Most of us are familiar with the ways our phones can be detrimental to our spiritual lives. But how often do we consider ways they can be of spiritual benefit? Listen as Alasdair Groves talks about how smartphones can actually enrich our relationship with God.
Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves, and I’m the host of Where Life & Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, where our mission is to restore Christ to counseling and counseling to the church. I want to talk today about smartphones, and about the Holy Spirit, and if the connection is not immediately obvious between the two, bear with me. I swear we’ll get there and it will be practical.
But let me start with this thought, which is that many of us beginning a new year are going to be making New Year’s resolutions. And a lot of us probably, in fact, maybe hopefully, will be making resolutions about using our phones less. “I don’t want to be on my phone so much. I don’t want to be so distracted. I want to be better at engaging with the people around me, or spending time with my kids, or I just need to not be so hooked on my phone.” That’s a fairly common thing that we will hear and I’m all for it, all in favor of that. I think that’s probably an excellent way for most of us to go, who couldn’t cut back their screen time.
But I want to talk about a way in which my smartphone has been helping me, and it’s not a way that is a normal way to think about smartphones, or about our life with the Lord. Let me start here. A little bit ago, one of our pastors was preaching, we’re preaching through the book of John. And he was talking about John 15, abiding in the vine. We are like branches connected into the center, the trunk, the vine, which is Christ, and out from him flows our life. We can do nothing without him. We must abide in him and stay connected to him, and he stays connected to us, and that is our hope. He made an offhand comment as he was preaching, and it was one of those things that it lit off a little spark in my head as I was hearing.
He made a comment along the lines of the radicalness of this promise that God is with us through his Spirit, that the Holy Spirit dwelling in us is God himself with us, present with us. The radicalness of that is really easy to lose. We so rarely take God up on it. We so rarely appreciate the fullness of it. And the comment he made was that we so often, instead of running to the Spirit, and instead of appreciating and being in awe of the promise of God’s presence, sheltering and taking refuge in him, instead, we have a tendency to do other things. And one of the things he mentioned is run to our phones. It’s easy to hop on your phone instead of turning to the Lord, instead of appreciating his presence, the things that we should be seeking from the Lord we so easily turn for to our phones.
It got me thinking that everything I do on my smartphone is an attempt on some level to do something that in fact the Spirit also can do, promises to do, loves to do, is doing and does even vastly more and better. Now, as I said moments ago, it’s fine to be convicted here that we should be using our smartphones less, but that’s actually not where I’m going. In fact, in a sense I’m going the opposite direction. I’m saying, what if using our phones, for whatever, is actually an opportunity that we might be missing right now to engage more directly with the Lord?
Let me see if I can explain what I mean. I realize that my phone is pretty much always with me in my pocket. I imagine your phone is pretty much always with you, and that always with-ness is actually a pretty close physical picture to us, something we can actually touch and see that is a reminder to us of the fact that the Spirit is constantly present. And so the first thought that went leaping through my head on hearing that comment in the sermon was, what if for the next week, every single time I pulled out my smartphone, I actually allowed that to become this reminder to me, this tangible, viscerable, conscious reminder that the Holy Spirit is with me.
Every time I pull it out, I want to say to myself in two seconds, in silence of my own mind, maybe even aloud if I’m alone, “The Spirit is with me,” or “Holy Spirit, you are with me.” What if I had that level of reminder? You might be shocked at how many times you pull out your phone when you actually start doing something every time you do it. And then that pretty quickly got me excited thinking about, it’s not even just that he’s with me, but even the things I am doing on my smartphone are things that are either small examples of what the Spirit is up to, or even little pictures of the bigger things that he is up to. So I had some of these thoughts bouncing around over the course of Sunday, and I said, “Okay, you know what? Let’s do it this week. Starting Monday morning, I’m going to start making this my goal that every time I pull out my phone, I’m going to remember that the Spirit is with me.”
