In the last few months, I’ve thought of this blog on some occasions and wondered if I should write purposefully about something – anything at all. Each time, I never did. Come to think of it… I haven’t actually written anything extensive in more than 3 months now – or longer, if you consider a sermon script isn’t actually reflecting on an ad hoc, informal basis.
Reason: I think I spend most of my days wasting my life away with nothingness – hamster-wheeling, basically. And, inevitably and unsurprisingly, I don’t quite have much to meditate or ponder about – and this is the scary truth.
“I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters)
The colossal pastor-writer-preacher, John Piper’s written an equally colossal and generation-defining book: Don’t Waste Your Life. In this The Gospel Coalition (TGC) article, we see the origins of the book traced to the 4th Passion Conference in the year 2000 (founded by Louie Giglio in 1997, known for their annual gatherings of young adults between the ages of 18–25, more specifically college students; speakers like Beth Moore, Francis Chan, Ravi Zacharias have graced it)
But for all the impactful and life-changing, radical message, Piper’s clarion call was perhaps chief of the lot. Lending from the TGC article above, here’s how Piper exhorted a generation of young bloods who had just entered an uncertain millennia, by emphatically describing what a “Wasted Life” looks like for the Christian:
‘Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30-foot trawler, play softball, and collect shells.’
“That’s a tragedy,” he told the crowd.
“And there are people in this country that are spending billions of dollars to get you to buy it. And I get 40 minutes to plead with you—don’t buy it. With all my heart I plead with you—don’t buy that dream. . . . As the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account with what you did: “Here it is, Lord—my shell collection. And I’ve got a good swing. And look at my boat.”
“Don’t waste your life,” he said, the words quietly tucked in before he barreled into another memorable anecdote, this one about a plaque in his home featuring C. T. Studd’s poem, “Only one life, twill soon be past / Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
These were the words that would eventually form his earth-shaking, little book – you can get for free here. As I told a friend earlier this year, “Don’t Waste Your Life” was extremely influential when I first read it at 18 years old, on the verge of young adulthood and military amongst other critical transitional life stages (many thanks to Uncle Houw Jin who instructed us read the book as part of our Singapore Youth for Christ training during Project Serve). It generated a deep Spirit-driven conviction to live for Jesus, somehow, someday with greater clarity, but somehow.
Piper is crystal-clear that only what’s done for Jesus lasts in eternity. And for many in my generation and also those before us’, serving Jesus in our ministries or choosing certain career options or marrying (or not) specific persons seemed the main war fields upon which these soul-battles for lasting eternity were fought. In this sense, you could say we all grew up generally appreciating that a “Wasted Life” is the life not lived for Jesus intentionally and faithfully in light of eternity.
While that is undoubtedly true, I’ve come to see recently that a “Wasted Life” for today’s youth generation might look a tiny bit different. Just today, this article has been making its social media rounds – The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation“. In it, the author details the seeming fatal symptoms thus far exhibited by a generation the he calls the “iGen”. Here’s who they are:
iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010.
According to the author’s research, today’s teenagers are less likely to date, seek independence from their parents, head outdoors, amongst other activities seemingly regular for past-generations. Essentially, much of their smartphone activity and obsession (addiction) has comprehensively molded every other sphere of their young lives – and much to their oblivion since they aren’t quite equipped with the maturity and perception to identify this.
Much of this increasingly horrifying phenomenon strikes a chord with me primarily because I’ve been a blessed recipient of the biblical and masterful wisdom in this magnificent book – Tony Reinke’s (from Desiring God) “12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You.”
To be honest, I spent a bit over a month reading the book although it’s a pretty short one because I kept yo-yo-ing between reading it on the train to/from work and eventually choosing to get distracted by my smartphone. The irony.
Lest you think this little book might be a spiteful work of frivolity by a Gen Y curmudgeon hating on the next generation just as every generation has, I must say that he’s thoroughly “one of us” in all the millennial sense of Facebook, Twitter and the internet age. More importantly, Reinke’s drawn on a large pool of contemporary academic/media studies of smartphones, plus the collective wisdom of the centuries e.g. Seneca (Philosopher), Spurgeon (Preacher), C. S. Lewis (Author), Augustine (Theologian) and so much more. This is legitimately a scintillating analysis of the smartphone phenomenon and how it’s revolutionised the world, and further – how it’ll possibly cripple the future generations of humanity.
