Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

A Better Vantage Point

FullSizeRender

Jeff and I attended a pastors and spouses retreat this week. All the costs were completely covered– it was a generous gift from God through the retreat center. My parents took care of the kids for a few days, and we had a good time with other couples in ministry. We ate and rested well.

During the retreat, we decided to hike up the mountain on the property. It was the perfect combination of strenuous enough to be interesting and short enough to be survivable (for me). We talked and caught up as we followed the trail one mile up, comparing heart rates on our watches for fun and asking Siri about our elevation every now and again.

At one point, the trail seemed to end abruptly by a small waterfall. The next tree markings were visible only after we climbed up a set of large wet rocks streaming with water from the overflowing fall. Here, it looked as if part of the mountain had been plowed through, and I stopped to wonder aloud at how the massive rocks came to rest the way they did. The Ice Age was Jeff’s guess, and though we weren’t sure about the geology, it wasn’t hard to imagine a glacier moving through the mountain to expose bare rock, leaving huge stones in its wake and paving a miniature gorge for the waterfall and stream.

Soon, we arrived at a small lookout and were taking in the nice, though not exceptional, partial view, when another couple hiking down toward us pointed to a wooden cross 30 yards away marking the actual overlook. We made our way over and as we reached the rock ledge, trees by the trail gave way to a clearing with a stunning, 180 degree panoramic view.

Close to us by our left, about 300 feet below, we saw the retreat center buildings. In the far distance, 20 miles out, mountains filled the horizon. A set of almost indiscernible white lines on the base of one, we identified as a ski resort. A slight break and dip in the ranges toward our 2 o’clock, the Delaware Water Gap. Between us and the mountains, a valley of smaller, rolling hills covered with leafless trees and scattered patches of evergreens. At almost 2000 feet elevation, the view was so far and wide, I was dizzy from disorientation. “We’re not used to seeing this far out,” Jeff said.

The next day, back in our room, we talked and prayed about ministry and heavy things on our hearts. And as we prayed, I thought again of the huge rock formation on our hike and whatever had left it behind. I thought of how there is only One who knows how they came to be not only because he directs all things, but because he was there as witness to its history. And in view of God’s eternity, I was comforted.

I remember being fresh out of college and talking to older people who seemed to throw around years when they spoke. As a student and in your twenties, thinking about next semester is thinking about the future, and waiting one or two years for anything feels unbearable. We wrestled with questions regarding God’s will, which often meant knowing what to do the coming summer or next year, or maybe plans for after graduation. But these elders, who in retrospect were probably not too much older than me now, tossed about decades like semesters. In a few sentences, they’d talk about spending ten years in this country, then seven years in that one, now going on four here. Because of their age, their view of time was different than mine. Their perspective, unsurprisingly, meant when they spoke about the future, they were was less anxious, less urgent, less impatient.

Though I am now old enough to need to recalculate my age every time my daughters ask and I can’t recall off the top of my head how long I’ve been back in Staten Island, I’m still young. Young enough to give into anxiety about the near future, to be utilitarian in my decisions— wanting visible, guaranteed results to think something is worth my time. I get restless in the mundane and give up too easily when prayers are not yet answered. I feel worried when God doesn’t meet me experientially in the few hours I set aside to be in prayer and the Scriptures. I wonder if I’m missing his voice if I don’t hear from him this very instant and I get frazzled over hiccups in plans for family or ministry.

But, God. From the beginning, through the ages, thousands of years from now, he was and is and will be. In my restless, anxious toil, meditating on God’s eternal nature is often the force behind the seismic perspective shift I need.

When longing for swift deliverance, Christians are exhorted to remember that our view of slowness is not his. That though ten years may sound like a hundred to us, to him a thousand are as a day. That his purposes for our suffering go far beyond our years and through unsearchable paths into eternity.

When discouraged about the slowness of his Kingdom’s advancement in ourselves, our families, and our churches, we look to the God of ages past whose view of slowness is not the same as ours.  We remember that, “He has moved like rapids — quickly and vivaciously — and startling to see. But the Spirit also moves like a glacier — subtly and cumulatively — and sometimes so imperceptibly that the believer might be unaware of his work.” It may seem slow from my vantage point, but his movement through history is steady, unimaginably powerful, unstoppable.

God’s eternal view of time directly speaks against my need for fast answers, quick fixes, and instant results. He is not working on my timeline– and his eternity is good news for me. As a parent, my discipline is unkind when I feel the pressure of time and am unsure of the future. I begin to demand immediate perfection from my children, correcting in fear, not faith and love. God though, does not panic at the passing of time, nor does he resort to flustered last ditch efforts in his dealings with me. His eternity means patience with his impatient children.

Sometimes, in his goodness, God gives us glimpses of his good purposes, lookouts if you will over a few years of our lives. At the retreat, Jeff and I were placed in the same room we had been in two summers ago. We’d gone with our church and I was barely surviving. As I surveyed the room this visit, I could still see the set up we had then– the girls on one bed, the pack-and-plays side-by-side for our foster boys, and just enough floor space to walk from the entrance to the bathroom. I remembered not being able to sleep, being anxious about sick kids, and feeling upset toward God about both.