So, woke up Monday morning. Actually, I always give myself five minutes to sit in bed and just stare at the wall. That’s about all I can handle when I wake up on any morning, especially a Monday morning. So there I am, sitting in the dark, staring ahead. And somewhere in the back of my mind it’s this memory that when I touch my smartphone, or pull it out, I’m supposed to think about the Spirit being with me. And so in some kind of muddled way, I’m vaguely conscious having turned off my alarm, which is on my phone, that the Spirit is with me. But there’s not a whole lot going on between my ears in those first five minutes. So I get up, I go brush my teeth, I throw on some sweatpants and a fleece and a jacket. I head out for a walk around our neighborhood, which is the first thing I like to do when I wake up.
And in order to do that, I have to put my sneakers on. So I get out to our little mudroom in the dark, and I reach into my pocket. I pull out my phone and use the flashlight to try to find my shoes. I had this lovely moment thinking first off, “Okay, the Spirit is with me.” And then secondly realizing, “And what am I doing with my phone right now?” I am using a flashlight to see in the dark. I’m having light in a dark place that is helping me find what I need, that’s helping me move forward along the path that I need to walk. And of course, that is exactly what the Spirit does in our lives. Listen, he is a light unto our feet. He guides us both in terms of convicting our consciences, in terms of opening up Scripture to us and helping us see things in Scripture that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen. Making connections, having something really land on our heart that’s encouraging, or challenging, or thought-provoking, and a thousand other ways that he’s guiding us that we’re mostly not even aware of.
So light for my path. Hey, my phone is actually a small piece of it. And in fact, one of the things that I think is a good thing the Spirit has built in my life is the discipline of taking an early morning walk, which much of the year is in the dark. And so here I am literally pulling out my literal flashlight so that the Spirit could shine light on my life as I take this brief walk with the Lord in the morning.
I got back from my little walk, walked back in. And one of the first things I do as well is pull up my to-do list just to get a sense of what’s going on for my day. I try not to start doing stuff, but just to get a sense of organizing the day in my to-do list. And here I am on my phone and I’m beginning to process, what is actually important? What are the priorities that I ought to have for the day? How do I want to organize and structure my time based on what is most important that’s going on in my life? And some of that’s personal and some of that’s work. And again, I’m struck, wow, that’s exactly what the Spirit loves to do. He loves to highlight what is important for us. He loves to help us to walk into acts of love, and service, and worship, and obedience that are structured, that are done with wisdom, that are done with energy, that happen in a wise order for the purposes that the Lord has laid on our hearts where it’s put in front of us for a given day.
So here I am using my to-do list, literally directly to accomplish good works that the Spirit has laid on my heart, like getting ready for dinner that night and having things organized of what I need to say to who at work today, and what things I need to get done. But also taking them that larger step of thinking, “Okay, the Spirit loves to keep our eyes on what is most important.” Which of course is the glory of Christ, which is the sheer safety and unshakeableness of his pursuing love. That is our salvation, the hope and the joy of being connected to the Lord, the sweet, unbelievably rich mercy of forgiveness. Here is the Spirit giving me focus on what is most important. And my to-do list is just one little moment of connecting with what the Spirit is up to all the time in us about keeping the most important things, the most important.
I’m helping get my kids ready for school in the morning. And I am not near the microwave or the stove, so I pull out my phone and I check the time. Well here again, why am I checking the time? Because I need to know what is the next thing to do? How should I be arranging the next minutes, the next hours? What is the best thing I could be doing right now given all the things that I have going on? And isn’t that exactly what the Spirit is always doing with us? He’s always reminding us, what is it that right now is the call of this moment? So many times in our escapist temptations, we want to be out of this moment and doing something else. One of the things the Spirit does in us is he strengthens and grows and sanctifies and matures us.
He helps us keep our eye on, what is the opportunity to serve in this moment? How do I redeem the time now? What is the best use of this time where I am? How can I serve, love, obey, worship right now, right here where I am in this context?
