Thirty Seconds Alone with God

The Effect of Our Phones on Prayer

Our Twitter and Facebook habits make praying harder than ever.

But before we look at the stats, let’s take a moment to appreciate the magic of conscious life, the capacity to focus on one thing, like this article and this unfolding sentence, following it along until it ends with a little dot. No doubt, as a reader, you’re fighting the chronic digital urge to skim.

We give our attention because we have attention to give. With our attention we can attend to one thing and avert from another thing.

The power to fixate is part of God’s miracle in creation. Without attention, faith would be impossible. God not only created us to live and breathe and walk, like his other creatures; he wants us also to believe in him and to trust his word, to listen. The full scope of our affectional life becomes precious when we see it as our capacity to attend.

Mind-setting is the basis of our devotion to Christ, and it gives rise to every love and longing in our heart. What our eyes linger on, our hearts will learn to love. What our hearts love, our eyes will linger on. When by supernatural grace Christ becomes the highest prize in our life, then he becomes the supreme focus of our attention. Thus, Paul challenges us to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2).

But in the digital age, our attention faces multiple tensions. Each day we give our eyes to movies and new music and books and online articles and viral GIFs and hot Facebook trends. We have only so many waking hours, only so many caffeinated hours, only so many ways to listen, watch, and read even a small fraction of the content that endlessly pours in from our feeds and our friends.

The span of our attention is of great concern to God. Long before the media age brought with it profound changes in how we reproduced and multiplied pages in the printing press, and long before breaking news (and fake news) buzzed and beeped on our smartphones, God was always concerned with our focus.

Gospel Attention

Gospel faithfulness is about attention. In eighty places in the Bible, God’s people are called to take heed, which is the urgent language of attention.

Specifically:

  • We must keep God’s word on the forefront of our minds at all times, and in all scenarios (Deuteronomy 6:4–9; 11:18–19).
  • We must prioritize our days for the purpose of living undistractedly (1 Corinthians 7:35).
  • We must not allow the business of life to consume us (Luke 10:38–42).
  • We must never let the trivialities of this world cause us to neglect the riches of the gospel (Matthew 13:22–23).
  • We must be watchful (1 Corinthians 16:13).
  • We must be sober-minded (Titus 2:2; 1 Peter 1:13; 4:7; 5:8).
  • We must remain eternally alert (Revelation 3:2–3; 16:15).

In all these areas, and others, God calls us to guard our attention.

Welcome to the Attention Economy

Within the urgency of Christ’s return, historically, the church has enjoyed a corner on the attention market. But that dominance is now long over, as law professor and technology expert Tim Wu explains in his new book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016).

To be sure, it isn’t as if before the twentieth century everyone was walking around thinking of God all the time. Nevertheless, the Church was the one institution whose mission depended on galvanizing attention; and through its daily and weekly offices, as well as its sometimes central role in education, that is exactly what it managed to do. At the dawn of the attention industries, then, religion was still, in a very real sense, the incumbent operation, the only large-scale human endeavor designed to capture attention and use it. But over the twentieth century, organized religion, which had weathered the doubts raised by the Enlightenment, would prove vulnerable to other claims on and uses for attention.

Despite the promise of eternal life, faith in the West declined and has continued to do so, never faster than in the twenty-first century. Offering new consolations and strange gods of their own, the commercial rivals for human attention must surely figure into this decline.

Attention, after all, is ultimately a zero-sum game. (27)

Grabbing attention is where corporate profits are made, which is why advertising is so potent. Products need time to flicker in pixels before our eyes. This monetizing of the gaze has given rise to what is now called the “attention economy,” run by “attention merchants.” The end-game is profit by grabbing our attention. Thus, the competition for our gaze — and the competition for our wallets — is stiff.

May I Have Your Attention, Please?

Wu makes an important point, if slightly overstated.

