habits I’ve adopted that help.

As I started listing out what came to mind, I realized they fell into two categories. I’ll discuss each under these two headings.

Use tools that help

Shiny new apps are another source of distraction, so I share this tip with some hesitation. However, the tools below truly can be beneficial for those of us whose lives revolve around screens (i.e., those of us who make our living on one, while they also provide our entertainment … and everything else)

  1. I use several tools that help me understand my habits better. Primarily, RescueTime, Focus, and HazeOver on macOS (the last two are included in the excellent Setapp). The first records how I spend my time and gives me reports. Focus is an app that shuts off access to certain apps and websites for a set time each day (7:30am to noon). And HazeOver puts an overlay across all apps that do not currently have focus on my MacBook.
  2. On iOS, Screen Time has been a huge change. One thing we’ve already done is review our stats each Sunday as a family (my wife and I, plus our 14 and 12-year-olds, both who have their own device). It’s been insightful so far to see the overall time and pick ups, the number of notifications we receive, and what apps we spend our time on. So far we’re mostly just reviewing: time will tell if we need to make (or enforce) changes.
  3. I have almost no notifications on my devices. Slack is allowed, as does Messages and the Phone app. And PagerDuty for when I’m on call. Related to the last point, this is one area I’ve really pushed our kids to adopt better habits. The best intentions and desires will not help at all if you allow yourself to see these updates.
  4. Another helpful asset for me is to use pen and paper. My weekly reviews, my brainstorming, and planning, it all happens on paper. This helps me think more clearly and get the focus that is elusive in front of a screen. And there is something powerful about working with your hands.
  5. Create habit fields. This is an idea from Jack Cheng way back in 2010. His premise was to make certain devices more conducive to certain kinds of activities. Or certain locations. So you may configure your laptop to have no distracting tools, but your iPad is for consuming news and content. Or your desk is all work, but your couch is for fun. For me, it has been beneficial to set my phone up for creating and thinking (as best possible). This means I have no social media on it. Reading is the one consumption activity I allow myself, but I also keep my books by our bed.

So there are tools that can help us when we know we struggle with have self-control at all times. Increasing the friction to perform these distracting activities is a good first step.

But if our greatest treasure is always seeking the newest thing, these tools will not help in the long run. We need changed hearts.

Exercise the classic disciplines

That’s where spiritual discipline comes in. I know that my heart has been changed by God. I now have union with Christ — and I can never add to his work. However, my communion with him is dependent on my actions.

This is where we can learn from those who have gone before us.

  1. Read your Bible, regularly. Nothing has impacted my life more than developing the habit of daily Bible study. Even when that study has led to more of an intellectual knowledge than an intimate connection with my heavenly father, I’m far better equipped for the spiritual war we’re apart of and far more likely to experience intimacy with him when I’m in his word. Kent Hughes puts it so well when he says, “You can never have a Christian mind without reading the Scriptures regularly because you cannot be profoundly influenced by that which you do not know.” Read the word so you can be profoundly influenced!
  2. From there, I try my best to spend time just meditating on the word. And that usually involves memorizing more Scripture. I love to lay down at night and run over a verse in my mind as I drift off.
  3. Pray earnestly. This has been the biggest struggle in my life with Christ. I hesitate even to say much here because it’s something I want to improve on so much. The one thing I can say is that praying Scripture itself has been a real blessing. When I struggle with the desire to pray, or to find words of praise, or to know what to say, it’s been a huge comfort just to pray the words I already know. How the Psalms came to life for me when I started to echo them with my heart and mouth.
  4. Fast. I don’t often fast or do so for very long. But when I do, it has helped remind me how much I depend on material things for my sense of joy and happiness.
  5. Enjoy fellowship. Nothing is better than being inspired by seeing God at work in other lives. It’s easy sometimes to slip into the habit of skipping church or Bible study or prayer night. But we do so at our own peril: meeting with other believers is vital.
  6. Suffer. I know, this sounds terrible and none of us want to go through hard times. But I’ve found nothing brings us closer to God than when we remember how much we depend on him. My children really struggle with this concept, but it’s so true. And in this world, we all will suffer in some way — it’s only a matter of time and degree.

So, the tools help me focus, period. But the exercising of my spirit is what helps me to focus on Christ throughout my day.

And to be honest, that focus happens far more easily for me in the early mornings and evenings. I can still be consumed by work, chores, and other things through the middle of the day. I’m working to get to the point where I’m kingdom focused all day long.

Isaac: Some really helpful stuff in there. So good. The tools are helpful to an extent, and as you said so well, “We need changed hearts.” Which is where I’d like to head next.

