The idea of instant gratification consumes our culture. The main reason for this is relatively easy to identify–rapid technological advancement. Contemporary technologies enable a culture where the emergence of a desire and the ability to fulfill that desire exist almost simultaneously. Furthermore, this is the case with many, if not most, of our desires. As such, when we experience a physical or emotional desire, there is something immediately accessible that can, should we choose, satisfy that desire. Or, at least, there is something immediately accessible that we take as being able to satisfy that desire.
This relatively new phenomenon in human history leads to novel challenges for those striving to live a faithful and obedient life in Christ. Two serious dangers present themselves in an instant gratification culture. The first is the loss of real presence between human beings and even between man and nature. Virtual realities and social media replace first-hand experience, accustoming us to second and third hand knowledge.
The second, more subtle, threat is the confusion of long-term goals with short term ones. In an instant gratification culture we begin to apply short-term thinking to aspects of life that really require us to think in longer terms. This mental confusion can seriously debilitate any life but most poignantly the life of faith.
Technology and the Presence of God
When it comes to accessibility God is always accessible to us. This is unlike other non-spiritual goods. God’s essential attribute of omnipresence ensures we are always standing in His presence regardless of whether we recognize that presence or not. In this sense there has always been presence between God and mankind and between God and each individual person. This is the case even though God’s presence is almost always mediated to us, either through His creation or His revealed Word.
Obviously the greatest tragedy in all creation is that the presence between God and man was, and still is, affected by sin. It is because of sin that our interaction with God is mediate and not immediate, indirect and not direct. Any direct encounter with an all-holy God by sinful men would end in something like non-existence (for the men, not for God). We are told, for example, that the prophet Ezekiel fell on his face in the presence of “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezekiel 1:28). One can only imagine what would have happened if Ezekiel had seen “the Lord” directly. Annihilation seems like a reasonable conjecture, given what we know.
Therefore God, being all-powerful, also cannot be affected by any human technology. Nothing made by human hand can affect the actual presence of God in any objective sense. God is ever present, period. It is simply impossible for an artifice of man to affect God’s nature as such. Nevertheless, in a subjective sense, technology does play a role in how we experience (or fail to experience) God’s presence. Technology has always influenced how we think about and experience God. This is due to the simple fact that technology influences how we think about and experience the world and ourselves living in it.
Three Ways Technology Disrupts Our Human Experiences
Because technology easily addresses so many desires in contemporary WEIRD (western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic) culture, our spiritual lives cannot help but be affected by this relatively young phenomenon. Because we are spiritual and physical beings, the fact we can be physically, and consequently emotionally, gratified in more immediate ways than ever before will inevitably influence our spiritual experiences.
Further, as our sensate experiences influence our spiritual experiences, so too do our spiritual experiences shape our daily life of faith. This is inevitable for the common man, and even the mystic or cultural isolationist (e.g., the Amish or Mennonite believer) will struggle to fight against technology’s effects.
The trend of instant gratification of our sensual desires affects us in three ways:
- It shortens the temporal gap between a desire and the desire’s fulfillment. As such technology affects our sense of and relationship to time.
- Technology lessens the physical or mental exertion normally required prior to a desire finding fulfillment. In this way technology disrupts ontology, as mind and body are less engaged in the process of desire fulfillment as they would have been in the past.
- Instant gratification removes the need for actual, physical presence between persons. Thus, technology frustrates human relationality, or intersubjectivity.
A simple example of a desire that can be immediately fulfilled today, which would have been almost impossible even 40 years ago, is the ability to have almost any kind of food we desire at our dining room table within minutes. With the advent of certain computer technologies, services like DoorDash can deliver whatever we want right to our doorstep. Moreover, the whole procedure can occur without seeing who made the food, who packaged it, who processed the payment and even who delivered it. In a tech-reliant culture, products we use, even the most basic ones, almost materialize before us as we desire them.
The DoorDash example demonstrates how the temporal gap between physical hunger and the satisfying of that hunger is tremendously shortened. In addition, hardly any physical or mental effort is required on the part of the diner prior to eating (like cooking his own food or even planning on how to procure it). Finally, it can all happen within the isolation of one’s own living room, unseen by and without seeing others. Christians and non-Christians alike have pointed to very real dangers with the rise of such technologies and services.
Technological Increase and Dystopian Warnings
Historically speaking, this trend of rapid technologization started in the era of the industrial revolution, when machines began to take over for manual labor, interrupting the relationship between man and his work. This was one of the few, legitimate criticism by Marxism as industrialization tended to turn work into mindless labor. However, with the information revolution and the growing presence of social media, virtual communities and endless entertainment possibilities, instant gratification culture has increased exponentially.
