Samuel James

Advent Meditation: Behold the Father’s Love

When we look at the Christmas manger, we need to see more than a baby. We need to see a heavenly Father, the One who gave his only Son to us so we might become adopted sons and daughters. Could a Father this good, who gave this much, be anything but perfect for our weary, sinful, broken hearts?

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Early in the morning, I wake and quietly make my way to the gray wing chair in my home office. I’m determined to be productive in these precious predawn hours.
Only a few minutes into my routine, however, the door next to me slowly opens and my 4-year-old son walks in, bleary-eyed. All he wants to do is crawl into my lap and put a tired head on my shoulder. My plans for this moment are spoiled, but I couldn’t care less. Why? Because I’m this boy’s father, and he’s my son, and that’s enough to make me welcome his intrusion with joy.
One of the reasons we miss drinking more deeply of God’s love is that we forget to think of him as Father. We may know it’s true because we’ve read our Bibles, but our intuitions still imagine God as a more distant figure. This isn’t merely a shortcoming in our thinking; it’s a tragic distortion of our view of God.
“Father” isn’t a random nickname for God. It’s who God fundamentally is. He is Father. God the Father has eternally begotten God the Son.
Read More
Related Posts:

Digital Resistance: Three Habits for the Internet Age

For much of the past few years, I have been reading and thinking about the formative power of Internet technology on our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual lives. As I’ve shared with people the ideas in my book Digital Liturgies, one question comes up more often than any other: “What do we do about this?”

This is a challenging question not only because identifying problems is easier than developing practical solutions, but also because our first instinct in talking about the effects of digital life is often to attempt the impossible: turn back the clock, put the electronic Pandora back in her box, stand athwart technological history, and yell “Stop!” Even if we could summon the will to delete all our accounts and get rid of all our devices, we would not change the kind of world we and our neighbors inhabit. Faithfulness to Jesus cannot and does not mean time travel. “So,” people will ask confusedly, “what should we do?”

My answer is that we should think not (primarily) in terms of retreat, but in terms of resistance. The bad news is that the thought patterns of the web are so embedded into modern life that we cannot effectively avoid them. The good news is that the same responsiveness to the power of habit that makes online addiction so powerful also makes analog resistance effective. If God created human beings as physical creatures who must inhabit a physical, objective world to live as he made us to live, then this inhabiting of the real world is not a “hack” we must manufacture, but something deeply consonant with our created nature.

Analog resistance simply means practicing habits that accord with our fundamental needs as God-created persons. Let me, then, offer three of these needs and three corresponding habits.

Need #1: Permanent Words

The Internet age is an onslaught of words. The average person in the United States wakes up and, while sleep still lingers in the eyes, reaches for a glass rectangle that will show new words. These words may be about the latest scandal in Washington, DC, or the newest gadget from Silicon Valley, or a life-changing update from an employer, a friend, or a family member. A person can consume all three types of messages before rising from their pillow. There is no limit to the kind of words a digital age can speak to us.

Because the content of our minds deeply shapes the posture of our hearts, the abundance of online words creates an urgent need for something permanent: a bedrock of truth against which the latest novelties, temptations, and anxieties crash and shatter into the ephemera that they are.

Habit 1: Meditate daily on Scripture.

Scripture is that bedrock. The inspired words of the Bible, directly from the throne room of the Creator of the universe, fulfill a human need for permanence. Imagine waking up every single day in a different bed, next to a different person, in a different part of the world, to go do a different job. While the novelty might sound exciting at first, our hearts would quickly despair of the lack of anything solid. Why do we not expect a similar spiritual despair when our day-in, day-out thought life is dominated by this exact kind of transience?

Daily Scripture meditation is a habit of resistance against the rootless digital age. As we return again and again to words that never change, the presence and promises of Jesus will build foundations that a day’s worth of media intake cannot shake. The latest controversy that beckons for outrage will seem less important than the command to consider truth in calm silence (Proverbs 17:27–28). The newest reason for anxiety will seem less ominous as we consider the saints who have gone before us into worse peril, and who never abandoned the race (Hebrews 12:1). Resist the meaningless angst of content culture with permanent words.