The days felt so long back then, so it surprised me how two years could fly by and find us at the same location but in such a different place. The boys are with another family and we welcomed our now almost 18 month old since then. There have been new beginnings in writing, headway made in homeschooling, lessons learned in life and ministry.

But there is still all I have been slow to learn, prayers God has yet to answer. I see recurring requests and repeated struggles thematically spanning years through the pages of my journals. There are new unknowns my mind fills with threatening futures. We all carry sadnesses yet to be healed, questions yet to be answered. There are long walks through the valleys of the shadow of death still to come.

So we look at our everlasting Rock (Is. 26:4).  One day, we will ascend the heights, having received the eternal weight of glory, to where our deepest sorrows will seem “light and momentary” and the longest seasons of darkness, “a little while” (2 Cor. 4:17, 1 Pet. 1:6).  Until then, we trust our eternal God has a view of our lives so complete, and from there his purposes so spectacular, we would be dizzied by its vastness and beauty if given a peek.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
Psalm 90:1-4 (ESV)

Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

The Invisible God Who Sees Me

IMG_5282

God is the remembered one. But this does not mean we are forgotten—not by him. Not by a long shot. In fact, being remembered by him means we no longer fear being forgotten by the world.
– Zack Eswine, Sensing Jesus

I always plan on– or at least think about– writing more, but then, you know, life. Not the fighting bad guys, moving mountains, here’s my trophy kind of life. More like, life that fills my days but often finds me wondering as I’m brushing my teeth at night why my body is giving out when I haven’t even left the house in two days.

As a new mom coming out of ministry, I struggled with days and weeks like these. But over the years, I have been learning to be grateful for them. And part of my discipleship from restlessness to grateful contentment has been through an example found in an unexpected place.

In a world where we’re constantly publishing where we’ve been and what we’re accomplishing, living life behind the scenes is getting increasingly difficult. If the older generations drove around Benzes as a sign of getting along well in life, millennials showcase experiences. And whether of food, vacations, family life, or social causes, the everyday feel of social media sharing makes it feel like everything– even the ordinary– ought to feel meaningful and immediately fulfilling.

We live Coram Deo, and so every part of our lives is significant. But as a generation, our definition of significance has been shaped in large part by our culture such that we have trained ourselves to be unprepared for when the mundane feels ordinary. Couple this with our need to see immediate results, and we grow restless when ordinary work requires waiting and faith. We are like children who plant a seed and rush to the garden the next day expecting to pick blue-ribbon pumpkins. Or, like my daughter, who the morning after finding out I was a few weeks pregnant with our son, wondered aloud why my tummy wasn’t big yet.

As Christians in life and ministry, we often mix the longing for public, quick, measured results with our understanding of the work of God. Whether at home as we raise our children, at church helping other Christians grow, or in the work of evangelism, we conflate our understanding of success with God’s purposes and plan. Surely if God was in my parenting, it wouldn’t feel so hard and I would feel more fulfilled. Surely if I were following God’s will, ministry would look more glorious, people would grow more quickly, and we’d have more good news to report to our supporters.

So we grow weary and we lose heart. We mistake our periods of waiting in ministry with our not being in God’s will. We continue to care for our families but without a sense of God’s commission behind our daily service of love, longing to move onto accomplishing greater things on a stage that isn’t set up to a domestic scene.

Cue the book of Ruth.

In our Bibles, this four-chaptered gem follows the book of Judges. Judges contains some of the most disturbing accounts in Scripture as the author details Israel’s moral decline through the years following their exodus and settlement in the Promised Land. Repeatedly in Judges, the people are described as doing what was “right in their own eyes” as the writer immerses us in a full-sensory experience of what it looks like when the people of God cease to live as though that’s what they are. Reading the book of Judges is like walking through a national crime scene.

One commentary describes Judges this way:

Readers encounter shocking accounts of violence, sexual abuse, idolatry, and misuse of power. Before the book is over, gruesome scenes of bodily mutilation and dismemberment are disclosed. While Judges portrays the worst with regard to bad behavior, such realism was included to reveal something important about life and human nature apart from God.

But then comes Ruth. Another writer describes the transition from Judges to Ruth like “turning from the field of a bloody battle to gaze at a quiet pastoral scene.” If you didn’t grow up on these stories, the change of scene is actually quite jarring.

From sky-high scenes of a national cycle of sin-judgement-repentance-deliverance-repeat, the writing pans out then zooms hard into the lives of two struggling women living in the time of the judges. In the grief of bereavement and widowhood we meet Ruth and Naomi. We find that even amid Israel’s rebellion, God is working to bring his own to himself. Ruth, a foreigner, has readied herself to leave her family and the gods of her land in courageous commitment to Yahweh– the God of her mother-in-law, her God now.  Demonstrating self-sacrificial love for Naomi and courageous allegiance to God, she leaves with her mother-in-law to live with the people of God. There she finds work in the field of a godly man, who in contrast to many described in Judges, has not chosen to do “what was right in his own eyes.” Boaz would welcome Ruth and Naomi with hospitality, leverage his resources for their good and safety (as called for by God’s law), and finally, act as Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer.