Philosophers and social thinkers have made the point that the explosion of technology in the 20th century has very literally divided history into two distinct categories: the pre-technological and the technological. Some, like Ray Kurzweil, have argued that this accelerated change in technology will cause, or is already causing, “massive rifts in the fabric of human life.” As technology advances, especially in chip processing, manmade machines and man himself become increasingly grafted into one another. Powerful dystopian novels have portrayed the great threat of this synthesis. One thinks of Huxley’s Brave New World, Lewis’ That Hideous Strength or E.M. Forester’s The Machine Stops.
Forester’s novel (written in 1909!), was especially prescient. In it, human beings live under the surface of the earth in isolated pods. A super machine they created mediates every aspect of their lives. All human interaction is virtual, taking place through large screens in each individual cell. All their physical needs are also cared for directly by “the Machine.” Actual physical interaction with other persons is seen as disgusting and to be avoided. “Pneumatic posts,” “speaking tubes” and “glowing round plates” facilitate visual and audial communication between any number of people. But never with any real presence. Knowledge is shared second, or third or 10th-hand as first-hand experience is eliminated from human existence.
Forester’s vision sounds shockingly familiar in 2022! Given the last two years of living through COVID and relying on Zoom for so much of our “human” interaction, to include our church services, one cannot help but shudder.
The problem of presence in a highly technologized society has been well identified by researchers, scholars and theologians. However, there is another threat which doesn’t get quite as much attention. As mentioned above, living in an instant gratification culture can tempt us to make longterm goals into short-term ones. This faulty mental operation can be more nefarious and destructive than one might initially think.
Timing is Everything
The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that to everything there is a season. There is a rhythm to life that is discerned only through a careful examination of life itself. True wisdom, however, comes when this observation of life’s patterns occurs in conjunction with reverence for life’s Creator and deference to His plan of creation. The wise man not only discerns this rhythm of life, understanding its seasons, he also adapts his behavior, especially his moral decision making, to that rhythm.
However, this is exactly the point where modern technology is most disruptive. In altering our relationship to time, technology can fool us into thinking that because we can do something to fulfill a desire now that we should do it now. This capacity tempts us to ignore Solomon’s inspired words, words which exhort us to carefully discern time and the times:
There is an occasion for everything,
and a time for every activity
a time to give birth and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to uproot;
a time to kill and a time to heal;
a time to tear down and a time to build;
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance;
a time to throw stones and a time
to gather stones;
a time to embrace and a time
to avoid embracing;
a time to search and a time to count
a time to keep and a time
to throw away;
a time to tear and a time to sew;
a time to be silent and a time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.
This passage is almost too familiar, especially given its popularization in song. Because of this we often say them unreflectively or without taking into account the nature of the culture in which we live. After all, there is no aspect of life that Solomon leaves out. All of life is implicated here, every facet of human existence must find the right balance.
Verse 1 is explicit about it: the parallelism of lines one and two reinforce the idea that literally “all” aspects of life have their proper time. The corollary to this, obviously, is that there are improper times as well. There are times of activity and passivity, times of engagement and times of disengagement. If one fails to discern these times and act accordingly, then there will be harm to the subject as well as his world.
The Fallout of Short-Term Thinking
In an instant gratification culture our capacity to discern the right time to act, or refrain from action, is distorted. This tendency, given our human nature and technology, will usually prompt us to do things before we should do them. Or, it will deceive us into thinking we can achieve something quickly that in reality should play out over a long, extended period of time. As thought itself becomes more and more short term with regard to various aspects of life, this dramatically affects our spiritual life with God and our daily walk of faith.
One of the most tragic ways instant gratification culture has affected long and short-term thinking is in the sacred realm of marriage. Here we see incredible damage done as more and more people enter into the sacramental union, seeing it not as a life-long process of growth and development through mutual struggle, but as a contractual agreement meant to satisfy immediate needs.
When those needs are not met, unlike what we have come to expect in other areas of our lives, the tendency is to abandon ship and call for a divorce. If there is not immediate gratification in the marriage relationship (or in the having and rearing of children), then our new sensibilities, molded by technology and instant gratification culture, assume that the conditions must change. Of course the rise in divorce and fallout from broken homes further facilitates other kinds of short-term thinking and action, like testing periods for relationships and “Christian” co-habitation.