As I now stop waxing lyrical, I must say that this read has encouraged me to review my own phone habits and lifestyle changes. Doing so has convinced me that my smartphone usage has significantly influenced my emotional, relational, social, theological and spiritual life in every single dimension. Apart from the fact that some of you know I spent two years playing a certain Marvel smartphone game (I’ve stopped!), there’s the endless allure of mindless Twitter, the meaningless scrolling through Facebook feeds, staying connected on WhatsApp chat groups while fellowshipping actual real human beings in my presence, the perennial crouching traps of sexual temptations on the internet, and much more.
But really, the biggest impact my smartphone’s had on my life is this: it’s numbed me to futility. It’s numbed me to my daily finding false meaning in nothingness and foolishly seeking illusory fulfillment in mindless internet shenanigans. Oh, if you could walk a day in the life of my Twitter feed… This is how much time I’ve spent on various phone applications in the last 1 week:
One particular iPhone function that I’ve discovered has allowed me to track the levels of activity on my phone – and with great specificity, the duration I spend on each smartphone applcation. For instance, this is how much time I’ve spent on various phone applications in the last 1 week:
With just a small sample size, I can immediately see how I’ve spent a little more than half a day (14 hours) out of the past week on my phone either reading (or watching videos) on Safari and talking with others on WhatsApp! Yes, my Bible app is ranked in the top 10 but let it be known that’s because it spent 20 minutes in the ‘background’.
I will admit with all frankness that my smartphone habits have fractured my prayer life many times a few days in a row, taken my heart and ears away from a conversation or freind I genuinely want to be personally invested in, and has even kept me more intrigued in an NBA Finals game more than an ongoing sermon.
But how did I succumb to such habits? How did the central and important things in my life become merely optional when I had to make crucial decisions about when to do what and what to do then?
I think these habits were simply groomed over time by smaller choices and smaller habits being cultivated on a daily basis. I had become used to making retrospectively dumb decisions and ignored pertinent matters/persons right in front of me because I had allowed myself to get sucked into a vicious vortex of mindlessness every single day.
As I became more acclimatized to empty nothingness and brainless scrolling on a consistent basis, the importance of the Gospel reality in my life gradually decreased over time. Cognitively, I grew more wired to sweep aside pressing issues that required my focus in exchange for whatever greatness I was achieving on my phone. My muscle memory had now reoriented itself to dedicate my mind and heart to my phone. Nothingness… It’s a powerful master.
In his book, Reinke talks about the “nothingness” that flows endlessly out of undisciplined and unfettered smartphone usage:
“What I am coming to understand is that this impulse to pull the lever of a random slot machine of viral content is the age-old tactic of Satan. C. S. Lewis called it the “Nothing” strategy in his Screwtape Letters. it is the strategy that eventually leaves a man at the end of his life looking back in lament: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”
This “Nothing” strategy is “very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years, not in sweet sins, but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them … or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.”
Routines of nothingness. Habits unnecessary to our calling. A hamster wheel of what will never satisfy our souls. Lewis’ warning about the “dreary flickering” in front of our eyes is a loud prophetic alarm to the digital age. We are always busy, but always distracted – diabolically lured away from what is truly essential and truly gratifying. Led by our unchecked digital appetites, we manage to transgress both commands that promise to bring focus to our lives. We fail to enjoy God. We fail to love our neighbor.”
Indeed, just as Piper boomed to his young listeners in 2000, we hear the reverberating warning here, “That’s a tragedy!”
So, I must not give in to nothingness – I must persist with a greater introspection of how my phone is shaping me, affecting my relationship with Christ, and dictating the way I live in light of eternity. We pray alongside the Psalmists:
Psalm 119:18, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”
Psalm 119:37, “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things…”
May the Holy Spirit help us – yes, we really sorely do need the help! – to combat our unhealthy habits with the Living Word:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 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. (Colossians 3:1-4)
May we truly – as people these days say – stay woke. To keep abreast with the Devil’s evergreen tactics of magnifying ourselves in our own eyes and diminishing Jesus’ bigness by any means possible – even exploiting the good technology which the generous Lord has blessed his talented, imaged creatures to conjure with creativity for mankind’s advancement and convenience.
How are you wasting your life today?
You can watch the exceptional video for Reinke’s book here: