ENTERTAINING OURSELVES TO DEATH
Written by Doug Ponder on August 28, 2013
Affects of Entertainment
When we sit down to watch TV, or flip open our laptops, or slide the bar to unlock our smart phones and tablets, we are not just using technology; that technology is also “using” us. That is, these entertaining devices are shaping us and affecting us, often in ways that we are completely unaware of. Perhaps we struggle to believe that this could be true because these objects have become such an indispensible part of our lives. But history, as well as countless studies in recent years, repeatedly demonstrates otherwise.
Something happens to us when we “tune in” to a TV show, a video game, a movie, a few minutes on Facebook, a few minutes of Farmville or Candy Crush Saga (stop inviting me to play these). Our brains are affected by the flickering pixels and rapid movement of colors and shapes. As we indulge in these activities, we are “untraining” ourselves from hard-won disciplines of focus, concentration, and reasoned thought. This is true even when we are reading e-books or articles (like this one). The sheer act of using these devices reshapes our minds, slowly developing a need for higher and higher levels of “sensory input” in order to keep our attention or to serve as entertainment For example, a national study conducted on incoming freshman in 2012 found that they had the shortest attention spans and lowest levels of sustained concentration of any group of people surveyed. (I doubt it has improved this year.)
Entertainment and the Soul
If short attention spans were worst of it, perhaps we’d just shrug and say, “So each generation will be a little less sharp. Who cares?” Well, we certainly should care about that, but there are worse symptoms to consider. Human beings are what theologians call a “psychosomatic unity.” That’s just their way of saying that our souls and our bodies exist together in the same space, interacting and affecting each other in profound ways. In other words, what affects us physically may affect us spiritually and vice versa.
That means when we keep turning to TV, social media, or videogames for distractions from the stresses and pressures of real life, they begin to cultivate in us a kind of appetite for distraction. Our souls begin to loathe things like work, concentration, thought, reading, or prayer. It’s works a lot like exercise. The more you exercise, the more you will be in better shape. Runners run well because they train to run, after all. But when you stop exercising, you start falling back out of shape. The same is true with entertainment. The more we entertain ourselves, the more we “train” ourselves to love entertainment and to despise anything that feels like work or anything else un-fun.
Obviously, this has tremendous implications when it comes to the Christian life. There’s a lot that Jesus asks us to do that feels un-fun, or hard. But that doesn’t make them not good. And that’s the problem with our entertainment indulgences: we begin to feel like what Jesus says is good for us is actually bad for us. It’s like trying to convince a toddler that broccoli tastes good if he’s only ever eaten ice cream. (Good luck with that.) Likewise, excessive entertainment sets us up for failure when it comes to obeying Jesus in day-to-day activities, like praying and reading the Scriptures. How many times have you felt yourself saying, “I don’t feel like praying right now” or “I don’t feel like reading the Scriptures”? These feelings do not arise in a vacuum.
Daily Entertainment Snares
And I’m not just pointing the finger about these things; I experience this on a regular basis. It is so easy to get sucked into Facebook or YouTube or Twitter. “I’ll just check one thing before I go to work,” and thirty minutes later you’re still scrolling, still clicking, still entertaining yourself. The worst part is, the more you indulge, the more you want. It’s like food and obesity. After indulging (in food or entertainment) you’ll feel satisfied for a little while, but you’ll always want more. This is probably why people who try to “unwind” by watching TV or mindlessly surfing social media pages so often complain about not getting enough rest. Because of their high-entertainment diet, they feel like the rest of their life is one big boring hardship. And instead of actually resting from the hustle and bustle of life, they increase the stress with fast-moving digital images and sounds.
Is Entertainment Sinful?
Entertainment, by itself, isn’t sinful. But it’s not neutral either. That’s the naive lie that we are tempted to believe. We tell ourselves, “It’s just TV. It’s just Facebook. It’s just Twitter. Its’ just Pinterest. It’s just YouTube. It’s just whatever it is you’re doing.” But entertainment is not “just” anything. It is an activity that shapes us, so we should be careful to enjoy it in moderation. How much entertainment is a moderate amount? If you’re like the average American family, the answer is probably way less than whatever your present intake is right now.
How to Reduce Entertainment Excess
The first thing to do is to recognize that overindulging in entertainment is not just a mistake; it is sin. Specifically, it is the sin of laziness or the worship of comfort. Jesus’ death covered these sins, too, so we shouldn’t treat them lightly. We ought to confess our entertainment addiction to God, thank him for forgiveness, and ask him for his gracious help to change.
And then we must actually change. That’s what repentance is. It isn’t just a change of mind about something. It’s a change of heart that leads to a change of direction that ends with a changed life. If you are convicted about the level of entertainment in your life—whether digital or not—then God is calling you to change. You might cancel cable. (You’ll live without being able to watch football. I promise.) You might get rid of your TV altogether. (I know of a couple families who don’t have one, and they don’t miss it at all.) You might place devices like LeechBlock or Nanny (for Google Chrome) on your computer, which block certain sites (like YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.) at specific times of the day.
And don’t just replace one form of entertainment with another. You’re not more holy because you stop watching TV but start reading US Weekly instead. Rather, consider using your new-found “free” time to do something that matters. Talk with your spouse. Read the Scriptures. Pray. Spend time with your neighbors. Read a book about Jesus. You won’t get to the end of your life and say, “I wish I had played one more game… watched one more match… liked one more status…” But you might get to the end of your and say, “I entertained myself to death.” Don’t do it. Seek God’s help to change today.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.