Spiritual Formation in an Age of Productivity

Much of life is now accounted for in time, with productivity and speed sovereign over our sense of self and worth. How is spiritual formation possible in such a frantic and anxious age?

A friend recently quoted Eugene Peterson to me. He said, “You have to slow down to catch up with God, because God walks at the pace with which people are known.” We were talking about spiritual formation and how part-and-parcel of progress in the Christian life was the right expectations for the time it could take.

We live in the age of the killer app. The particular challenge of our cultural moment is that it promises next-day delivery on all things we identify with the good life. We expect relational connection as quick as our internet provider can buffer a video clip; or we expect to master a given topic in the time it takes to listen to the relevant crash course. We want the shortcut.

If we can’t be sure that it’ll take a short time, we at least want to be sure of the time it will take. Online blog articles now tell you how long it will take to finish reading them. Those addictive, square videos which pop-up on your Facebook news feed have a buffering line which traces the perimeter, letting you know how soon the video will end. Much of life is now accounted for in time, with productivity and speed sovereign over our sense of self and worth.

When it comes to spiritual formation, speed is a terrible taskmaster. It deforms character, exacerbates anxiety, and is ultimately an exercise in missing the point.

When it comes to spiritual formation, speed is a terrible taskmaster. It deforms character, exacerbates anxiety, and is ultimately an exercise in missing the point.

To elaborate, speed promotes hurry, and hurry empties character of its attraction. In Tolstoy’s famous novel Anna Karenina, Tolstoy introduces Anna’s husband Alexey Alexandrovich as just this type of human. Honest, upright, but heartless, hurried, and in control. Everything in his life works like clockwork. Of him, Tolstoy writes, “Every minute of Alexey Alexandrovich’s life was allotted and accounted for. And he maintained the strictest punctuality so that he could manage to achieve everything on his agenda each day.”[1] All of life is employed as an exercise in productivity and astuteness. Aside from the wonder of therefore getting everything done, it wreaks of inhumanity. Despite being a noble character, Tolstoy presents him as fundamentally unattractive. He is up tight–for most of the novel, at least. Part of Anna’s disinterest flows from her repulsion of his well-to-do-at-the-expense-of-presence-and-love demeanour. It suggests that when life is lived at the tyranny of productivity, you may get the right things done but you miss becoming the right type of person. There’s something empty about a person who treats all of life as an exercise in output.[2]

Second, a life lived at the behest of productivity forms an expectation that growth comes quickly. “All I need to do is read this book,” I sometimes think. “I’ll be good at this if I just listen to this podcast series,” you might subconsciously believe. It’s the Silicon Valley worldview, which promotes a life hack for life’s ills and a curated course for growth in character. The problem with this is that it takes a virtue or discipline of our spiritual lives–patience, humility, and kindness, or prayer, fasting, and solitude–and promises the pilgrim a quick fix for a good goal. The quick-fix mentality does more to make the pilgrim anxious for progress or despairing for its lack, than it does to propel them forward. The irony is, therefore, that the taskmaster of productivity is mercilessly unproductive for spiritual formation.

The reason for this is that spiritual formation is slow. There’s no silver bullet. Just consistent practices that span a life and conscript our hearts. The ancient philosophers knew this. Jewish rabbis knew this. Jesus himself knew this. Paul the apostle knew this. And knowing this is the key to forming the right expectations about growth. Because it’s these expectations that become the soil from which comes growth – not simply nice to look at but sweet to smell.

Spiritual formation is slow. There’s no silver bullet.

Jung, the twentieth century psychiatrist, once urged us to beware of unearned wisdom. He was talking about psychedelics, but his point is appropriate here: be suspicious of circumventing the tested method for grasping… well, anything! We should all be suspicious of a narrative of life which promises a quick fix for anything meaningful. Any meaningful growth in life is a process of slow change; anything fast is the exception to the rule, usually by virtue of God’s gracious intervention in the lives of those who surrender to him. More importantly, Christianity is not a crash course; it is a life of apprenticeship to Jesus. It begins with meeting him, continues by following him, and climaxes with being made like him–when we stand face to face. All that to say, speed exacerbates anxiety, which acts to corrode character more than cultivate it.