The whole story sounds radical and dramatic, and in many ways it is. But recently I have been struck lately by the hiddenness of it all. Turn back the reel and let’s consider: What did Ruth’s life look like to her as she lived it?

Ruth’s life looked like choosing to follow the God of Israel and a resolute decision to love a bitter mother-in-law. (Call me “Mara,” which means bitter, Naomi had said.) It looked like weathering through the difficulties of immigrating to a new land, looking for work to support herself and her mother-in-law. The story’s action rises at the kindness of a God-fearing stranger acting with integrity and kindness, but not with swooping heroic deeds which would be seen worthy of internet fame. Even the happy ending of a new marriage and a baby boy’s birth are still relatively hidden, ordinary scenes. It’s just the story of one family, it would seem, experiencing the faithfulness of God in their grief and his providence in difficult circumstances. The story of faithful, godly people choosing generosity and obedience to Yahweh.

The book of Ruth is in many ways a story of hiddenness, but it isn’t an ordinary story. “Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David,” and we feel the ellipsis at the end of Ruth . Through Ruth would come David– the king after God’s own heart that the nation of Israel needed desperately — and later, through David, the Great King and Redeemer, Jesus.

My attitudes about the hiddenness of much of the life I’m called to live in as a wife, mom, church member, Christian, person, etc. pivoted around the following commentary:

The secret providences of God guided the personal tragedy of the loss of Ruth’s husband and father-in-law, personal choices to leave her country and commit to the God of Israel, and seemingly random events in the harvest fields of Boaz. These led directly to King David and the King of Kings. God works in mysterious ways. Ruth “is the only instance in which a book is devoted to the domestic history of a woman, and that woman a stranger in Israel. But that woman was the Mary of the Old Testament.”

The fulcrum that my heart turned on was this: that God would care about and use all the bitter and sweet providences in the domestic lives of two ordinary women. And that he would use their hidden obedience to accomplish eternal purposes way beyond their scope.

Ruth is the only instance in which a book is devoted to the domestic history of a woman.” The impact of these words on me has rested on the idea of domestic life as a sort of antithesis to public, glorious work that produces immediate results. It is hidden, it seems small and insignificant to those who are looking to be world shakers and history makers. But that God sees the parts of our labor hidden to others, that he is working with a view of time and place beyond us, that his loving providence is behind every grief and joy in these hidden places. This knowledge brings consolation and courage to me and to all who would seek to obey him in ways hidden to the rest of the world.

In our day-to-day living, God speaks truth to our restless hearts yearning to be acknowledged for what we do: What we need most is not for other people to see us, but the knowledge that he sees. What we need most is not to see immediate fruit, but trust in the purposes and timing of the One who makes things grow. The tearful intercessions offered in the closet, the service in his church, the burden borne for one another in love, the work in our homes, the hospitality extended to strangers. He sees. He is working. Our lives, offered to him, are never overlooked, never forgotten, never wasted.

At the end of the book of Ruth, we are left marveling. Against the backdrop of national tragedy and amidst personal sorrows, God has worked in the domestic lives of two ordinary women to redeem them, their people, and ultimately, the world. We are led to wonder at the wisdom of his hidden purposes, the kindness of his redemption, and the graciousness of his sovereignty.  Through Ruth, we have been given a glimpse of the workings of an invisible God who is fulfilling his unseen purposes through hidden people and places.

This is our King and Redeemer. He is invisible, yet sovereign. His ways are mysterious, yet always wise and always good. And though the lives we live unto him may be hidden from others, they are always significant because he has us in his sight.

Motherhood & Family

Social Media: Who Is in Control & To What End?

IMG_4893.JPG

This post is part 3 of a 3 part mini-series on being intentional about social media. Part one is here: Reclaiming My Brain & The Pull of Social Media and part two is here: Reclaiming My Brain & The Cost of Social Media

I went on a walk with one of my girls the other day and we took her little brother along in a mini-car. It was his first time riding in it and he sat happily in his fuzzy bear sweater looking back every few minutes to see who was behind him. The car had a steering wheel, horn, and a long handle on the back for helpful big sisters to push. The design of these pushable cars is pretty ingenious– kids love them because they’re “driving,” parents love them because it’s a stroller their children don’t mind staying in.

In my last two posts, we’ve thought through the pull and cost of social media. Now, we turn to the third and last question of control. The question we’re considering is this: Who is in control of our social media use and to what end? Or, you could say, who’s in the driver’s seat, where are we going, and “wait— am I sitting in a Little Tikes push car?”

Why So Serious?

