We jolt awake, grab our phone, silence the alarm — and there, lying in bed, phone in hand, we face our first decision of the new day. Do we shut off the screen? Or do we start scrolling?
I wanted to know how common this dilemma was among Christians. So back in April of 2015, I conducted an online survey of eight thousand readers of desiringGod.org. The survey focused on smartphone and social media habits. I asked a bunch of questions and received a lot of revealing results, a few which made it into my smartphone book.
But here were three stats that immediately stood out to me. Of the eight thousand respondents, half admitted to scrolling through their phones within the first minutes of waking up in the morning. This figure rose to over 60 percent among those aged 18–29. And when asked whether they were more likely to scroll through texts, email, and social media before or after their morning devotions, a staggering 73 percent admitted to that they normally did so before spending time with God in the morning.
And while scrolling social media may seem like a harmless indulgence, we all know it’s an unhealthy way to start the day, like eating chocolate for breakfast. So I want to ask you, Pastor John, in light of these stats, what’s a better approach in these moments just after we wake up in the morning?
I think there is a better course, but to help everybody understand why I think that and what that better course is, it might be helpful to start by analyzing why we are so prone to click on our phones before we do almost anything else. I thought of six possible reasons why we do this, and I got these reasons out of my head by analyzing John Piper’s soul and his temptations. I haven’t done any surveys, so if people think this is narrow, I say, “Well, yeah, it is.” It comes out of me. If people are like me, then they might get help.
It seems to me that all of these six things I’m going to say are rooted in sin rather than rooted in the desire to serve others and savor God. I put it like that because I do think the great commandment does set the agenda for our mornings and our midday and our evening. We are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, strength when we wake up in the morning, and we are to prepare ourselves to love our neighbor, serve our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:34–40).
“The great commandment sets the agenda for our mornings and our midday and our evening.”
Given how sinful John Piper is, and I presume others are like me, very few of us wake up with our whole soul spring-loaded to love God and love people. This takes some refocusing, to put it mildly. This takes some focusing of our souls by means of the word of God and prayer. We have to remind ourselves about reality in the morning in order to begin to love God and love people the way we ought.
Candy and Avoidance
Here are my six guesses for why so many of us are drawn almost addictively to consult with our phones or devices when we wake up in the morning. The first three I call candy motives, and the second three I call avoidance motives.
1. Novelty Candy
First, I think we love to immediately take a bite of candy from our phones for our novelty hunger. Call this novelty candy. We simply love to hear what’s new in the world or among our friends, what has happened since the last time we glanced at the world.
Most of us like to be the first one to know something, and then we don’t have to assume the humble posture of being told something that smart and savvy and on-the-ball people already know — unlike us, who didn’t know. We want to be quick and have knowledge of what’s new in the world. Then maybe we can assume the role of being the informer rather than the poor benighted people that need to be informed about what happened. “If they were smart enough, they would’ve been on their social media earlier.” There’s a big ego trip, I think, in our novelty hunger.
2. Ego Candy
Second, I think we love to immediately take a bite out of our candy phone for ego hunger. What have people said about us since the last time we checked? Who has taken note of us? Who has retweeted us or mentioned us or liked us or followed us? In our fallen, sinful condition, there is an inordinate enjoyment of the human ego being attended to. Some of us are weak enough, wounded enough, fragile enough, insecure enough that any little mention of us just feels so good. It’s like somebody kissed us.
3. Entertainment Candy
Third, I think we love to immediately take a bite out of our candy for our entertainment hunger. This is entertainment candy. There is on the Internet, as we’ve all come to know, an endless stream of fascinating, weird, strange, wonderful, shocking, spellbinding, cute pictures and quotes and videos and stories and links. Many of us have gotten to the point where we’re almost addicted to the need of something striking and bizarre and extraordinary and amazing.
At least those three candy motives, I think, are at work as we wake up in the morning and have these cravings that we satisfy with our phones.
4. Boredom Avoidance
Then there are these three avoidance motives. In other words, these aren’t positive desires for something. These are facing things in life that we simply want to avoid for another five minutes.