And finally, it’s ultimately an exercise in missing the point. The more I walk with Jesus, the more his words in Matthew 28:11-30 bring such life to my own journey of spiritual formation:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Part of his words in this passage seek to affirm two basic ideas. The first is the most important: Jesus has a task for his followers. A yoke is a wooden crosspiece fastened over two animals to get them to work together–ploughing the land, pulling a cart, and the rest of it. Jewish rabbis used the term to refer to their own teaching; their yoke. Every rabbi had their own yoke. It would involve an interpretation of the Torah and the Prophets, and wisdom on how to live. A yoke was all encompassing, conscripting not simply the mind but also the heart and the hands. Being invited to take up a rabbi’s yoke was synonymous with being invited to follow the rabbi’s teaching and their way of life. In other words, spiritual formation.

The second idea is less explicit but no less exciting. Recall the agricultural imagery of a yoke. A yoke joined one animal with another, for the sake of fulfilling a task. The yoke, in this passage, is none other than Jesus’ yoke. The thing to which it attaches us is not another human being, but the God-man talking: Jesus. The implications are staggering. Jesus isn’t just another rabbi asking those listening to follow after (that is, behind) his way of life, he is the ultimate rabbi inviting whosoever shall come to be with him in (that is, inside and beside) his way of life. Paradoxically then, the goal of our task as followers–and the means of achieving that task–is union with him.

Jesus isn’t just another rabbi asking those listening to follow after (that is, behind) his way of life, he is the ultimate rabbi inviting whosoever shall come to be with him in (that is, inside and beside) his way of life.

Trace back to the start of the passage. Jesus says, “Come to me.” Notice that he doesn’t say, “Come after me,” or, “Come beside me.” He says, “Come to me.” He is prescribing our goal: to be with him. Only then can we ever hope to be authentically like him. See, the great grace of the Christian story is that rather than becoming like our rabbi to come near our rabbi, we are given the invitation to come near our rabbi to become like our rabbi. Not only does this give Christians a different goal, but it’s gives them a pilgrimage into the self that actually works. Progress in spiritual formation always outworks itself from presence with Jesus.

I think that part of the invitation to follow Jesus in our frenetic age of distraction and deformation is to slow down, trace out the people we’re becoming, and bring that projection to the presence of the greatest person who ever lived (who, by the way, was God in flesh) and say, “Will you teach me?” Only then, by coming to him, can we hope to have the right expectations for spiritual formation, an authentic way by which to grow, and the perfect model into whose likeness we’d be foolish not to be attracted to. This is Christian spiritual formation in a world which prizes productivity, and nothing is more beautiful and nothing less will work.

Find more thoughtful content on these topics in RZIM Answers.

Loneliness in an Age of Distraction

For those of us who are lonely, the message of the Bible can bring us lasting hope.

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In his book The Shallows, Nicolas Carr explains:

“The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention, and we willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”

Carr argues that we are a society addicted to distraction. We have trained our minds to be restless, constantly moving to the next thing without registering the first. Even while reading this article, you will probably be tempted to look at Instagram, check an email, or answer a text.

Is it possible that this subconscious tick has significantly changed our understanding of community and how we relate to one another? If we truly are addicted to distraction, does this shed light on why we are possibly the loneliest generation?

Addicted to Distraction?

Distraction is the antithesis of presence which is essential for community and relationship. In the realest sense, presence demands attention and concentrated listening. Have you ever tried to have an important conversation with someone who was distracted? Not only is it frustrating, but you feel devalued because it seems as if you were not worth their attention. What happens when we are all excellent at distracted listening but convince ourselves and others we are present? We are left in a world where we are always communicating but never being heard, subconsciously growing jaded about the real conversations that are required for lasting community.

Add to this the odd paradox that, as the world becomes increasingly smaller, we become increasingly lonely. Technology has made communication with anyone around the globe possible in an instant, yet loneliness is on the rise.

Late last year, a Barna-World Vision partnership surveyed 15,000 18-35 year-olds from 25 countries, and the results were fascinating to say the least:

77 percent of respondents said events around the world matter to them.

57 percent said they feel connected to people around the world.

And yet, 66 percent said they don’t feel cared for by those around them.

Research from other countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, and Japan illustrates the same point. Additionally, the BBC conducted an online survey of 55,000 people from around the world, and they found levels of loneliness were highest among 16-24 year-olds.