In this series, we’ve thought together about social media’s powerful pull and how using it costs us in terms of time, attention, and energy. But since the majority of us just use social media to connect with friends and unwind, it may feel off-putting to couch social media in such ultimate terms. Why so serious? Why do we need to talk about ends here?

It’s important to note it isn’t only Christians who are seeing our society’s social media use as problematic. But as Christians, we have an additional motivation to be serious in how we talk about social media because we believe all parts of our lives are meaningful because they are lived before God. He is our loving Creator who created our bodies and mind, and grants us our gifts and time. He is our Redeemer and King who we delight to thank and honor with all of us. As Abraham Kuyper has famously written, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”

As we live our lives Coram Deo (“before the face of God”), we are also called to love our neighbors. The people in our social network are not mere numbers in our friend count, they are eternal souls. CS Lewis reminds us in The Weight of Glory, 

You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.*

We need to consider big questions about social media because there are no mere mortals in our social networks. Our time, attention, and energy are given by God for us to steward toward loving eternal souls whether they are physically or virtually sitting across from us.

3 Choices

Regarding social media, there are three main choices I can think of for how we answer: Who is in control and to what end? 

Choice #1: Social Media companies for the sake of monetizing my attention.

In a Ted Talk called “How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day,” former Google employee Ted Harris spoke about what drives social media companies. He said,

What we don’t talk about is how the handful of people working at a handful of technology companies through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today. Because when you pull out your phone and they design how this works or what’s on the feed, it’s scheduling little blocks of time in our minds. If you see a notification, it schedules you to have thoughts that maybe you didn’t intend to have. If you swipe over that notification, it schedules you into spending a little bit of time getting sucked into something that maybe you didn’t intend to get sucked into…There’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention.

Social media is designed by brilliant people to keep me, an ordinary person, on it as much as possible. Casinos don’t have clocks, provide free rooms to their biggest spenders, make wins as public as possible, and use chips instead of cash. They do this and more for the (evil and exploitative) purpose of keeping people gambling. Likewise, red notification alerts, autoplay functions on video sites, metrics displayed, heart/thumbs up/like buttons, and the e-mails Facebook sends when I haven’t logged in for a while, are all engineered with addiction in mind.  

This isn’t to say social media companies are doing evil, though Harris and others are calling for new systems of accountability. But just as it’s helpful to know when the person recommending a product to you is receiving commission, it’s important to know what social media companies are getting from us and how they “convince” us to give it. Our attention is monetized through advertising, and we need to be mindful that though we are responsible for our own choices, we are also easily persuadable.

Again, Harris says,

Once you start understanding that your mind can be scheduled into having little thoughts or little blocks of time that you didn’t choose, wouldn’t we want to use that understanding and protect against the way that that happens?…[We need] a kind of self-aware Enlightenment, that we can be persuaded, and there might be something we want to protect.

If we are not aware of our use of social media, we become passive riders on our feeds, driven by social media companies toward greater and longer use. We begin to believe we have no choice but to be angered by what other people post, scroll through endless trivial content, and waste time. Being aware of all the minds working to keep us on our apps can help us to guard our time and attention so we are not mastered by social media. Knowing a bit of their strategy helps us walk into Twitter knowing what we’re looking for so we don’t end up buying all these other things we didn’t go in for in the first place (Costco, anyone?).

Choice #2: Self for the sake of self.

Using the internet for leisure or to stay connected with others is not wrong. But when I see myself as the ultimate benefactor and allow self-seeking desires to drive my social media use, I harm myself and others. Social media doesn’t create sinful desires out of thin air, but often and easily is used to feed our idols of self— whether self-exaltation (I’m so great), self-justification (I’m so right), or self-righteousness (I’m so good).

A constant temptation for me on social media is the impulse to feed my ego. It is the perfect place to look for Insta-affirmation and quick approval. To boast and to post out of a desire to receive from other people rather than choose to bless them. And, ultimately, to choose to value approval from people rather than from God.

Another temptation on social media is to write and comment in ways we wouldn’t speak in person, publishing angry status updates or sharing posts in the heat of the moment. The focus on our own desire for self-expression and authenticity, or “getting things off our chest,”  and fail to remember the precious souls behind the profile photos or the influence we are having on them through our words. Tony Reinke writes,  “Sticks and stones may break bones, but my texts and tweets are pushing eternal souls in one of two directions.”  Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Prov. 18:21) and relatives, friends, church members, acquaintances— all precious image bearers with eternal souls— are reading your comments and posts.

Social media can also be the bench where we sit and look at others in judgment. Whether for not being as informed as us,  having our political convictions or matching our moral uprightness, it is easy to scroll through with hearts of criticism and pride. Our accounts become the platforms where we publish our good deeds for the world to praise and, upon seeing our notifications light up with thumbs and hearts, we receive our reward in full (Matt. 6:1-2).

