My college diet was deplorable. Many days, I saw Taco Bell’s “Fourth meal” less as marketing lingo and more as a privilege. I cherished ramen, fast-food, and freezer pizzas for their convenience and ease (and of course, their taste). Though the food tasted good, it left me feeling . . . not so good. My fat-saturated diet was served up with a side of regret and left me feeling bloated and weary.
These days it’s a tech-saturated diet that has me feeling weary. But instead of gaining weight, I’m losing meaning.
My eyes are dry and strained from endless scrolling on a brightly back-lit screen. My hand aches from forming the claw necessary to hold my phone all day. My brain is exhausted from trying to survive the information tidal wave it wakes up to each day. And my heart is discouraged at the frustration and the futility in it all.
Paul contends, “our outer selves are wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16), and our devices used in excess certainly do not help. We are, as Neil Postman suggests, “amusing ourselves to death.” Half of our problems with digital devices would go away if we’d simply use them in moderation. But sometimes a hard reset is also appropriate. This is where fasting comes in.
FASTING: AN ANCIENT SOLUTION TO A MODERN PROBLEM
Fasting is an ancient practice designed to free us from what we hold most dear. Fasting provides an opportunity to routinely and starkly remind ourselves of who we are and what truly nourishes us.
Resolved to break free from my tech-saturated world, I considered my strategy. I felt like I was standing at the bottom of a long staircase holding several very heavy bags. I could see the top of the staircase, where I was master over my devices, and I knew it would take more than a few big steps to get there.
So I decided to take on two different forms of fasting; two small steps towards developing a normal rhythm of tech-fasting. These steps are small, but the tech-dependent baggage I carry is heavy. And there’s nothing wrong with taking the stairs one at a time.
A CLEANSING FAST
My first form of fasting was a cleanse. I decided to spend an entire day cleansing my palette of all devices and screens. No phone, no computer, no television. Only the baby monitor was allowed.
Before I started, I thought to myself, It’s only going to be about eighteen hours without devices. It’s not a big deal. Right?
But when you’ve been tech-saturated for years, the itch to sneak a look at your screen is much more tempting to scratch than you might think. While I didn’t feel quite like an addict having withdrawals, there were a couple of moments where I questioned my approach.
What if I miss something—something important? Is this responsible for me to do, as a pastor to people? What if someone depends on me to answer them and my phone is off?
I came to realize these were weak arguments for breaking my fast. But it’s an argument many pastors can relate to. We feel the impulse to be as available for our people as a fully-staffed 24/7 hotline.
Availability is not a bad thing, in and of itself, but if we aren’t careful, we will convince ourselves that ministry hangs on our shoulders. That God is not quite so sovereign apart from our ability, that we are somehow less in need of rest than our flock.
Shepherds watch over and sacrifice for their sheep, to be sure. But they sleep, too. In fact, a shepherd can’t effectively protect and guide his sheep without rest.
PUTTING CLEANSES ON THE CALENDAR
I’ve resolved to begin the practice of being device- and screen-free for three regular time periods: one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year. This kind of regular detox will remind me that the world can and will continue to turn without me. It will remind me that there is something far more worth my time than an infinite scroll of information.
After all, fasting is not just about doing without but replacing the emptiness with something we need. How could I regret replacing screen time with prayer, Bible study, and other spiritual disciplines? What if I devoted all that former screen time to face-to-face time with family or friends?
I’ve also resolved, thanks to the wisdom of Andy Crouch, to begin putting my phone to bed at night and waking it up in the morning. Too often my phone demands my late-night attention until I’m too tired to go on, and it’s there crying out for me the moment my alarm rings in the morning. But my phone is my pet, not the other way around. I need to take the leash back.
Disconnecting for one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year may seem unattainable for you. It will probably be uncomfortable the first time you do it. But it will be a routine reminder that this world and God’s plans are much bigger than you or anyone else.
A SPEAKING FAST
My next fasting strategy had to do with talking less. Epictetus (and my mom) used to say we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak. I decided to fast speaking, choosing to listen and observe instead. This kind of fasting doesn’t get nearly as much attention or exposure as the other, but it is arguably just as important for our souls.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve taken several-days-long periods away from saying anything on Facebook. Though still online, I have made it a point to stay silent. And silence is quite the teacher.
Every tweet, every blog post, every status update, every comment can be liked, shared, retweeted, affirmed, reacted to, analyzed, and engaged with. This means the whole of our online contribution is measured, evaluated, and scored by others. We know this. Yet we continue to justify the need to play the game.
Many of us in ministry see our online platform as a chance to share gospel truth with people in our sphere, but because of the inescapable metrics of social media, we also see it as a chance to be impressive. Do we wordsmith a theological statement and post it to the glory of God, or to the glory of self? Do we share a book quote because we want people to be sharpened by it, or because we want to be seen as the kind of person who reads that book?
If we’re not careful, we will mistake gospel proclamation for platform promotion. We will say with the migrants in Shinar, “let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4).
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE’RE SILENT
What does it do to our soul when we log onto social media and find no notifications waiting on us…again? During my fasting from speaking, I found out.
First, it humbles us. It reminds us that the world doesn’t need our platform. We are dust (Gen. 3:19). It also reminds us that listening first helps us to speak wisely later, instead of being reactionary or presumptuous. It allows us to press into the right discussions at the right time, and helps us avoid getting caught in the “vain discussions” Paul warns against in 1 Timothy 1:6-7. Finally, fasting from digital speaking allows us to choose empathy without anything to gain from it (Phil. 2:3).
We need to empty ourselves of thinking the world needs our words, and more so, that God needs us. He doesn’t. His Word is sufficient. The fact that he speaks through us at all is a cosmic miracle. He does not need to use us, but he wants to use us. That’s what makes being a part of his mission so humbling and so shocking.
“All things are full of weariness,” the Preacher reminds us in Ecclesiastes. Spend some time on social media, and you will agree. Each day is a deluge of debates and statuses and breaking news and sales pitches and memes and noise.
But Christ has the answer for our digital weariness: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Fasting takes our gaze away from our blue-tinted screens and turns them toward the only Shepherd who never sleeps (Ps. 121:4).
We will never be fully in the know. We will never say everything. We will never satisfy our deepest longings. Fasting reminds us of all these truths. You may not start with an extended, long-term fast. But start somewhere—for the sake of your soul.
Don’t be afraid of the emptiness, for it is there that you will find the Way to be filled.
Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.