Over the course of the day, I sent some texts. And in some cases I was texting people, seeking to encourage them in the Lord. Other times I was just arranging logistics. I’m sure I made a couple of jokes over the course of the day, but here I am being connected to the world in this very direct way, even when I’m not seeing the people I’m connected to. And I thought, “Isn’t this what the Spirit is always up to?” He is drawing together the whole church over all of the ages, part of which is literally me texting people in my church with encouragement, or texting my wife to arrange logistics for somebody’s piano lesson that afternoon, or what we’re going to have for dinner.
I am participating in this larger body of people to whom I am connected, and I am communicating with people I can’t see. What a direct experience of the kind of connection we have to Christ. Although of course, magnified a bajillion times. The Spirit actually dwelling in me is rather better than simply being able to send a few lines of text to somebody else, a couple of miles or a couple of continents away. It even got me thinking about the things that I do that are a little bit more on the like, “Well, you don’t have to do those things.” I think about the things I do purely for enjoyment on my phone. I think about watching sports highlights. I think about movies I might watch, or doing the Wordle, or I like to play chess on my phone.
Here are things that I enjoy, and let’s take a couple of examples, sports. I get excited when my team wins. I get sad when my team loses. I feel connected and swept up on this larger thing. And there’s a way in which watching sports highlights on my phone is this invitation to remember what is the most important team that I am on. The Spirit is sweeping through all of history. The church is marching forward. There is this wonderful kingdom of which I am one small part, and I do participate. And the wins of the kingdom are my wins. They’re our wins. I want to be somebody who celebrates the highlights of the church growing, and winning, and seeing people come to faith, and seeing people encouraged and strengthened, and seeing people comforted and healed, and seeing people loved and mutually serving, and so on and so forth.
Take the Wordle, or take my chess game. Here I am, investing time and mental energy, and thinking through, “Okay, what’s the best strategy here? How do I move these pieces? How do I think through? What’s my next word I ought to guess?” Using my intellect, not usually in the early mornings, so you have to be careful. When my intellect comes back into existence after I’ve been awake for a little bit, I’m using my intellect to wrestle at what is the best way to accomplish this? I want my prayer life to have that same kind of investment, to have that same kind of thoughtfulness. I want to think well about the people I know, the people I love, the things that are going on at work, the things that are going on in my family and friends in church. I’d like to treat it more like a chess game. How can I pray ever more wisely and precisely? How can I think more carefully about what exactly it is that I’m asking the Lord to do, to provide, to grow, to enable, to empower in this situation or that situation?
My life is one endless, exciting opportunity to invest in things that call out the utmost that I can give in using my mind toward the purposes of the Lord. I’m sure there’s a thousand other things that we could name, and I can’t remember all the different things that popped up over the course of that week. I certainly did not actually do it every single time for the week, although I was pretty good that first day. I bet it was close to every time the first day, and it gradually decreased a bit over the week from there. But it was so rich to at the very least have dozens, if not a hundred and more times a day, that I was saying, “The Spirit is with me. Lord, you are with me.”
And then even in some moments, having a chance to reflect a little further on ways in which he was with me, ways in which my phone was pointing me directly to the glories and the riches and the treasures of God’s promises to us, fulfilled so directly and so richly through the Holy Spirit, even in things as simple as what I was doing as I swiped or scrolled or sent a text or did a hundred other things that we do every day.
So here’s my encouragement to you. Take a stab at it today. You don’t have to come up with any new categories. Just remember, the Spirit is with you every time you pull out your phone. And maybe if you’re doing any of the same things with your phone that I’ve done with mine, let some of this be an encouragement to you about the directness of what God is up to in your life, every day.
Alasdair is the Executive Director of CCEF, as well as a faculty member and counselor. He has served at CCEF since 2009. He holds a master of divinity with an emphasis in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. Alasdair cofounded CCEF New England, where he served as director for ten years. He also served as the director of CCEF’s School of Biblical Counseling for three years. He is the host of CCEF’s podcast, Where Life & Scripture Meet, and is the coauthor of Untangling Emotions (Crossway, 2019).