Choice #3: Self for the sake of others.**

The “self” here is different than the “self”  in Choice # 2. Here, we are talking about the exercise of self-control, the fruit of the Spirit stemming from a renewed heart. This self-control is not an expression of prideful judgment of others’ smartphone addictions or anxious preoccupation with maximizing personal productivity. It is self-control, mastery in submission to God, for the sake of loving others.

Self-control for the sake of loving others means I am not ruled by social media and I am not neglecting the good I ought to be doing for those around me to use it. It means putting down my phone when my family is around so I can engage them in conversation. It means signing off a bit earlier so I can get better sleep and be less grouchy in the morning toward my husband and children. It may mean setting stricter limits on how much I use social media or deleting an account altogether when I realize the costs are far outweighing the benefits. It means being aware of how my heart is being influenced by what I read– am I becoming bitter, critical, prideful, or cynical? — or am I growing in compassion, kindness, Christlikeness, and holiness?

Self-control for the sake of loving others means I consider how I’m influencing others through my sharing, posting, reacting, and commenting. It means I’m thinking about my tone when I write and motives when I share. It means I desire to bless, not receive, and honor others rather than be honored. It means I pause before responding to someone I disagree with and choose to think about others with charity,  giving the benefit of the doubt when I can.

Personally, self-control for love means I strive to write with integrity— not projecting a false image of myself, but also with consideration— not sharing information about my husband and children they may not want the whole world to know. And it means I am on the lookout to share things I find helpful in hopes of helping others.

What It Looks Like For Me

Recognizing how hard social media companies are working to keep me swiping reminds me I can’t be lackadaisical about my social media use. And considering the end I want to use social media toward determines how I use it while the cost and benefits help me decide how much.

I hesitate to use myself as an example because self-control and love for people will not look exactly the same for you as it does for me. But I’ve taken my cues here from others and maybe these tips will be helpful for you. Some practical steps I’ve taken to rein in my social media use are,

1. Rearranging my smartphone apps so I won’t be easily distracted. My homepage contains just a few apps (7) that I use often or want to use more.

2. Turning off notifications and badges for social media apps. 

3. Limiting my social media use to once a day per app (Facebook and Instagram), and  rarely using social media that is more draining than helpful (for me, Twitter). Doing this helps to take away the mental burden of “should I or should I not right now?” and also prevents me from telling myself I’m checking for information about an event when I really want an excuse to see my notifications.

4. Taking at least 1 day/week and 1-2 weeks/year (family vacation) to be off social media. This helps me exercise mastery over social media (rather than be mastered by it) and ends up loosening its appeal to me when I’m using it again. It also gives me time of sustained focus on other important things (or people!)

5. Actively filling my time with good things.  Limiting social media use isn’t the ultimate goal here. There are plenty of other ways we can fill our times and distract ourselves if we aren’t actively seeking out ways to rest, create, learn, worship God, and love others.

Gratitude For “Sometimes” Media

My sister recently taught my girls the term “sometimes food” and from what I hear, they’ve moved on to talk about “sometimes music” and I’m not sure what else. The idea is that some things are okay to enjoy, but in appropriate portions and times. I aim to keep social media a “sometimes” thing and continue to use it not as a concession, but as a tool and gift.

As I’ve grown in being intentional in how I use social media, I have actually found my ability to be thankful for the good it can be used for has heightened. So I would be remiss not to express gratitude for the gift it has been to me in keeping me connected with dear friends overseas, giving me access to helpful resources, and, not the least of which, connecting with you on this blog!  I hope that you, dear reader, as you consider who is in control of your social media use and to what end,  be spurred on to exercise self-control for the good of others to the glory of God.

 

 


* Tony Reinke also highlights this quote in 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.

** Note: I recognize it’s not as simple as I’m making it out to be here. For example, Choice 1 and 2 aren’t mutually exclusive and sometimes my motives are a mix of 2 and 3. But still, it is appropriate for us to strive toward Choice # 3, for greater self-control of the sake of others to the glory of God.

Motherhood & Family

Reclaiming My Brain & The Cost of Social Media

IMG_4846.JPG

 

This post is part 2 of a 3 part mini-series on being intentional about social media. Part one is here: Reclaiming My Brain & The Pull of Social Media

I have a friend who makes amazing homemade boba milk tea. It’s delicious and addicting, which is slightly problematic for me because I am highly sensitive to caffeine. Not too long ago, she graciously brought over a pitcher and I drank more than I should have too late in the day. By the last cup, my head pounded with each sip I took. I had trouble staying asleep that night, and laid awake for hours as my mind raced through scenes from the latest Avengers movie. It was completely preventable and totally my fault, but like I said, her recipe is delicious and addicting.

Minus that milk tea event, I’m usually pretty good at controlling my caffeine intake. I know I can’t have any after 3 pm and how much I can take before feelings of dread hit. I think I’ve titrated and found the optimal amount of caffeine I can use to maximize its benefits (better mood, not falling asleep) given its side effects (anxiety, acid reflux, headaches, problems sleeping).