First, I would call it the boredom avoidance. We wake up in the morning, we find that the day in front of us simply looks boring. It feels boring. There’s nothing exciting coming in our day and little incentive to get out of bed. Of course, the human soul hates a vacuum. If there’s nothing significant and positive and hopeful in front of us to fill the hope-shaped place in our souls, then we’re going to use our phones, perhaps, quickly to fill that hole and avoid having to step into all that boredom.
5. Responsibility Avoidance
Second, there is the responsibility avoidance. We have a role — father, mother, boss, whatever. There are burdens that are coming to us in the day that are fairly weighty. The buck stops with us. Many decisions have to be made about our children, the house, the car, the finances, dozens of other things. Life is full of weighty responsibilities, and we feel inadequate for them. We’re lying there in bed feeling fearful, maybe even resentful that people put so much pressure on us, and we just are not attracted to this day at all. We would very happily avoid it for another five or ten minutes, and there’s the phone to help us do it.
6. Hardship Avoidance
The third avoidance incentive is hardship avoidance. You may be in a season of life where what you meet when you get out of bed is not just boredom and not just responsibility, but you meet mega relational conflict, or issues of disease or disability in the home, or friends who are against you, or pain in your own body, in your joints, so that you can barely get out of bed because it hurts so bad in the morning. It’s just easier to lie there a little longer, and the phone adds to the escape.
Those, Tony, are at least six of the things I thought of that are probably functioning in my incentive when I’m inclined to go there first before something else.
Better Way to Begin the Day
There are pretty strong things that are keeping us in bed and keeping us on our devices, but there is a better way. Here’s what points to the need for it: What if you are the first one to the news — and it is horrible news? Or what if your search for some ego candy finds ego acid, and people have hated you overnight? What if you spend five minutes getting yourself happily entertained in the morning rather than facing the responsibilities of the day immediately, and you find at the end of those five minutes that they have dragged you down into a silly, demeaning, small-minded, hollow, immature frame of mind? Was it worth it?
What if you take five minutes to avoid the boredom and responsibility and hardship of the day only to find, at the end of those five minutes of avoidance, that you are spiritually, morally, emotionally less able to cope with reality in the day than you were before? Was it worth it?
I think there is a better way to begin the day, and it will require some decisions before the morning. It never works to make last-minute efforts to decide to do something different. You need to decide twelve hours earlier what this crisis moment is going to look like. It will take some planning. It will take some alarm-clock thinking and setting.
“What we want in the morning routine is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
What we want in the morning routine is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We want something that gives us a zeal for the glory of Christ for the day’s work. We want to be strengthened to face whatever the day may bring. We want something that gives us joyful courage to resolve to count others better than ourselves and pursue true greatness, like Jesus said, by becoming the servant of all. That’s the real agenda in the morning. Very few of us wake up strengthened to do all those glorious things that we get to join Jesus in doing.
Steadfast Love in the Morning
The new course for the morning, I think, is laid out in the Psalms, and here’s a key verse: “O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch” (Psalm 5:3). Let the first thing out of your mouth in the morning, while you’re still on the pillow, be a cry to God: “I love you, Lord. I need you, Lord. Help me, Lord.” That is the first cry out of my mouth in the morning. “I need you again today.” Then “prepare a sacrifice . . . and watch.” I think that sacrifice is my body and my attention devoted to him. I watch for the Lord to show up — and do what? What am I watching for?
And Psalm 143:8 puts it like this: “Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust. Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.” I’m looking — I’m on the lookout for the steadfast love of God, and I’m on the lookout for it in his word.
And then Psalm 90:14 tells me how to think about praying for it when it comes: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.” Don’t just look for it and see it and “Here it comes!” but ask the Lord, “Oh, satisfy us with this steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad in you all our days.” We watch in God’s inspired word for revelations of his steadfast love and his guidance for our lives, and for a profound sense of satisfaction in our souls that he is beautiful and that he cares for us.
My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise. (Psalm 119:148)
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! . . . I awake, and I am still with you. (Psalm 139:17–18)
I suggest that before you go to bed tonight, you make some choices and some plans and that you free yourself from the candy addictions and the habits of avoidance that have been ruining the strengthening potential for the beginning of the day.