Need #2: Godward Attention

The importance of where we give our attention is a subtly significant theme in Scripture. Consider how Moses commanded the people of Israel not only to remember God’s word, but to observe festivals, rituals, and dietary and clothing requirements that served as constant reminders of who they were and where they came from (Deuteronomy 11:18–19; 12:10–12). The wisdom literature in particular prioritizes the skill of listening to righteous instruction (Proverbs 4:20), and the author of Hebrews admonishes us to “pay much closer attention to” the gospel (Hebrews 2:1).

Attention is a finite resource. Contrary to what we often tell ourselves, “multitasking” isn’t really a thing; in order to really hear someone or attend to something, we have to take attention away from other things (at least temporarily). In the online age, not only is our attention spread thin; it is actively harvested and colonized by digital merchants. The fight to put our attention in the right place is an upstream swim against the currents of online culture.

Habit 2: Adopt intentional structures.

In his excellent book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch advises readers to do more than resolve to use technology better; additionally, we should implement physical structures in our lives that make wise uses of attention easier and unwise uses harder. That may mean leaving your phone in a separate room at night to make it harder to reach for in the morning. It may mean relocating computer use to a central family room instead of individual bedrooms, not just for accountability but to cut off the power of digital isolation. It may mean using apps during the work or school day that block not just inappropriate content but time-wasting and addictive content. The point is that the way we use online technology should tell the truth about what’s most important.

Need #3: Peaceful Rest

In his lovely little book And So to Bed: A Biblical View of Sleep, Adrian Reynolds observes that sleep is, theologically speaking, a reminder of our mortality. Our sleep resembles death, yet the Bible clearly says that God “gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2). How can something that makes us vulnerable and stops our productive work be a gift? Because neither our sleep nor even our death can stop the sovereign God from caring for us and his world. Even as our mental and physical busyness stops, God’s power and love continue.

Habit 3: Take regular breaks.

In the digital age, we can embrace two vital expressions of rest-as-resistance. The first is, simply, the deliberate choice to sleep instead of consuming. The founder of Netflix famously said that the company’s number one competitor was sleep. This was more than a tongue-in-cheek moment. There is something in the nature of digital entertainments that entices us to ignore sleep and keep streaming or scrolling instead. That’s why some are referring to the emerging generation’s accumulating “sleep debt” — a deficit that manifests in poor physical and emotional health.

Do some self-examination. Do you wake up feeling exhausted? Are you often too tired to do your job well, or help someone in need, or parent your children with patience and grace? Ask whether your phone or streaming habits are preventing you from savoring God’s good gift of sleep.

The second expression of resistance is simply abstaining from online consumption for a given amount of time. The best way to do this is with someone else’s help. For example, only my wife knows my Twitter password. I cannot log myself in. Not only does this naturally throttle how much time I spend on Twitter, but it makes my use of Twitter transparent to my wife. She knows how often I ask to log on and can remind me of commitments that I’ve made. This isn’t a magic cure-all, but it has made a profound difference for me.

Let your digital consumption stop regularly so you can be reminded of the world and people outside your screen. Of the habits of resistance listed here, this one has had the biggest effect on me in the quickest span of time. Particularly for one who often feels like he’s drowning in the digital liturgies, disciplined times of genuine restfulness are among the most powerful means of resistance. Learn to shut off the digital world and enjoy God’s good gift of rest, and as you do, you’ll find a level of calm and freedom you may not have known was possible. And let this token of your Savior’s love reawaken you to the most precious realities in the world.

Read Like a Christian: Five Principles for What and How

Have you seen the recent “colored book” decoration trend? The basic idea is to take books whose covers have the same basic palette and put them together, thereby arranging all your books by color. Some used bookstores are even offering bundles of all-blue, all-green, or all-yellow books that you can buy just for this purpose.

If you’re anything like me, you understand why this trend might be appealing, but at the same time, something in you recoils. To see books thrown together just for the color of their covers, or to see books being sold not for what they say but for what they look like, seems to betray the very idea of a book. Something inside me protests, That’s not what books are for!