The way I treat caffeine has been a useful reference point for me when thinking about social media. Both have a set of cost and benefits I ought to consider before choosing when, how much, and whether or not to use them, and if I’m not intentional about my usage, there are negative consequences.

The first post I wrote in this mini-series, I asked you to think about what draws you into social media. Having considered its pull, we turn now to face the costs.

It’s Costing You Something

One oft-repeating and popular bit of fake news claims Facebook plans on charging users. It’s not hard to see why people would be alarmed at the thought. It seems almost unethical to get us so heavily invested in the ecosystem of Facebook and suddenly impose a fee. Well, Facebook doesn’t need our money (it gets something else from us— more on that in the next post), but it has always cost us to use it.

I don’t have anything groundbreaking to add to the increasing amounts of research on the problematic effects of our technology. But since I often find others’ self-reflections helpful, I offer a few observations on what I’ve come to place on my social media “cost” column. As with caffeine, social media may affect you differently than it does me, but I hope I can spur you on to consider what your social media use is costing you personally.

The top three costs on my list are: attention, energy, and time.

Attention & Constant Noise

Attention is our ability to focus on a task. This can be a concrete action like doing the dishes or an abstract one like figuring out how to deal with a relational problem. Because we aren’t physically moving from one place to another when we’re on social media, we often think we’re doing two things at once.  But the perception that we are multitasking is an illusion.

Anyone who has said “Uh-huh, that’s great, sure” to their child only to think, “Wait, what did I just say yes to?” has experienced the limit of the human brain’s capacity to pay attention to more than one thing at once. Not only are our brains incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time, every time we switch from one task to another and back, there is a mental toll on our productivity. Whether at work, in conversations with our children, or in contemplation, there is a cost to constant interruptions.

Uncontrolled and haphazard use of social media shatters our attention to thousands of tiny pieces and effects our ability to meditate deeply on things that matter. Tony Reinke writes in 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You,

“Perhaps the greatest threat we face is that of living with short attention-spans, caught now by one little explosion of surprise, now by another. Knowledge is never actually given to us in that form. It has to be searched for and pursued, as the marvelous poems on Wisdom at the beginning of Proverbs tell us.” Without wisdom, we foolishly get lost in the aimless now, in the explosion of novelty. Without wisdom, we foolishly get unhitched from our past and from our future.

Someone else has written, “Addiction to social media will make you aware of everything and wise about nothing.”

Growing in wisdom, learning and thinking deeply on how to apply truth to our lives, and pursuing a relationship with God require sustained attention. This is what makes planned times of silence and solitude powerful— the removal of distractions. Considering the truth of God and how it comes to bear in our everyday lives takes focused attention.

Listening— to others, and to God— also requires sustained attention. That’s one reason why worship on Sundays, when we meet with God’s people and sit under the preaching of the Word, is so important (and why we ought to resist the pull of our phones during it!) We quiet ourselves and discipline our restless bodies and hearts to receive rich, meaty life-giving truths. Truths we easily lose sight of in the busyness of the day-to-day and can’t get in short Tweets or blogposts.

Creativity and deep reflection are tasks requiring sustained attention and I’ve found they flourish most when I’m not distracted by random tidbits of news, opinions, and entertainment every hour. It is easier to see the hand of God through my day and weeks when I’m not adding to the noise of my life via self-wrought social media interruptions.

As a mom, I may not be able to get regular alone time, but I can give space and time for truths to stew in my mind as I’m working in the kitchen or taking care of my children. When I’m not habitually distracted, I can meditate on the truth of God and reflect on whether my children are flourishing throughout the day. This way, truth can sink into my heart and flow out through the rest of my life. And I wonder whether much of what I blame on mommy brain may be a product not so much of 3 little people pulling on my legs as much as 300 people clamoring for attention on my newsfeed.

Energy & The Emotionally Draining Rollercoaster of The Feed

(Relational weight + Call for a response + Unpredictability) x Endless content = A lot of energy

Sometimes when I’m tired, I just want to plop down on a couch, pull out my phone, and be entertained. In those times, a 20 minute scroll down a social media feed is tempting, but the distractions there often leave me more tired than rested.

I find social media draining not just because there are sad, frightening, heavy things going on in the world. The distinction between social media and a newspaper is behind each article, statement, or share is someone we know. So we’re not just seeing information, we’re hearing a friend say, “You should read this,” or “This is important.”

The relational thrust behind every byte of information increases the weight of impact on us as readers. Not only so, but information is presented to me in a way that constantly calls for a response— whether anger, sadness, social action, or amusement— via Likes, LOL’s, double-taps, and shares. Add to this the randomness of content and the sheer number of posts, and I’m setting myself up for a emotional rollercoaster each time I log on.

The two major loop-de-loops for me here are anger and guilt. Anger is the fuel that drives the most viral and popular social media posts— whether it’s full-out social-media-shaming rage or getting-something-off-my-chest status updates. In life, there are good reasons to be angry, but the anger social media posts invokes is not always necessary. Pastor Jack Miller has wisely written, “Don’t let your emotional life be controlled by the sin you see in others.” Social media is a prime place to hear people’s anger over sin, see people sin in anger, and be controlled emotionally by sin we see in others. I’ve found it way too easy to be caught up anger which doesn’t end when I close my app, and it’s exhausting.