In my own, life I’ve taken intermittent breaks from different social platforms due to where I feel my heart going. Endless scrolling, observing other peoples lives wishing it were my own. I’m not anti-social media. There are things I appreciate about these platforms, but like anything, an over indulgence doesn’t feel helpful to my christian walk. This especially hits home related to my identity; the image I project and the ways I try to satisfy my heart outside of God.

Depression and varying levels of anxiety have become commonplace. And while there are a number of contributing factors, I have to believe the addiction of living a artificial life online plays a huge role.

Can you speak to this topic of identity and how it’s related to social consumption?

Chris: Sure. Our identity stems from our desires. If we want praise from others, we’ll attempt to portray ourselves in a way we perceive the people in our tribe to admire. If we love to shock people, we create a portrayal that prompts a response. The tricky part is that we most often do this unconsciously.

But at the heart of it, our identity (online or IRL) is the sum of our relationships. The issue with social media and online relationships is that they are shallow: there’s less depth than with the people we see face to face. Oh sure, we can be false in person — but it’s not as easy to hide things.

But with social media and our various online representations of self, it is far too easy to hide aspects of our life from others.

And that hiding is easiest when a person is lacking in self-awareness. The famous Greek proverb, “Know thyself” well sums up what we need today. And this is precisely what is necessary for the Christian life.

A vital requirement for coming to God with repentance is to come to the end of yourself; to recognize your lack, your sin, and your bad characteristics. People who do not (or cannot) look within and face the reality of their brokenness feel no need for a Savior.

I don’t point fingers here. While I sense that God was always in the background during my adolescent years, it wasn’t until I experienced a failed marriage and dead-end career that I took a long look at myself. Once I stopped blaming others or circumstances and confessed my mistakes (to myself and to God), I was finally able to turn to God, repent, and seek his ways for my life.

This is why a life of depth is so important to me. I always want to be growing in both my awareness of where I lack and where God can sustain me in that lack. I won’t achieve the depth required for that if I’m chasing an idolized version of myself. I need to pursue my identity in Christ!

Isaac: You dropped a subtle bomb in there “chasing an idolized version of myself.” Ouch. So if that’s the unhealthy way to pursue depth and true identity, what’s the right way?

Chris: Just to be clear, I’m not saying there’s a wrong way to seek depth. The false vision of ourselves is by its nature shallow.

Our identity as Christians is not complicated: it’s in Christ.

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

To understand my identity as a child of God, I need to pursue a better understanding of two things: who God is and who I am in relation to him. Thankfully, we don’t have to guess who God is because he revealed himself to humanity in his word. So I spend time seeking him there so I can better understand what he’s like.

From there, I learn more about myself (who I am now and who I will be when Christ returns).

That all can sound like repetitive Christian-ese, I know. So let’s consider a couple of practical examples.

  • I’ve been blessed to be involved in a business partnership that was successful. It can be easy to become prideful about this (I know what it takes!). But when I read about and meditate on the sovereignty of God, I am better able to see that he was at work bringing the right people together and creating the opportunities that led to our business being successful.
  • I’ve also experienced turbulent times in owning my own business where the future was unclear. But when I read about and meditate on my Father’s love and his desire to bless and provide for his children, I can rest and let go of the things that were never in my control anyway.
  • When I look back and consider my failed marriage and the children who were affected by that, I can experience afresh the guilt of causing others to suffer because of my actions. But when I recall how that experience led to today, I remember how God redeemed that situation. He called me from darkness to light, so although suffering is never fun, it can be beneficial (and my two adult children turned out to be beautiful, lovely people as well).

So, that’s it. The main reason I spend time seeking solitude and silence is to reflect on these truths and remind myself of my reality. Not the idolized version that I can come to believe in when neglect his word.
Isaac: So our identity in Christ is simply knowing who He is, through the Word, and who we are, through intentional reflection and self awareness.

You kicked this conversation off with two substantial points, viewing our relationship with Christ as a need, and changing what we treasure. You’ve covered quite a bit of ground related to both of those things. And frankly, these are christian living 101.

As a way of closing this out, the current age we live in provides unique challenges, but at the core, living a life devoted to Christ and treasuring Him above all is nothing new. Any final thoughts on how we walk this out, keeping in mind a host of brothers and sisters have gone before us.

Chris: Nicely said! You bring up a good point: not only can we benefit from the word of God, but we also have access to the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us in the last two thousand years. We do well to draw on that wisdom. Just as getting together with others on a Sunday to join in giving praise to God and studying his word blesses us, so too does reading the works of so many saints (recent or long before out time).

We may have new distractions, but that doesn’t mean we need to re-invent the wheel.

So I’m hesitant to say more — I’m struggling to improve in all this, like so many others. I just try to focus on the promises I see in Scripture. Mainly, that seeking God is the best use of my time and energy.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.