A kind of alarm goes off inside us when we see something used far beneath its purpose. And the truth is, this doesn’t happen just with the physical exteriors of books. It happens with what’s inside of them too. Have you ever wondered what it means to read like a Christian? Surely it means more than being a Christian and reading. There are precious realities that shape and season what and how we read. Let me commend five principles that help and challenge me to read like a Christian.

1. Read whimsically, not wastefully.

By whimsically, I mean literally “at whim.” My teacher in this regard has been Alan Jacobs, whose lovely little book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction makes a compelling case for reading “what gives you delight” (23) rather than what conforms to abstract standards of literary greatness. In other words, Christians do not think of their reading as primarily the fulfillment of a duty, but as an astonishing joy. This doesn’t exclude a place for a Great Books canon. But there is a difference between seeking out a book because others esteem it and may esteem you for reading it (more on that in a moment) and seeking out a book because its greatness promises delight.

“Christians should not think of their reading as primarily the fulfillment of a duty, but as an astonishing joy.”

Whim, however, does not mean waste. There is a way to waste your reading, and the fastest way to do this is to never stretch yourself beyond your natural comfort zone. Many readers who never try anything more demanding than a badly written paperback don’t realize how much more delight they could have by maturing their palate. If reading at whim can protect us from elitism, not reading wastefully is a reminder that good and bad are not wholly in the eye of the beholder. Excellence should delight us. We were made for a beatific vision of pure splendor and perfection. Don’t waste your reading.

2. Read personally, not performatively.

One of my favorite passages in The Screwtape Letters occurs after the demon Wormwood has apparently “lost” his patient to a profound and genuine repentance. Uncle Screwtape furiously berates his nephew for his “blunders.”

You first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends. . . . How can you have failed to see that a real pleasure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet? (63–64)

Real delight, Lewis says, belongs to the realm of God. It humbles us, quiets our anxious desires for approval, and reminds us that our soul is real and to be accounted for. Reading personally means reading for something far better than applause. As we read personally, we follow the thread of what Lewis called “the secret signature” of our hearts (The Problem of Pain, 151). Our favorite books reveal something that God put in us. The passages we laugh or cry over, even when no one is watching, can be like soul-mirrors.

To enjoy something because we find it lovely points us in the opposite spiritual direction of performing for others. In the latter case, what we are actually enjoying is ourselves. In the age of social media, this is a gaping pitfall. It is so easy to post pictures of our “current reads” simply for the purpose of gaining admiration. In some cases, we have no desire or even intention of finishing the books in our photos. Lewis warns us against this temptation, and so does our Lord: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). Let’s not deaden the purifying effects of real delight by being addicts of human glory.

3. Read with generosity, not grievance.

Here’s a diagnostic question for all of us that read and (especially) review books: Do we practice the Golden Rule? Do we read others the way we would want to be read?

Imagine the following scenario. You are reading a book by a Christian writer who is somewhat outside your normal theological tribe. You come across a sentence that strikes you as odd. It’s not clearly false, but it’s not what you would have said, either. At this point, you have a choice: You can read with generosity, meaning you note the ambiguous wording but do not accuse the writer of saying something he is not. Or you can give the words their worst possible meaning, and perhaps even label the author a false teacher.

“The Bible is the book that gives every other good book its power.”

Which of these options reflects the biblical command to “be not wise in your own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7), to “[believe] all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), and to not render a verdict hastily (Proverbs 25:8)? Christians read with generosity, not because we are too timid to call out error, but because we believe truth is precious enough to pursue with patience.

These biblical warnings should sober us against the temptation to read something solely for the purpose of disagreeing with it. There will be times and occasions when we must read something we know is wrong. But the polemical muscle does not need to be flexed often. Be wary of reading with grievance.