The other emotional cost for me of social media is guilt. Social media serves as a platform. Whether faith-based, humanitarian, environmental, or health causes, everyone has their thing. Over time, without knowing it, our consciences are shaped by the social network bubbles we breathe in, self-righteously thinking everyone should take on our causes and guilty we are not doing more. Those with tender consciences easily fall under what Kevin DeYoung describes as the “terror of total obligation”— the sense we are responsible for meeting every need we see. And with social media, every need, however local or global in scope, is proximate and looks urgent.

Using Facebook for our causes or Instagram to share our passions aren’t necessarily bad things. I use both for these reasons so I’m not advocating a self-centered refusal to care about what’s going on around us. But the emotional and mental drain of social media is a real cost rarely leading me to decisive, productive action. Keeping in mind the responsibilities I am already called to use my energy toward, it’s helpful for me to remember the distraction of social media rarely brings about the rest I need.

Time & Opportunity Costs

The first time I noticed the impact of social media on me was after a cruise with no internet access. Though pregnant and taking care of a toddler, I made significant headway in a book I’d wanted to read. It was a big realization for me as a young mom to see the blame for my lack of time wasn’t to be placed completely on my child, but the way I filled small gaps of free time I was afforded.

Every time we choose to spend time on social media, we are choosing not to do something else. We are choosing not to pay attention, invest emotionally and mentally, or spend our time on someone else. Whether it’s reading a book, spending face time with family, thinking deeply about important issues, meditating on God’s Word, exercising, or taking a nap, we give up opportunities each time we enter our virtual worlds.

Five minutes here and fifteen minutes there add up to a significant amount of time over a week. Each minute is time we don’t get to use again. Tony Reinke writes, “Compulsive social-media habits are a bad trade: your present moment in exchange for an endless series of someone else’s past moments.” When we use social media, precious time is spent looking at other people’s lives. Moreover, in our compulsion to share, we often spend our present moments trying to best capture and display our lives to others.

As Christians, we ask God to teach us to number our days and be faithful with our time (Ps. 90:10).  Our time is short and ultimately is not meant for us to spend however we fancy. This fact alone is enough to motivate us to be intentional about how we are using social media.

For Your Consideration

If our device’s pull-to-refresh function is analogous to a slot machine lever holding out the promise of affirmation, entertainment, knowledge, escape, and more, what are the quarters we’re inserting? What is the bill we’re racking up during our stay at Casino Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.?

Attention, energy, and time are the big three for me. What about you?

After having had some time to think about the pull of social media for you, consider Question 2: What is my use of social media costing me?*

 

 

 

Up Next: Who’s In Control & To What Ends?

*Note: Sometimes, we may not be able to tell what social media is costing us until we take active steps to scale down our use. Like an auto renewal policy, you may be so used to these costs that you don’t notice them. (This has often been the case for me.) If this is you, one challenge is to take a week or at least a few days off social media to see what changes when you unplug. This might even help you get more insight on that first question of what pulls you to social media in the first place.

Also, for those wondering, here’s the milk tea recipe my friend uses.

Motherhood & Family

Reclaiming My Brain & The Pull of Social Media

IMG_4841.JPG

I had a Sherlock Holmes moment a few years ago that captures the foggy haze of the mind on momma hormones and sleep deprivation. I was standing in the kitchen, and as I swooped my arm downward, forgot what I was doing. Without stopping mid-motion, I looked at my hand, saw a mug, figured “Ah, I must have been getting a drink!” and proceeded to smoothly finish my task. Any onlooker would not have noticed my mental lapse and I impressed myself at my powers of deduction.

Mommy brain is a real thing, friends. A combination of lack of sleep, increased demands, and brain-altering hormones from past pregnancies, force my mind to run on low power mode all day. In other words, I can push through, but functionality is significantly decreased.

As a mom, I am constantly making assessments about the best use of resources: money, space, time, energy (physical, emotional, mental), and attention. So with a brain that often feels like mush, I’ve been learning that just as I get choosy about what apps I use when my battery is at 2%, I need to be strategic about how I use the limited resource that is my mind. I’ve discovered, for example, that I only have about a 2 hour window each day where I can think clearly enough to write, that at a certain point trying to read is futile, and that I think more rationally when I’ve had a good breakfast. And I’ve realized that I need to get serious about my use of social media.

Many people talk about social media use in terms of time, but as my family has grown, I have become increasingly convinced of my need to reassess how I use social media not primarily because of how I’m wasting my time (though that matters too), but how I use my mind and heart.

A Mini-Series

I know I’m not the only one who has a love-hate relationship with social media– sometimes really wanting to delete my accounts and go off the (social media) grid, other times sucked again into the vortex that is Facebook. So I’m starting a three-post series for those who’ve also found themselves wondering about how to manage their relationships with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the like.

