Mobile technology means it has never been easier to keep up with our paid jobs outside of office hours. The office doesn’t even have to be an office. It can be a coffee shop, a train, five spare minutes waiting in a queue – or at home. And it’s not just a question of accessing work emails from our personal devices, in the evenings or at the weekends. It’s the fact that work barely has defined hours any more. It follows us around on our mobile devices and computers.
The always-on mentality not only decreased the amount of time we have to pray, read the Bible, worship or acknowledge God’s presence and hand in the world around us; it reduces the quality of those interactions when we do find time to have them. In the same way that notifications on our phones – or even the knowledge that we have unread social media updates – can interrupt or distract us from a conversation with a friend, the part of our minds that is concerned with online life can pull us away from time with God. We are not entirely present because part of us is focused elsewhere.
The Sabbath was one of the hallmarks of Israel. That day of rest set them apart from other neighbouring cultures – especially Egypt, where as slaves they had not been allowed to take a day off. The Sabbath wasn’t just God’s gift to them, the offer of a few hours of downtime every week. It was part of their worship to Him, one of the ways they remembered who they were and where they had come from. That’s one of the reasons the Sabbath made it into the Ten Commandments. Working on the Sabbath – or making other people work – wasn’t just ingratitude. It was tantamount to idolatry.
We have lost that culture of rest. To us, rest is an optional extra. Our days are filled with work and work-like activity, largely courtesy of the technologies that ostensibly offer us the chance to work less. We have less time for each other, at least for face-to-face relationships. Work reaches into our evenings, our weekends, our holidays – whoever came up with the oxymoron ‘working holiday’ has a lot to answer for. Sometimes rest even feels like an inconvenience. Rest is categorically not worship to us, or we’d take it a lot more seriously.
The consequences of the always-on culture are increased stress and anxiety – that update needs answering now! – and the tiredness and even depression that can result from never really switching off properly. Our real-life relationships suffer, since we either have less time to spend with people, or we’re not properly present when we are with them. And the same tendencies impact our spiritual life. Too often we don’t have the time, or the headspace, to focus properly on God. That one day a week for the Israelites was a line in the sand, a reset mechanism that reminded everyone where their true priorities lay. As an ever-busier culture, we desperately need to recover the idea of rest as worship.
1. Rethink rest, understanding it both as a part of worship and as a gift God has given you to enjoy, whether that is on a weekly day off or at intervals throughout the day. Take time away from computers and phones, unless there is a specific (and good) reason to use them.
2. Reclaim the day of rest as a hallmark of Christian faith, just as the Sabbath was and remains a hallmark of Jewish religious observance. Set aside distractions and make sure you spend time deepening key relationships – whether that means meeting face-to-face or involves using technology – so long as that is a conscious decision. Eating together is often a good way of spending quality time with people, but make these meals a phone-free time!
3. Think about unplugging and taking a break from your smartphone or social media – like a digital retreat – for a day or a week. It’s only when we get some distance from these things that we really see how they impact us and others from day-to-day. A regular technology MOT can help us ensure we’re using them well, keeping the benefits whilst avoiding some of the more harmful effects.
Digitally Remastered is available from Christian bookshops and www.muddypearl.com, priced £9.99.