First, Jesus was clear in warning the first century to guard themselves from the consuming desire for wealth. Love of money is a corrosive idolatry and an attentional misfire away from the heart of the gospel (Matthew 13:22). Our eternal attention has always been flitting to worldly things. So the church has never enjoyed exclusivity in the market of human attention. But Wu’s observation is important to see, especially as he traces the “attention merchant” tycoons who monetized the printing press, radio, television, and eventually the smartphone. They compete with the gospel for the human gaze.

But since human attention — for all its glorious purposes — is a finite resource, theoretically, our attention is a zero-sum game. Nevertheless, we still try to fill our lives with more and more media. According to a 2016 Nielsen report on media use, American adults now use media for a combined 10 hours and 39 minutes every day, a sharp rise of one hour from just one year earlier (9 hours, 39 minutes).

Notice carefully what changed and what stayed the same here.

Most obviously, this 2016 spike in media use factors to the ubiquity of mobile devices, like tablets and smartphones. In other words, smartphone use grabs more attention without taking away much of any time we already invest in television, music, gaming, and desktop computing.

Though some predictions suggest social media will start to pull viewers and advertising revenue away from television in 2017, the Nielsen stats confirm the growing suspicion that our mobile devices, our tablets, and especially our smartphones are filling in more and more of life’s little gaps with perfectly sized bits of consumable media.

In this, the ten-year anniversary of the iPhone, the attention merchant’s dream device, every one of my waking moments are now targeted.

“Mobile is a great market. It is the greatest market the tech industry, or any industry for that matter, has ever seen,” technology analyst Ben Thompson wrote back in 2015. Why? “It is only when we’re doing something specific that we aren’t using our phones, and the empty spaces of our lives are far greater than anyone imagined. Into this void — this massive market, both in terms of numbers and available time — came the perfect product.”

Smartphones make it possible for the attention economy to tap our little 30-second attention gaps as we transition between tasks and duties. In the past, these moments proved more difficult to target.

Our attention is slightly elastic, elastic enough to fill up every empty gap of silence in our days, but in the end it’s still a zero-sum game. We have limited amounts of time to focus in a given day, and now every second of our attention can be targeted and commoditized.

Never Stop Praying

Back to prayer. Prayer requires our divine-centered attention. For a moment (or longer) we consciously pray to the Father, in the name and blood of the Son, through the Holy Spirit — not just in our morning entreaties, or mealtime thanksgivings, but little petitions sprinkling life into our days.

Paul calls us to the discipline of prayer. We must not only pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), we must pray without ceasing in a spirit of undaunted alertness (Ephesians 6:18) — that is, with our full attention.

Perhaps the best example of what it means to live a productive life while also praying without ceasing comes from the life of nineteenth century preacher Charles Spurgeon who shared his secret to a close friend: “I always feel it well just to put a few words of prayer between everything I do.”

To pray without ceasing is not a neglect of daily duties. It is not multitasking with our attention split half on God and half on work. It’s about claiming the momentary transitions in our day, the rare empty moments of silence, to focus our attention on God himself.

Reclaiming Our Prayers

So, if the human gaze is both spiritually valuable and commercially marketable, where does my attention go? What has my attention? Or, better, who has my attention, especially in the gaps and transitions of my day?

A candid Charles Spurgeon could tell his friend, “I always feel it well just to put a few words of prayer between everything I do.” When I’m being honest, I say: “I always feel it well just to publish a tweet or two between everything I do.”

In the little cracks of time in my day, with my limited attention, I am more apt to speak into social media than I am to pray. That’s the brute honesty of the situation. And because of this negligence, God feels more distant to my life as a result.

Leave it to a leading prayer expert to connect social media habits, prayer neglect, and a felt distance with God’s presence.

(A point made on Twitter, no less).

As Peter tells us, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). All of this shapes what we should be doing with the margins and gaps in our daily attention.

Yes, there are apps and alerts to remind us to pray. And may we use them. But in the digital age, every fragment of our attention can now be claimed and monetized by the attention merchants. Our attention is finite. But our call to constant prayer is clear. It’s time to be honest: The worst of our compulsive social media habits in the empty spaces of our lives is corroding our prayer lives.