Guilt tends to show up at one time or another in our spiritual practices. When I talk to folks about prayer, guilt or frustration often come up because of distractions.
I have certainly struggled during the days when I’ve failed to pray because I wasted my time or not lined up my priorities correctly. Technology often comes up as a source of distraction from prayer, whether that’s reading articles on my phone or checking social media on my computer.
However, is it appropriate to carry about a sense of guilt and failure due to my distractions? The majority of Christians would likely say something like, “How can you even ask that question? Of course you should! It’s up to you to make better choices?”
While I don’t deny personal responsibility, I believe there is a lot more going on when it comes to digital distractions and their impact on our spiritual practices. We may be carrying a lot of guilt due to factors that are larger than our own willpower.
Here are three sources of distraction I’ve encountered: personal choices, cultural trends, and corporate manipulation. Let’s consider each source of guilt in turn so that we can see how they interlock with each other and what we can do about them.
Personal Responsibility for Distraction from Prayer
There is no escaping the fact that we all bear responsibility for our time and how we use it. We can either cultivate good habits or bad habits for prayer, we can delete social media apps from our phones or use them compulsively, and we can take notice of our emotions and thoughts or we can soldier on without turning to God in faith.
Our personal choices play a major role in our abilities to make space for prayer. Putting all of my cards on the table, I would argue that many Christians in America, whether from our Protestant work ethic roots or our conservative cultural leanings, have made personal responsibility THE main thing, if not the only thing when it comes to confronting our distractions and misuse of time.
There is so much concern that we’ll blame someone or something else for our sins and faults, creating a kind of victimized illusion, that it’s likely many of us go in the opposite direction. We make the mistake of only examining our own faults when we fail to pray or become distracted during prayer.
While our choices, habits, practices, and priorities must come under scrutiny when we struggle to find the time or focus to pray, they interlock with a wider ecosystem of manipulation and expectation.
Cultural Trends that Distract from Prayer
While we are responsible for the habits and practices that make space for God’s work in our spiritual formation, we may be unaware of just how hostile our daily environment is toward prayer. The pressure to succeed at work, the many possibilities for how to spend our time, and the ever-present promises of indulgence and fulfillment through consumer culture can drag us away from the silence and awareness of God in prayer.
We are surrounded by appealing ads that aim to sell us a narrative of personal fulfillment through working harder and buying more things. Silence and patiently waiting on God are not priorities in consumer culture, and we are surrounded by devices that aim to pull us away from these life-giving practices.
That isn’t to say that we can’t resist consumer culture, the messages on our screens, or the drive to work harder for the sake of profit and status. We certainly can. However, this requires a higher level of intentionality, willpower, and immersion in alternate ways of thinking.
Corporate Distractions from Prayer
Beyond our personal choices to use technology to distract ourselves and the wider culture, there’s another aspect of digital technology and social media today that we can’t overlook: the corporate strategy. There are large technology and social media corporations that are hacking our minds to make their apps and devices addictive.
This isn’t some conspiracy theory. This is what whistleblowers and insiders from the tech industry report according to the Center for Humane Technology. From the color and design of social media notifications to the ways videos auto-load in YouTube, our natural desires for human interaction and vulnerability are being exploited to keep us on apps longer.
This places us in a kind of daily willpower battle against things that feel good for us. Since most of us are close to a phone or computer every day, this battle may feel constant, and that’s bad news for us.
Cal Newport writes in Deep Work: “A now voluminous line of inquiry, initiated in a series of pioneering papers also written by Roy Baumeister, has established the following important (and at the time, unexpected) truth about willpower: You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”
Are You Responsible for Distraction?
We all bear responsibility for our choices, but we may doom ourselves to failure if we only make our struggle against distraction a matter of personal willpower and choice. We are up against highly sophisticated technology and are immersed in a culture that isn’t too interested in asking tough questions about consumption or indulgence.
We need to counter distractions today with more than willpower. We need our own systems and habits to counteract the messages that surround us daily.
Is there a prompt you can use each day to pray? Is there a reliable time that you can set aside for silence, even if it’s doing the dishes or driving around town?
Just as technology and consumer culture thrive on being the simple, almost too easy choice, we also need to make space for our spiritual practices so that they become our default at key times each day.