When was the last time you withdrew? Not the last time you were the only person in the room or in the house — when was the last time you withdrew from contact with anyone else? Jesus “would withdraw” from the crowds “to deslolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16). He knew that His busy schedule required time alone — completely alone — with His heavenly Father.
In the twenty-first century, being alone and withdrawing mean much more than being the only person in the room. They mean being unplugged. In our appreciation for the help that technology can bring, we have perhaps been unaware of its more subtle dangers. And its dangers are not simply located in the content that technology can deliver, harmful as that may be. Its dangers lie also in the behavior that is required by its use. Owning a smartphone creates the peer pressure of immediate communication. How many times a day do you check your email — by phone, computer, laptop, or tablet? How many times do you check it even when you’re in the middle of a conversation? Also, with the reality of our new penchant to be in constant contact comes the reality of others’ constant expectations of us. Owning a cell phone brings expectations that one should never be alone.
One of the historical paradigm shifts in neurology came when the “standard view” of the brain as a hardwired machine was shown to be false. Instead, studies have shown, the brain is a pliable organ. It is shaped and molded, in large part, not simply by what we think but by the manner or way that we choose to inform our brains. This phenomenon of pliability is called “neuroplasticity.” The brain is a kind of soft and supple clay. Like clay, it can be formed and conformed; but like clay, it can gain a rigidity over time, once formed in a particular way. If we train the brain to be distracted, it will “learn” that distraction is its normal mode of operation. It will also “learn” that contemplation and thinking are foreign to its practice.
It was Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” What McLuhan was setting forth with that phrase was that it was not only the content of a particular medium that is important to recognize. For instance, it is not only the images that a television communicates that are important. Perhaps even more important, because it is more subtle, is that it communicates by way of images. The medium — that is, the communication of images on the television — is the message. Images are two-dimensional; they cannot communicate depth. They are not context dependent; they are their own context. Images are unable to communicate concepts like universals or the content of emotion (though they can communicate the emotion itself).
With the ever-burgeoning advances in technology, we have become a society (and a church?) that has committed itself, perhaps unwittingly, to distraction. The problem of distraction is serious enough, but the power of that distraction to train our plastic brains can be deadly for Christian growth. If the brain is really molded by how we think, then it is possible that our addiction to distraction will eventually train us not to think at all. We will be so mastered by our constant urge to check and answer our email, to look at our smartphones every time they buzz, to check the scores of our favorite teams, to “text” notes that our ability to think, to pray, to savor the truth of God will be all but gone.
Like Christ, Christians must withdraw, unplug. It is time to make sure that we are molding our plastic brains in a way that they will be trained again to think carefully, to concentrate, to work through difficulties, to meditate on God’s character, to revel in His glory. The Apostle Paul commanded us to let the Word of Christ dwell in us. It might be possible to fulfill that command by reading and memorizing Scripture. The adverb, however, is all-important. The word of Christ is to dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16). The adverb expresses a depth and abundance that can come to us only if that Word that we read, even memorize, takes its place in our minds such that we contemplate and meditate on its truths. If the medium is the message, then the Word of God in Scripture is given to us so that we might continue to renew and train our plastic minds to think God’s thoughts after Him.
When the crowds pressed in on Jesus, He knew that obedience to His heavenly Father required that He must at times withdraw to focus on that relationship, and on it alone, in order to meet and confront a needy and hostile world afterward. A Christian who is serious about growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ will make technology a resourceful servant, not a mind-numbing master, and will commit to making a habit of withdrawing from it all in order to mold the mind, more and more, in conformity to the depth and truth of the Christian faith.