4. Read with wonder, not weariness.

I am discouraged when I find a “What are you reading?” interview with a prominent pastor or Christian leader, and the interviewee remarks that he doesn’t read fiction. Great literature is a treasure of wonder. The best stories seem to turn the light on in our own hearts; in heroes and villains we can see the range of human nature, and in journeys and transformations we can be reminded of how much we don’t know. I sometimes wonder how much we evangelicals read simply for the purpose of accumulating more data, rather than reading so that we can move a little bit closer to the image of Jesus.

The Preacher remarks, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). If reading has become wearisome to you, consider taking an inventory. Does your reading captivate you? Does it make you forget yourself? Does it open your eyes and soften your heart? Or is it just more information to absorb? Consider the metaphors and parables of God’s Word. You and I are created to wonder at God the poet.

5. Read for eternity, not for ephemera.

We live in a noisy world. There is no end to the novelty. And the vast majority of it is meaningless: thousands of tweets, articles, and even books that will be almost immediately obsolete, millions of hours of video and audio that will hardly make sense in a week. We don’t have a choice whether we will live and read in such a world. But we can choose how we live and read in it.

The books, stories, poems, and essays that will stay with us the longest, perhaps even for a lifetime, will be the ones that make eternity come alive in some way. A theological work illuminates just how much we can trust Christ. A classic novel makes virtue feel worth the suffering. A poem’s beauty hits on our hearts like sunlight on a starved leaf. An essay makes ultimate reality just a little bit clearer. These are hours of reading that we never truly leave; the words leave an imprint on us. These are treasures that can make the noise we often consume feel as fleeting as it is.

As I read the Bible, I’m continually amazed by how its freshness grows with each passing year. The Scriptures are more than our first reading priority each morning, or the only inerrant words we can read (though they are that). The Bible is the book that gives every other good book its power. It is the epicenter of beauty, the metanarrative of meaning — every story that reverberates in our hearts comes, ultimately, from God’s Story.

As you read — books, essays, poems, plays, and more besides — look for eternity. Look for the Bible’s residual presence. Look for the aroma of transcendent truth. And with gratitude to the one who is himself the Word made flesh, let this kind of reading do its good work in you.

When the Therapeutic Replaces Sin

This book makes a monumental decision: a decision to put the Bible’s moral language to the side, to call a disorder what the Bible calls sin, to call self-actualization what the Bible calls repentance. This book’s aversion to biblical categories does not empower readers to confront spiritually abusive systems. It instead makes those systems harder to disrupt.

Imagine the following scenario.
You are approached by two people in your church, both people that you know, love, and trust with equal measure. Person A needs to tell you something about Person B. Person B, according to Person A, has been spiritually abusing them. Person B has been using their leadership and influence to convince other people that Person A’s beliefs and opinions are wrong. Moreover, according to A, Person B has persisted in a pattern of manipulation toward A: saying things to belittle, minimize, or ignore A. Person A feels incredibly victimized by Person B, and does not know how they can persevere at this church while Person B remains.
Person B, meanwhile, believes that Person A is being disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. Person B tells you that Person A has been going around different groups and individuals in the church, spreading false information about Person B because the two simply don’t agree or get along. Person A, according to Person B, is angry that they’re not more influential in the church, and they blame Person B for that. Person B says that Person A wants to steamroll over several policies and even people in the church in order to get their way, but has thus far been prevented. This is why, according to Person B, Person A has now accused Person B of being a spiritual abuser, and B feels very strongly that A needs to be sharply rebuked for dishonest and misleading behavior.
I would imagine that if you’re reading this and have any pastoral DNA in you, you’re sweating a bit. This is exactly the kind of scenario that church leaders dread with all their heart. And why is that? It’s not just because nobody likes being in the middle of two accusatory opponents. It’s also not just that this situation represents a significant use of your relational bandwidth. Part of the reason this scenario is so daunting is that you have to decide not only whom you believe, but what to even call this. Is this an issue of spiritual abuse? Is this an issue of colliding personalities? Is it sin? Is it rivalry? Is it schoolyard name calling? So much of how you proceed from this point on depends on what kind of situation you think you are dealing with.
When it comes to the topic of spiritual abuse in the church, conversations and debates so often get stonewalled because people decide that someone is “just trying to protect” a certain class. Conservative-leaning evangelicals are wary of victim advocates because they perceive a looseness with truth telling in the name of satisfying demands. Left-leaning evangelicals often express frustration with those who instinctively defend pastors or ask for evidence, intuiting that these deflections come from a desire to prop up the successful system at all costs, even the cost of trauma to real people.
My concern with Chuck DeGroat’s book When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse is not that I think he takes the “wrong side.” In fact, I think he does a pretty good job for the most part of avoiding tropes and caricatures in either direction. My concern with the book is that I think it fails significantly on the question raised above. DeGroat’s book is good at tracing out a recognizable portrait of spiritual abuse and waving red flags at leaders and systems who may be trampling over people. But it is much less good at calling those things what they are. DeGroat seems to go out of his way to avoid calling spiritual abuse sin. He abandons the language of sin, repentance, and discipline in favor of therapeutic language like narcissism, vulnerability, and gaslighting. The problem is not that those words are fake or unreal. The problem is those words aren’t enough. They leave spiritual abuse in the realm of the psychological, not the moral.
Defining Spiritual Abuse Down