Inappropriate short-term thinking can permeate our vocational lives as well, as people hop from career to career assuming if one job is not paying off now, then some other one will grant the gratification being sought. The additional fact that there are so many different kinds of jobs available to young people today, makes it even more difficult not to engage in this career hopping. The same dynamic also applies to Christians and their churches, a reality C.S. Lewis was warning about when he wrote The Screwtape Letters in 1942. The fallout of such short-term thinking is tremendous and the damage to the individual and society incalculable.
Short-Term Thinking At the Top
The loss of wisdom in discerning the timing of embodied action is not just a dilemma for individuals or couples, however. This mental confusion comes in macroscopic form as well. For example, in America’s engagement in global affairs. If marriages, the smallest level of social interaction, cannot sustain conflict due to instant gratification thinking, then we shouldn’t expect our nation to be able to so either. For as Pope John Paul II rightly said, “as the family goes, so goes the nation.”
Our recent exit from Afghanistan, a debacle on many counts, was, in part, a result of instant gratification thinking. It simply was not yet a time to gather up stones in Afghanistan. The rapid retaking of the country by the Taliban was a direct result of now typical American short-term thinking. This is a short-term thinking that totalitarian states like China and terrorist groups like the Taliban have come to rely on as part of their own regional and international ambitions. Performing politics to appease the whims of an instant gratification populous is a dangerous and foolish endeavor, an endeavor that can affect both sides of the political aisle equally.
Timing our Emotions
However, Qoheleth’s advice goes beyond just our embodied action. It applies even to our emotional states. There are times to weep and times to laugh, times to love and times to hate.
In today’s culture of endless entertainment, live-streamed directly into our homes, we live on a veritable roller coaster of emotions. Movies, television shows, video games and news bombard us incessantly, instigating emotional reactions we would otherwise not have. Some of this media facilitates feelings of joy and elation, others of hatred and resentment, still others of fear and depression. However, they do so whenever and however we want. In a sense, technology supplies us with feelings on demand. As such, there is a disruption not so much to what we should feel, but when and how often we should feel it.
Therefore, not only can we sink our teeth into whatever ethnic food DoorDash has dropped at our porch, our hearts too can order up any emotion we desire as Netflix, Hulu or AppleTV serve it up instantaneously. Spiritually speaking we were not meant to excite the emotions on demand, nor do so with such frequency.
One fallout of living in a culture of immediate emotional gratification is our increasing need for having sentimental experiences of God. However, because God is sovereign, giving and holding back experiences according to His will, we try to generate emotional experiences of God in our churches. This occurs especially in our contemporary worship: a practice that has gone haywire in many Evangelical denominations and which has only recently been met with serious criticism. A further fallout of this is a kind of spiritual depression that often ensues when believers have to go through long dry periods of faith, periods that prior generations understood as “dark nights of the soul.”
Is it any wonder, given the technology we now possess, that this kind of worship and sentimentalism would emerge in WEIRD cultures like ours?
Instant Gratification and The Perseverance of the Saints
One could multiple examples of how instant gratification creates problems for human presence or facilitates inappropriate short-term thinking. In addition, the damage caused by confusing short-term and longterm thinking could be further elucidated. It is especially important to note, however, that if the Christian life is fundamentally about becoming more and more like the infinite God we worship, then the entire notion of instant gratification is antithetical to that particular sanctifying process.
With the technology we currently possess, or that now possesses us, and the instant gratification it delivers, it really shouldn’t surprise us that many Evangelicals are “deconstructing” their faith around the time they hit middle age. There was once a doctrine known to most Christians as the “perseverance of the saints.” But to persevere assumes a few things, one of which is endurance. But to endure assumes something further. It assumes an act of the will over an extended period of time. The “abandon-ship” attitude in the contemporary Evangelical church would be laughable if it were not so tragic.
The spiritual life in Christ is a marathon, not a sprint (to use a shopworn phrase). Pastors rarely preach this message in our churches today. And, even if preached, it simply is not the culture we step into once we leave the confines of our churches. Or should I say, once we log off from our live-streamed video feed of church.
Technology has changed our modes of thinking through its power to satisfy our bodily and emotional desires in almost instantaneous fashion. Because of this, we must realize that our capacity to fight the good fight of faith over the course of an entire lifetime will experience challenges prior generations, like E.M. Forester’s, might have imagined but never actually faced.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us that ours is not a short term battle, but a war of attrition, and being a war of attrition we must think accordingly:
3 We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.
To win such a war we need the Holy Spirit to fill our heart. This is the only weapon that can cause us to persevere to the end. For alone against the world and its technologies we simply do not stand a chance.