I’ll walk through three questions I’ve been finding it helpful to think through regarding social media. I’ve chosen to write them in separate posts to keep them short and to make it easier for self-reflection. And whether you can relate to mommy brain or not, you’re invited to join me in considering your use social media. Maybe you’ve got it figured out and this would be an encouragement for you. If you’re like me and still working through this, I hope these posts would serve to challenge and help you in the right direction.

Coming along? Here goes! Question one for us today: What’s the pull?

The Why Behind The What

As people, there are always reasons behind our actions– a “why” behind the “what” we  do. We never do things “just because.” We make decisions out of our hearts and wills, and they always say something about our desires, hopes, wants, needs, beliefs, and anxieties.  Social media is no exception.

It is part of human nature to want to share things about our lives with others. God made us for communion with him and other people, so it makes sense we’d want to let people know about the things we’re happy, sad, excited, or angry about. Social media taps into that, giving us all a way to instantly broadcast our thoughts to our friends and networks. We get a chance to receive feedback on what we share in the forms of hearts, thumbs ups, comments and retweets. And we connect with others by reading and responding to what they share. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

There are plenty of ways social media can be used to enrich our lives, so I’ll say from the get-go I’m not yearning for pre-internet days. I myself have been helped by content shared via and the interactions I’ve had on social media. I’ve laughed at my share of fun videos and cried and prayed through heartbreaking status updates. I love that I can gush over my friends’ children and have them do the same over mine. I know one older woman who prays for people who show up on her Facebook feed.

But if we were only drawn to social media for the good it does for us and others, why is it so many of us spend more time on it than we’d want to admit? There has to be something else in the mix here.

Before getting a handle on our use of social media via self-imposed boundaries or time-limiting apps (apps to control our use of other apps!), we need to understand not only what is good about social media, but what in particular is drawing us to use it as often as we do.

The reasons are vast and vary for each person, so it’s important to know what it is in particular that is drawing me. For me, there can be good reasons I’m signing into social media, like wanting to share a resource I know will be helpful to others or staying connected to friends who are far from me. But more often than not, when I’m signing into Facebook, I’m being pulled by something else and I’m not even aware of it.

My Personal Slot Machine

One analogy that has shed light on the appeal of social media for me is social media as a slot machine. One former Google employee spoke about the pull of our apps as powerful psychological conditioning by variable rewards, and it makes so much sense. (Especially to me since I studied psychology and learned all about B.F. Skinner, variable ratio, and operant conditioning!)

Here’s an excerpt of the article:

The most seductive design, Harris explains, exploits the same psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive: variable rewards. When we tap those apps with red icons, we don’t know whether we’ll discover an interesting email, an avalanche of “likes”, or nothing at all. It is the possibility of disappointment that makes it so compulsive.

It’s this that explains how the pull-to-refresh mechanism, whereby users swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears, rapidly became one of the most addictive and ubiquitous design features in modern technology. “Each time you’re swiping down, it’s like a slot machine,” Harris says. “You don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes it’s a beautiful photo. Sometimes it’s just an ad.”

(Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia)

With social media, it’s the possibility (or promise) of reading something interesting, receiving comments and “likes” (described in the article as “’bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’ that can be as hollow as they are seductive”), or catching up on important relational news that draws us back again and again. Often (and probably more often than not), we don’t find anything– but it’s the varied, scattered times we do that keep us pulling on our personal slot machines. There’s a bit of hope mingled in here, and I think the varied results coupled with the furious pace of ever changing content causes many of us to carry an unverbalized fear that we’re missing out on something (a possible reward) if we’re not up-to-date with what’s happening on our social media networks.

So for me, I’d say, a bit of interest in what other people are posting plus the possibility of positive interactions (whether feedback about my shared posts, hearts on my photos, or responses to my comments) keeps me checking in.

For Your Consideration

For you, it could be something else. You may be on social media wanting to be kept in the loop (plus FOMO) or looking to connect with friends. Or the nature of your job might require you to be on social media. It may be your entertainment or your platform. Your social media use can be born out of love (staying connected), boredom (entertainment), anger (airing grievances), escapism (zoning out), or more.

If you’re like me, your social media use is driven by a host of desires with a few major ones leading the pack. These reasons are not necessarily all good or all bad, but identifying the pull and promise social media holds out for you is important.

Why do you find yourself on social media? What are you looking for when you tap that app? Are you lured in by the possibility of being liked, favorited, commented on? For the feeling of being in the know? Curiosity? Care? Pride? Fear? Homesickness? Discontent? Joy? Boredom? Habit?

We need to know why we’re doing what we’re doing before evaluating whether we need to tweak what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. We need to know the promised and actual rewards of social media before we go on to examine the costs.  So whatever your reasons, here’s the first question I offer for your reflection today on our road toward a wise, intentional use of social media: Why do I use social media as much as I do?

(Next up: What’s the cost?)