This is the first of several indications throughout the book that the primary mechanism for identifying narcissism is how people feel toward those who may be narcissistic. I know it may sound very pedantic or even callous to call out this opening illustration from DeGroat’s youth. I don’t doubt that he really did feel slighted and that this was tremendously disappointing. But the fact that a book with “emotional and spiritual abuse” in its subtitle begins with this kind of story is potentially telling. It raises the question of whether the discussion of spiritual abuse that follows will be tethered to realities above the psychological, or not. In fact, the book struggles to do this.
In chapter two, “Understanding Narcissism,” DeGroat defines narcissism by reproducing the diagnostic criteria from DSM-V. This is slightly overwhelming and takes up a page and a half. What’s more, the DSM’s language is clinical and describes behavior typical of narcissistic people; it does not define narcissism ethically or theologically. DeGroat comments on the DSM’s criteria, which clarifies how he will understand narcissism throughout the book. “Grandiosity and attention seeking” are there, which makes sense. The narcissistic person develops a “false self” and tends to use people and relationships to feed this identity. So far, so good. But importantly, DeGroat does not connect narcissism to the biblical problem of inflated self-regard. In fact, he explicitly rejects this. In one particular case study, DeGroat determines that “Gary” suffers from a lack of self-love. His “entitlement, his lack of empathy, his pattern of grandiosity” flow from shame and trauma from his own childhood.
Read More
Related Posts:

The Power of ‘Intellectual Technologies’

Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception is a brilliant, often uncomfortable portrayal of a future world where sophisticated technology has unlocked the ability for people to escape reality. Through a fictional “dream-sharing” device, the characters in Inception can create, manipulate, and even invade people’s dreams. At one point in the movie, the heroes visit a scientist with the skill to make a sedative that allows for even more powerful and vivid dream-sharing. Upon seeing dozens of people in the scientist’s basement sleeping on beds, connected to the dream-sharing devices, one character asks, “These people come here to fall asleep?” The scientist answers, “They come here to wake up. The dream has become their reality.”

The writers of Inception used a science-fiction context to make a profound observation about human nature. If we can, we humans will tend to use our technology to put the world God has given us at a distance, and flee into an alternative reality that suits us. Although dream-sharing is the stuff of fantasy, there are indeed sophisticated technologies that bestow a godlike ability to create and inhabit our own universe. In fact, one of these technologies is probably in your hands or your pocket right now.

The Web, the smartphone, and social media together make up nothing less than a cultural revolution. For hundreds of millions of people, they represent the primary point of interaction with the world. We now work, learn, listen, debate, recreate, and even worship through the Internet. Given the radical novelty and enormous imprint of this technology on nearly every facet of our lives, shouldn’t we regularly be asking questions like, What kind of medium is this? Is there something here that may be influencing me at a near-undetectable level?

In fact, the answers to these questions may distress us.