Is social media to blame for this epidemic? Some experts say yes, but according to a 2018 survey by Cigna of over 20,000 people, social media can’t be the real problem. Respondents labeled as heavy social media users only had a loneliness score of 43.5 compared to those who never use social media with a score of 41.7.

A better question for us to ask is, “Why are we addicted to something as odd as distraction in the first place?” An addiction to coffee makes sense to me: It wakes me up and has an amazing aroma. And as for sugar, it tastes good. But what is so alluring about distraction?

One of the greatest sources of anxiety when I was a child was the annual doctor’s check-up. I was a healthy kid, but even the healthiest of us have to get the annual, much-dreaded shot. It didn’t matter how nice the doctor appeared to be; we knew that eventually the syringe would find its way into our arm.

Tellingly, the best physicians were those who mastered the art of distraction. Some would sing a song, give us a toy, or point to a painting on the wall, and then ever so stealthily administer the needle. When done well, we never noticed the pain.

Was it because there was no pain? No—the needle still broke the skin. However, because our minds were so heavily distracted, the pain went unrecognized. While this may seem cute and ridiculous, have we moved passed such childish things?

I wonder if the reason we are so addicted to distraction is because it helps us to avoid the pain that’s just below the surface. The pain of not knowing if our lives even matter; the pain of wondering if we will ever measure up; the pain of wondering whether we will ever truly be loved.

I wonder if the reason we are so addicted to distraction is because it helps us to avoid the pain that’s just below the surface.

For those of us who do use social media, consider the cycle that ensnares so many of us today:

While you feel deeply connected to the world around you, you feel profoundly isolated from the people closest to you. So, you seek human connection on social media only to be fooled into thinking you are actually connecting with people. Then reality sets in. While the world is offering you its most photoshopped version of itself, and everyone seems to be living their best life, you realize how alone you really are. You are nothing like the images you see on the screen. So you stop for a moment, only to then go back to where you “connect” because the intoxication of distraction numbs the ache of loneliness. This cycle goes on and on until we don’t even remember why we were distracting ourselves in the first place. It just becomes the rhythm of life.

All we are left with is ourselves, the very self that isn’t enough. We need a real connection from outside.

The Christian Perspective on Distraction

From a Christian standpoint, loneliness should make us feel off. God created humans in his image for community because He Himself (the Triune Being) is community; therefore, loneliness would be outside of his design.

But rather than respecting this design of real communion with God, we wanted to call the shots and chose a false sense of autonomy instead. As sin entered the cosmos, it not only fractured our relationship with God but with other people. Even in the Garden of Eden, the first thing humans did when they sinned was hide themselves because of guilt and shame. We have been hiding ourselves from God ever since, not realizing that in doing so we inadvertently hide ourselves from others for the same reasons.

One of the most raw passages of scripture comes from Psalm 88 where the psalmist takes his anger and loneliness directly to God. He doesn’t pull any punches: “You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend” (verse 18).

The question that often plagues us all in our loneliness is, “Does anyone really care about me?” It makes sense that the heart of Christianity is God’s relentless pursuit of those who are outcasted, alienated, and lost—those far from Christ.

Psalm 88 reveals that the God of Christianity acknowledges our loneliness and yet doesn’t patronizingly tell us to “get over it.” Instead, He descends, listens, and shows us that He, too, knows what it’s like to battle loneliness.

The God of Christianity acknowledges our loneliness and yet doesn’t patronizingly tell us to “get over it.” He, too, knows what it’s like to battle loneliness.

Hours before his crucifixion, all of Jesus’ disciples—his best friends—deserted him. Not only was he alone in a physical sense, but in Mark 15:33-34, we read, “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. At the ninth hour, Jesus cried in a loud voice, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’” While hanging alone on the cross, Christ took on true alienation. He understands loneliness and isolation to a degree that none of us ever will.

As Psalm 88 makes clear, Christianity doesn’t say we won’t ever feel lonely. Rather, it shows us that we are never truly alone despite our feelings to the contrary. A God who has experienced cosmic loneliness is a God you can trust with yours. The assured hope is that even loneliness will have its end and, while we struggle to believe this truth in the midst of our lives, we are given truths to cling to like Psalm 139:

“Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me

and the light become night around me,’

even the darkness will not be dark to you;

the night will shine like the day,

for darkness is as light to you.”

Find more thoughtful content on these topics in RZIM Answers.

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