To be spiritually healthy in today’s world, you’ll need to become some kind of minimalist. There’s just no other way to fit God in. He’s too big for the tiny gaps in our lives.
Minimalism is no longer some radical alternative lifestyle for privileged people who want a simpler life. It’s essential. It’s survival. It’s sanity. Minimalism is basically about two things: possessions and attention. I’ve written before about the former, but today we’ll talk about the latter. By default, modern life throws way too much at us to leave healthy levels of attention for the things that matter. And so, our human relationships are starved of depth and our spiritual lives are anaemic. Somehow, we still wonder why God is distant, everyone is depressed and marriages don’t last.
In truth, what we call minimalism today was only a century ago called… normal. And, for our own good, we must go back. Yes, minimalism is eye-rollingly trendy, and yes, it’s paraded around in pretentious ways by those who have adopted it as a kind of religion. And somehow, in our accelerated world, it seems to have already peaked and declined as a hipster cliche despite actually being an ancient ideal.
But what we now call minimalism is just a fancy paint job for assertiveness, and it’s eternally relevant. It’s about saying ‘no’ to the impossible flood of voices and possessions which fight for our focus, so that we can say ‘yes’ to things of actual value.
The New World
That kind of assertiveness is needed now more than ever. Our attention has become the most valuable commodity in the world. Most of the world’s biggest companies wage a silent war for your attention every day. Google is not a search or software company. It’s an advertising company, and they desperately want your eyeballs glued to their services for as many minutes per day as possible. That’s how they make a buck. The same is true for Facebook, Twitter and the other juggernauts of today’s mobile world. That’s the reason you get a notification every seventeen seconds. Unless you turn them all off, which you should.
Also, in a desperate attempt to maximise your engagement, the internet is driven by aggressive algorithms which almost exclusively feed you more of what you want. Not a balanced diet. Just bacon. Sounds awesome, right? Except, sadly, man cannot live on bacon alone. If you think your Facebook feed keeps you informed, think again. It keeps you selectively informed about the things you want to hear, and almost nothing else. It has learnt your likes and dislikes, because you’ve spent years teaching it. It perpetuates ignorance and polarises people by design. And we wonder why we all get along so well in the new world!
Internet success happens when you steal people’s attention for profit. And how do you steal people’s attention? By telling them they’re right about everything. That, like sex and violence, will always sell. Confirmation bias is real, and internet companies exploit it for their bottom line.
Marketing is the exploitation of human nature. You can dress it up all you like, but that’s the reality of what drives our western economy.
My Dad is a Christian mission worker and pastor, and when asked about his secret to building a fruitful and long-lasting ministry, he often sarcastically quotes the joke of a good friend: “Just tell them what they want to hear, then rake in the money!” He’s kidding, of course, but that’s a great summary of the hidden economy that runs our digital lives.
All of this means that in our century, reality is bleak for the unconscious consumer. If you’re not careful, you’re just a canvas for bigger fish to paint their dreams on. Fish who don’t know you at all, or care about your wellbeing.
It’s helpful to actually say these words to yourself on a regular basis: “My attention is the most valuable commodity in the world.” The more aware of this you become, the more you’ll treasure and protect it, and the more you’ll see how today’s world is constantly scrambling for it.
Maybe you’re already aware of all of this. In that case, you’re the best case scenario. But even you are robbed of your time and attention by such a world, and those are the two most valuable non-renewable resources in your life. No matter how you cut it, it’s a bad deal.
It’s time to take control.
The cure for this madness is not some new approach or philosophy. Again, the word ‘minimalism’ is just a rebrand. The cure for reversing the ‘new’ is more obvious. We must embrace the old. We must reject the lie that newer is always better. We now have unnaturally constant access to information, entertainment and communication. We must assertively shut them out for most of the time, instead giving only rare ‘openings’ or windows in our days. It’s the opposite of taking time off Facebook and our other favourite services. It’s about consciously choosing time on, and rejecting them the rest of the time. It’s not paranoid to say that all of them are out to get you. You need to keep them at arm’s length.
To this end, the best thing I’ve done lately is delete Facebook from my phone a few months ago (although I do reinstall it when traveling, to keep my friends and family up to date.) I check it on my laptop a few times a week, and each time I do, I spend some good time engaging with it. I enjoy it, and then I kill it and try to forget that it exists. I only check my emails a few times per week. I’ve turned my phone into a simple tool rather than an everything-in-my-pocket device. The apps on my home screen reflect the life I want to live, not the life I’m supposed to live, or the demands I’m supposed to meet. Those demands are literally deleted, and I’ll never go back.
Personally, without taking such drastic measures, my thoughts are just torn in too many directions. “Like butter scraped over too much bread,” as Bilbo put it when looking back on his eleventy-one years. Nobody is forcing you to be a victim of modern life. You can opt out whenever you like.
The One Voice that Matters
When we pray and worship, we shut out the voices of the world and listen to the voice of Jesus. His is supposed to be the voice that runs our lives, because his is the very voice of God. He may not always speak to us in tangible ways (and when he does, it’s often not in the ways we ask or expect,) but scripture and silence are always a success in themselves. If they’re all we get on most days, they’re the medicine we need. If we’re content with pursuing them, we’ll be spending plenty of time with our ears wide open to him, and that’s when he has the chance to speak to us more deeply, clearly and often. (I’m not speaking as one who has mastered this, but as one who desperately needs to hear it!)
What can you do today to make more time for Jesus’ voice? What things can you loudly say ‘no’ to in order to say ‘yes’ to spending more time in scripture, worship or prayer? What can you do to take control of competing voices which fight for your attention and affection? And, most importantly, what can you do to grow in your desire for God’s presence and voice in your daily life? On this, we must be brutally honest with ourselves; If, deep down, we don’t really want to spend more time on these things (which will very often be true), then we’ve found our first task. We must, as I am forced to do almost constantly, come to God and ask him to work on our hearts and rearrange our priorities, because they’re very good at getting out of whack.
God is not coercive. He is gentle, and so we must actively seek him. That is every wise Christian’s first priority. That is why we must silence the storm.