Our Digital Dreamworld

The same year that Christopher Nolan fictionalized a world of escape into dreams, cultural critic Nicholas Carr published his manifesto The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr’s thesis is simply articulated but breathtaking in its implications: the Internet is an intellectual technology that is radically altering how we think, read, and communicate. Carr suggests that, whereas much technology (such as the plow or microscope) “extends our physical strength” into the outside world, intellectual technology — such as a clock, a map, or the Internet — directly reshapes how we think. Because of this, intellectual technologies make deeper and more permanent changes in what we believe and value. Carr writes,

Every intellectual technology . . . embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work. . . . The intellectual ethic is the message that a medium or other tool transmits into the minds and culture of its users. (The Shallows, 45–46)

As Carr goes on to show, the Web expresses its intellectual ethic in definite ways. Reading a physical book trains the human brain in the skills of quiet and focus, but the Web’s use of hypertext and distraction trains us in the behaviors of skimming, superficial comprehension, and flimsy, impressionistic interpretation. Online, it is very difficult to follow one train of thought deeply or be present for one particular experience or moment, because the Web’s structure emphasizes relentless novelty and diverse input (creating what Carr refers to as “the juggler’s brain”).

Carr’s analysis makes sense of a problem that many of us have. We feel that our phones, our apps, and our browsing are somehow hijacking our ability to read a book for more than few minutes at a time. We sense a diminished capacity to lose ourselves even in moments of true joy. We can detect an angrier, more defensive edge to many conversations even within the church, as people increasingly seem to talk past one another and retreat into competing enclaves that reinforce their opinions. Yet we are often unable to name this problem, and as a result, we’re too frequently left in a muddle of guilt and frustration.

Unfortunately, Christian approaches to this dilemma often settle for generalities. Like the teenage couple that just wants to know how far is too far, believers immersed in the world of the Internet often just want the bare minimum that can appear to “balance” screen time with private devotions or the weekly Sunday service. But this isn’t enough. The challenge before us isn’t to figure out how to inject a little bit of Jesus into our digital dreamworlds. It’s to wake up.

Wisdom’s Wake-Up Call

The book of Proverbs offers an especially compelling wake-up call:

Does not wisdom call?         Does not understanding raise her voice?On the heights beside the way,         at the crossroads she takes her stand;beside the gates in front of the town,         at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:“To you, O men, I call,         and my cry is to the children of man.O simple ones, learn prudence;         O fools, learn sense.” (Proverbs 8:1–5)

“Every wise word or action has one thing in common: a deep resonance with God-centered reality.”

While it may be tempting to think that the intellectual ethic of the Internet is so far removed from the experience of the biblical authors that they offer nothing to guide us, this would be a profound mistake. Lady Wisdom calls out to digital sleepers, inviting them to feast at her house. This is an invitation we need, because it’s precisely wisdom that our screen-addled age lacks. Wisdom, after all, is nothing less than the habit of living in accordance with what’s real. The God who really exists and the world he really made require us, as some theologians have put it, to “live with the grain of reality” rather than against it. While living wisely has many different facets, every wise word or action has this in common: a deep resonance with God-centered reality.

The connection between wisdom and the real physical world is clear in Proverbs 3:19–20:

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;         by understanding he established the heavens;by his knowledge the deeps broke open,         and the clouds drop down the dew. (Proverbs 3:19–20)

And in Proverbs 8:27–31, Lady Wisdom beautifully sings of how her handiwork is permanently engraved on the creation:

When he established the heavens, I was there;         when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,when he made firm the skies above,         when he established the fountains of the deep,when he assigned to the sea its limit,         so that the waters might not transgress his command,when he marked out the foundations of the earth,         then I was beside him, like a master workman,and I was daily his delight,         rejoicing before him always,rejoicing in his inhabited world         and delighting in the children of man. (Proverbs 8:27–31)

Wisdom is no mere grab bag of helpful quotes or memorable witticisms. Wisdom is the “master workman” through whom the whole (real!) universe was brought forth. Wisdom finds delight in the Creator’s inhabited word and in the humans who reflect the Creator’s glory throughout the cosmos. Wisdom, in other words, is deeply awake to the sheer wonder of the world and the people God has made.

