A Technology Sabbath: Towards redeeming our smartphones

It can be hard to take Sabbath rest amid the pressures of academia. This is at least partially because of how technology allows us to be available and able to work at almost any time, irrelevant of where we are. Yet, Sabbath is a gift from God: a reminder of God’s good gift of rest and how even our best efforts cannot save the world. So as we enter into Lent, I encourage you to take Sabbath weekly, including taking a break from our smart phones (i.e., not touching it for a time except to make pre-arranged calls to loved ones).

The point of putting our smartphones down for awhile is to become more aware of how we use our phones in life (and how often we use it). Actually putting it away prevents us from allowing it to distract us from the world around us. The following are some further suggestions to grow in awareness of how much time we spend on our phones, as well as suggestions for preventing our phones from interrupting our lives unnecessarily:

  • Put an app on your phone (like quality time) that tracks how often you pick up your phone and which apps you use most.
  • Keep your phone out of reach (or in a bag if it’s with you); at the least, don’t put it on the table near you (and perhaps don’t even have it with you).
  • Figure out which app you use too much and delete it.
  • Turn off all notifications on your phone (if not all the time, at least some of the time). Decide what times of what days you won’t look at email.
  • Do one thing before looking at your phone in the morning.
  • Put a picture of that which is important to you as background on your phone.
  • Rearrange the apps on your phone so that you’re reminded of what’s more important.
  • Before picking up your phone and using an app, think this through a. what is my goal in opening this app? b. how do I know when my goal is accomplished? These are also helpful questions for any technology uses.

All of the above suggestions are about trying to remind ourselves that our smartphones (and any technology we have) are tools. They are a gift that can make our lives a lot better, especially in terms of being connected to people we care about. At the same time, smartphones can be addictive, especially as we can use them as a means not to feel bored or to be present to the world around us. Paying more attention to them is one way of allowing them to be more of a positive tool than a bad habit.

Further resources

The gift of Sabbath

For most folks, graduate school is a time of being busy: there is always something to do or else guilt in not doing it. Practicing Sabbath can be a challenge during this time, especially as it often takes some creativity to make happen.

Yet, Sabbath is a gift, especially of perspective. It challenges our understanding of time, seeing “time not as an enemy to subdue, but as a friend to savor.” (Mary Ann McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs). Furthermore, it challenges how we think about ourselves. We are not as important or as invincible as we sometimes think: the world will continue quite fine without our efforts. As much as God can use us to do good, God is certainly able to do good without us. It also challenges whatever guilt we might ahve picked up in terms of how undeserving we might be of rest:

“Even if you don’t observe Sabbath, a shift in perception is helpful. It doesn’t ever all get done. We need to train our vision. We see failure when we should see alternatives. Better to focus on the good and important things we did do instead of berating ourselves for falling short of an ideal.” McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs, 105.

On top of the obvious challenge of carving out time for Sabbath, it doesn’t help that one of the joys of Sabbath – delighting in one’s friends and family – is made more difficult in that most people move to a new place for grad school. The friends made in the new place tend to be busy working.

Yet, even practicing Sabbath in small doses can be an encouragement. Perhaps one of the following suggestions is something that you could work into your schedule:

  • taking one morning, afternoon, or evening to journal or read an encouraging (or challenging) non-school book;
  • going out into nature somewhere – or explore some other new place;
  • taking a break from technology for a few hours;
  • commuting in silence and/or using the commute time to sing in the car, pray and meditate, or listen to a podcast that rejuvenates you;
  • “While waiting at red lights, sitting with both hands open, as a way of practicing Psalm 46’s invitational command to “Be still and know that I am God.” See other tips for short Sabbath moments here.

Last of all, I encourage you to give yourself the grace and courage to keep trying. Taking Sabbath is a habit one needs to form and, like most habits, it takes time (and often some failure) to figure out how to grow into.

Some helpful quotes and books to keep pondering Sabbath:

  • “What happens when we stop working and controlling nature? When we don’t operate machines or pick flowers? . . . When we cease interfering in the world we are acknowledging that it is God’s world.” Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath, 6-7.
  • “Sabbath puts the focus on God and God’s gracious invitation to rest from one’s work.” Mary Ann McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs, 22.
  • A quote from Sabbath in the Suburbs (89): “It’s not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.” Mary O’Connor.
  • A helpful book to read: Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (2001)

Learning to enjoy Sabbath/ Sunday

To my delight, it was fairly unanimous during our Bible Study that Sabbath (e.g., Sunday rest) is considered to be a blessing. At the same time, it was also obvious that it was complicated. Some in the group had grown up with very strict guidelines of what should and should not happen on Sunday. Others had had very little structure in their day, making the day be not all that significant. Neither of these are what we really want for our lives now, but it’s not so easy to figure out how to do Sunday/ Sabbath well in the midst of busy, full lives in a way that fits who we are and remains intentionally turned towards God.

Suprisingly enough, seeing Sabbath as being more of a gift full of freedom makes it easier, I believe, to turn towards God. This is not to say to say that things like attending church or Bible reading aren’t important – they are! – but Sabbath ought not to be limited to God things or good Christian activities. It’s not supposed to be another day we strive to be good or please God. Sabbath is about slowing down and delighting in God’s world around us, both the creation and the people in our lives. Sometimes a bit of planning helps, at least to make sure that others are also available and also to push those of us who are lazy to actively participate in enjoying. It’s also good to realize that Sabbath isn’t just about one day, but about an attitude that will hopefully (after practicing it more intentionally on Sunday) carry on throughout the week, so that we slow down, realize that we are not in control, turn actively towards God, and delight in the good gifts He has given us.

It is also helpful to see Sabbath as a practice and discipline. Not because it’s one more thing we have to be good at as Christians, but to see that it takes practice to get better at it. Furthermore, just like some people take to jogging long distances more easily than others, some people take to the discipline of Sabbath more easily than others. Those of us who are naturally more worried or tend towards feelings of guilt often have difficulties with Sabbath, and perhaps it is easiest to take it at small doses at a time or find a ‘running buddy’ to do it. For those of us who are overachievers and define ourselves a bit too much on the basis of what we do, it can help to see Sabbath as being a way to refresh and renew, recognizing that rest actually makes us better productive. My hope, though, is that Sabbath becomes a gift to all of us – a day we look forward to for spending time turning towards God, without expectations or guilt or pressure.