The Fear of Missing Out

Excerpted FromA Way With WordsBy Daniel Darling The internet can make us smarter, but it can also be the equivalent of eating junk food three meals a day. Christians who live in this age have to resist the wrong impulses of either being drawn into endless rabbit trails of information or withdrawing completely. Information discipline […]

Excerpted From
A Way With Words
By Daniel Darling

The internet can make us smarter, but it can also be the equivalent of eating junk food three meals a day. Christians who live in this age have to resist the wrong impulses of either being drawn into endless rabbit trails of information or withdrawing completely.

Information discipline begins, I believe, by getting to the heart of why we pick up our phones and why we often mindlessly hit “search” or why we give in to another guilty click on a clickbaity article on a celebrity breakup. What is at the heart of our endless need to check-in on social media, our never-ending Google searches for fruitless information, and our restlessness in this age of information?

With most questions, I’m drawn back to the very beginning of the Bible, to the story that Christianity tells about the nature of humanity and the character of God. God planted the first humans in a garden rich with sensory experiences and urged them to pursue knowledge and cultivate his good creation. But there was a tree, aptly named I believe: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. On first blush, it’s hard for us to understand why God would not want his image-bearers to know good and evil. Isn’t knowledge a means of human flourishing in a world where God’s creation shouts information?

This question, actually, frames the serpent’s appeal to Eve. Why would God, if he is a good Father, keep this information from you? The fruit you are forbidden to eat tastes good, but more importantly it will lift you to vistas of knowledge you don’t have now, data that God, if he were good, would not withhold from you.

But could there be a kind of knowing that is not good for us, that undermines our quest for true wisdom? Jen Pollack Michel writes that what Satan was getting at was not knowledge itself, but a false promise that “one could have the infinite, infallible, wisdom of God.” When I first read this in her book, Surprised by Paradox, I had to read it again several times. Because this is exactly, I think, the great temptation of the digital age.

Let me explain by sharing more of my own vulnerabilities. I’ve always been a curious mind. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been reading. Newspapers. Books. Magazines. And now, of course, online publications, email newsletters, tweets.

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There is a joy in learning that I hope stays with me for my whole life, but there is also a subtle sense of control—of being my own god—that I feel when I have my phone. One of the lies my phone tells me is that I don’t actually need God. I can control my life and my destiny and the wellbeing of my family and friends because with this digital device, I have access to power. I can text powerful people. I can tweet and grow my audience. I can fire off an email to my staff and set things in motion. And even when I’m in a crowd of people that I’m not that familiar with, I can do some quick Google and Wikipedia searches and get up to speed on conversations.

Ironically, I don’t actually walk around thinking “I’m powerful. I’m a god. I don’t need God.” It’s subconscious. But do you know when I feel this most acutely? When, for some reason, I’m disconnected.

When I’m in a meeting where I can’t get away with sneaking peaks at social media. When I’m in an Uber in a city I don’t know and my phone is dead. When I finally set my phone down on the charger and walk that 10 feet to my bed, absent from the world. It’s an interesting thing. When I’m connected to my phone, I often feel I don’t need God because I feel like a god. When I’m disconnected from my phone, I know I need God, because I feel like a creature. I recognize that I’m human, completely dependent on him.

My worst experience was the time last year my phone was unable to connect to Verizon. This lasted for about two days. I could hook up to Wi-Fi, so while at work I could get texts and check email and social media, but in the car rides in between work and home, I was unplugged. It all sounds so pathetic, I know, but it’s real. I felt a loss of control. I couldn’t find the fastest way home via Waze. I had to just take the standard route. I couldn’t listen to my favorite podcasts. I couldn’t even call home. For 30 minutes, I was not in control of my life. I could not seek new information. I couldn’t master my world. And I didn’t like it.

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Maybe your world is not as wrapped around your phone as mine seems to be. But at some level you see the ways the digital age and it’s promise of omniscience tug at your soul. Can you see that there is a way of knowing that is not about growing and learning and ultimately finding its way, our way, to the truth and to the Author of truth, but is instead a desire to “be in the know” and, in subtle ways, to be God instead of merely imaging him?

If, as Proverbs tells us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7), a healthy perspective recognizes that there are limits to what we can know. We are not God. We are not the source of all things.

To be God, to be the infinite source of all things, was the temptation the serpent laid before Eve. The fruit offered to Eve the illusion of control. It’s a shortsighted trade-off, really, exchanging your status as image-bearers pursuing knowledge that leads to great intimacy with the one who made you for a vain attempt to be the source of all things.

This is the seductive lie whispered to us in the dark watches of the night, or during a boring meeting, or while in conversation with a rambling neighbor. We’re missing out, we think, on an all-knowing that the internet promises to deliver.

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