SATAN’S “NOTHING” STRATEGY
Today, tired after work, I opened Facebook on my phone, looking for a diversion. I flicked past a video of a cat that sounds like a crying child; then I saw a new study about gun control; then I saw an innovative new keyboard for tablets; then I read a story from the latest celebrity gossip; then I was offered twenty pictures of actors who have aged badly (which I ignored); then I saw a breaking news story about a rogue militia group in Oregon; then I read that North Korea apparently had detonated a test atomic bomb; then I watched a viral video of a “monster shredder” that crushes refrigerators, couches, and cars with large metal teeth; and then I saw pictures of a friend and his wife on vacation in Iceland. On and on I flicked down a list of disconnected and fragmented items, and most of them only barely important or interesting. I was not edified or served, only further fatigued because of missing a nap I should have taken or a walk I could have taken, and easily lured back to my phone for more. And then I remembered I skipped my personal disciplines this morning. My battle against all the slothful smartphone tendencies I see in my own heart has only begun.
What I am coming to understand is that this impulse to pull the lever of a random slot machine of viral content is the age-old tactic of Satan. C. S. Lewis called it the “Nothing” strategy in his Screwtape Letters. It is the strategy that eventually leaves a man at the end of his life looking back in lament: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”
This “Nothing” strategy is “very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years, not in sweet sins, but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them . . . or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.”
Routines of nothingness. Habits unnecessary to our calling. A hamster wheel of what will never satisfy our souls. Lewis’s warning about the “dreary flickering” in front of our eyes is a loud prophetic alarm to the digital age. We are always busy, but always distracted— diabolically lured away from what is truly essential and truly gratifying. Led by our unchecked digital appetites, we manage to transgress both commands that promise to bring focus to our lives. We fail to enjoy God. We fail to love our neighbor.
Amid these habits of nothingness, we find ourselves wandering half-awake in digital idleness, prone to leave our digital responsibilities to become digital busybodies and digital meddlers. We give our time to what is not explicitly sinful, but also to what cannot give us joy or prepare us for self-sacrifice. Satan’s “Nothing” strategy aims at feeding us endlessly scrolling words, images, and videos that dull our affections—instead of invigorating our joy and preparing us to give ourselves in love.
Technology makes life easier, but immaturity makes technology self-destructive. With my phone, I find myself always teetering between useful efficiency and meaningless habit. I am often reminded that my phone may be a lot of things, but it is not a toy. The magician and the wielder of a smartphone are close cousins, and this is because, suggests literary critic Alan Jacobs, our modern technology offers us a bewitching power not unlike the magic in the Harry Potter fantasy series: “Often fun, often surprising and exciting, but also always potentially dangerous. . . . The technocrats of this world hold in their hands powers almost infinitely greater than those of Albus Dumbledore and Voldemort.” Into our hands are placed these wands, these smartphones, these powers of idolatry, freighted with redemptive expectations.
The digital age can bewitch and capture our hearts in unhealthy ways. Our advances in technology have a way of rendering God more and more irrelevant to our world and in our lives—the very definition of worldliness. And if our digital technology becomes our god, our wand of power, it will inevitably shape us into technicians who gain mastery over a dead world of conveniences. Aimlessly flicking through feeds and images for hours, we feel that we are in control of our devices, when we are really puppets being controlled by a lucrative industry.
While our techniques of control do not make us atheists, they do seem to make worship more and more irrelevant, as God is more and more displaced from our lives. We forget how to meet God, and yet we defend our smartphones, unwilling to admit that we are more concerned with controlling the mechanics of our lives than in worshiping the God whose sovereign power directs our every breath.
We must watch for signs that our worship is veering off course. We can no longer simply worship God in admiration or pray to him without a compulsive fidgeting for our phones. We talk more about God than we talk to him. Our hearts are more interested in following empty patterns of worship than encountering the Spirit. Our worship on Sunday seems flat, but our week is filled with an endless quest for Christian advice to fix what we know is wrong. We seek a mechanical relationship with God, searching for new techniques to fill the spiritual void in our lives. Signs such as these reveal how technology degrades our priorities. But worship calls for redirection in our lives.
Tony Reinke is a journalist and senior writer for desiringGod.org. He is the author of Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books; Newton on the Christian Life; and 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.