“Wisdom is deeply awake to the sheer wonder of the world and the people God has made.”

In applying Carr’s insights about “the intellectual ethic” of the Internet to the biblical teaching of wisdom, I’ve come to refer to the disembodied character of the Web as a set of “digital liturgies.” Like a church service, the Web is a spiritual habitat that works on our minds and hearts to incline us to think, feel, and believe in certain ways. Why is it so hard to think well? Because the digital liturgies of distraction and novelty are crippling our capacity to grasp big, non-Instagrammable truth. Why is it so easy to feel more unified with online personalities than with the people in our actual home or church? Because the digital liturgies of custom-made identities and curated timelines tell us we should be able to be only what we choose to be. Immersed in these technological narratives, our default is to make the dream our reality.

Paths of Resistance

How can we, through wisdom, resist this?

First, we can structure our lives deliberately to give weight to the people, experiences, and things that are physically real. The habit of morning devotions may seem quaint, but it’s a habit passed down by saints who have experienced its power. In a world of unending ephemera, God has given us permanent words to anchor, convict, and comfort us.

We can also deliberately break our relationships out of the digital prison. A phone call or lunch date connects us to each other much more than a direct message or a “Like.” A good book or hands-on hobby will refresh us after a day in front of a screen much more than hours of streaming or scrolling. Getting outside, with no intention of leveraging the experience for social media applause later, puts us in the path of wisdom by reminding us that God’s world is much bigger than our heads.

Second, we can actively cultivate the habits of deep thinking and winsome speech that the Web erodes. Before the latest news headline or theological controversy drives you to Google, looking for quick reads you can use to jump in the fray, consider taking a few weeks to work through a book or meaty essay that will genuinely enlighten you. Resist the temptation to seek admiration by being the fastest, smartest, or most sarcastic online critic, and redirect that effort toward the kind of comprehension that John’s high Christology or Paul’s precise theology demands.

Finally, we can consider practical measures that keep the world of the Internet playing second fiddle in the daily rhythms of our lives. In his book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch commends regular tech-free stretches: one hour per day, one day per week, and one week per month of deliberate withdrawal from the most immersive and addictive online activities. Cal Newport outlines a more rigorous “digital detox” in his book Digital Minimalism that can help us rediscover which technologies actually serve our values, and which ones simply keep us hooked. Find an approach that works in your and your family’s season of life and that will help to incline you toward God’s wisdom rather than the un-reality of the Web.

Jesus Versus the Trade-In Society: Finding Happiness in an Upgrade Age

It seems to me that if there’s one thing that our current version of advertising-based capitalism teaches us all, it’s that everything is replaceable: everything can be reproduced, or traded in for a new and improved model. And that applies to coaches, to churches, to spouses. We live in a trade-in society.

Sometimes you come across an idea that you know instantly is going to be revolutionary in your life. A few years ago, an essay by Alan Jacobs gave me just that.

“We live in a trade-in society.” That sentence, perhaps more than anything else I’ve read outside of Scripture, summarizes beautifully and powerfully the core characteristic of modern American culture. Whether we shop for phones, gyms, or even relationships, ours is an age that treasures the words “no commitment necessary” and “cancel anytime.” We are a trade-in society, where the promise of being able to eventually replace anything, or anyone, lies underneath all of our experiences, even our spiritual lives.

Trade-In Society

The values of the trade-in society are all around us. Abortion — the choice to kill an unborn baby and prevent inconvenience or expense — is perhaps the ultimate Western symbol of it. What can epitomize the spirit of “everything is replaceable” better than a legal practice of eliminating human beings, the divine image-bearers that are eminently not replaceable?

But there are many other manifestations of the trade-in society. Families disintegrate under the trade-in society through no-fault divorce laws and “realize your best self” mantras that thrust aside children and covenant. Employers who abuse and manipulate their workers because they know where to find someone else to cheaply fill the role are administering the trade-in society.

And of course, millions of us go into church with expectations and demands tailored by the trade-in society. We’ll hang around for the music and preaching that “speaks to us,” but membership is time-consuming and serving is too inconvenient. Not to mention that should the leadership of the church ask too many questions or press too far into our lives, we know where the closest exit is and where the nearest next church might be found.

Empty Wells

When it comes to the origins of the trade-in society, we could mention many factors. We could talk about the industrial revolution and the godlike sense of self-determination that our tools bestow on us. We could talk about the rise and triumph of the modern self and expressive individualism. These threads reveal truth (and more threads could be listed), but at its core, the trade-in society is a spiritual crisis before it’s a cultural one.

To see this, we might listen to John Piper, in a 2009 sermon, describe how Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:1–26) reveals the surrender of our thirty souls to the empty promises of the trade-in society.

One of the evidences of not drinking deeply from Jesus is the instability of constantly moving from one thing to the next, seeking to fill the void. You may be going through sexual partners. You may be going through friends. You may be going through jobs. You may be going through churches, just one after another. You may be going through hobbies. . . . You may be going through hairstyles, or wardrobes, or cars. You may be going through locations of where you live. Because there is no deeply contented identity in Christ. . . .

Jesus says, “Come to me, and you’ll find stability of contented identity.” Then you don’t move around so much, jumping here, jumping there. Crave, crave, crave, but nothing’s working.

“At its core, the trade-in society is a spiritual crisis before it’s a cultural one.”

We create the trade-in society through our spiritual thirst. Like the woman at the well, we rifle through life, looking for the next thing that will finally close the gaping cavern in our hearts. We see everything and everyone around us as replaceable because we are desperate to find that one thing that will never disappoint us, and despite all that we’ve been taught by marketing departments, we know deep down that whatever new thing, or place, or even person in our lives will not do for us what we desperately want it to.

Deepest Thirst Satisfied

So, what does the opposite of the trade-in society look like? It looks like people whose deepest spiritual thirst has been satisfied by Christ. “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). The insatiable need for novelty and replacement withers if our hearts are tethered to the person whom moths and rust cannot touch and neither thieves nor death can take away.

We don’t need to fear commitment or its consequences when we know that whatever difficulties or suffering lie ahead, all things are working together for our good (Romans 8:28). Just imagine how this might transform every area of life and culture. The unexpected pregnancy goes from crushing and optional to something that’s difficult but glorious. Marriages that feel hopeless and life-draining become places of deep sacrifice for the sake of a preserved covenant.

These feel like familiar examples, but the trade-in society needs transformation in places of our lives we don’t think about as often. If always chasing the next career opportunity means perpetual rootlessness and a revolving door of friends and churches, might the sustaining provision of Jesus point us to lay economic ambition at the feet of greater goods?

Or consider the contemporary temptation of “doomscrolling”: mindlessly consuming information at a pace that overwhelms capacities for thoughtfulness, often merely for the sake of being “in the know.” Restless transition from one thing to the next does not have to look dramatic to signal a weary, thirsty heart.

Looking to Final Triumph

The trade-in society seduces our consciences through fear. But as the apostle John reminds us, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) — and the same love that casts out fear of final punishment can defeat the fear of the trade-in society. Such love grounds us, makes us grateful for the people and places that God has put around us, and draws us out of ourselves so that we can sacrifice for each other.

“It’s the assurance of final victory that creates the strength to resist desperation for something new.”

The love that God pours into our hearts through the gospel is not only a backward-looking love but a forward-looking one. To use the opening example in Jacobs’s essay, a professional sports team is almost always willing to fire a coach or cut a player if they’re convinced doing so will help them win. Imagine, though, that a team found out before the start of the season that they were guaranteed to win the championship with the exact roster and coaching staff they had now. If they really believed this prediction, no amount of difficulties could make them send anyone away. It’s the assurance of final victory that creates the strength to resist desperation for something new.

Christians have guaranteed, absolute, cannot-fail assurance of final triumph in Jesus. That’s why we can be a people who resist the trade-in society, and in so doing, bear witness to a better society, one in which every tear is wiped away and every secret desire fulfilled by the One who will never leave.

Scroll to top