Recovering mindfulness: Relearning to focus in a multi-tasking society

January 23, 2017

The holiday season, for all of its glories, also has its inherent struggles, from family dysfunction to travel stresses and egregious caloric consumption. I was confronted with a new one this year.

It began when the stream of emails entering my inbox turned to a trickle, then barely a drip. My Twitter feed similarly slowed. Many of my favorite podcasts went on hiatus, and my preferred websites published less content. Even baseball’s Hot Stove League cooled, and professional golf came to a rare stop, providing me fewer stories about my favorite pastimes.

This pattern repeats annually, as the year’s final week provides many with much-needed rest. It’s a Sabbath for even the most secular segments of society.

Uncovering anxious toil

God used that slower pace to reveal an error that had been hidden from me during the busyness of life’s daily rhythms. Stepping away from work was harder than anticipated; the decline in productivity produced restlessness, as did the decrease in the amount of content—whether articles, podcasts or tweets—available to consume.

I realized that many of my efforts to be an informed and productive citizen were little more than “anxious toil” (Ps. 127:2). I was willfully submitting myself to sensory overload, a self-induced stress to keep myself busy. I gave work email permission to steal my attention, favoring the short-term “productivity” over the benefits of prolonged, concentrated effort. I was gorging myself on information, news stories, articles on this website and other Christian resources. Even my morning commute was filled by podcasts. Trying to consume content during every empty millisecond felt like the right thing to do in our information age.

It wasn’t until the temptation was removed that I realized how much time I spent distracted, disrupted and exhausted. Today we simply call this multi-tasking, which was once celebrated as a skill of the super-productive but is now recognized as a downside of our distracted age.

The blessing of mindfulness

There’s a reason “mindfulness” has become a buzzword in workplace psychology. A recent New York Times article defined the practice as, “The ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present and dismiss any distractions that come your way.” The author contends the practice is “less about spirituality and more about concentration,” but I disagree.

If we’re struggling to focus on the world that’s before our eyes, how much more are we overlooking the spiritual realities that lie beneath? I both work harder, and remember who I am working heartily for (Col. 3:23), when I am undistracted.

Rankin Wilbourne, author of the 2016 book Union With Christ,” contends that our imagination is vital to our faith. He defined imagination as “that God-given, uniquely human capacity to imagine what is real but not immediately visible beyond our eyes” in a recent interview with the PCA’s By Faith magazine. “The Bible calls to our imagination from beginning to end. When we are called to fix our eyes on things unseen or set our minds on things above, these are calls to our imagination.”

Scripture knows how forgetful we can be. Warnings are offered to people who are in danger. No one warns an Eskimo about heatstroke because there’s no threat of that actually happening. That’s why we’re implored watch ourselves (2 John 1:8), to not be deceived (1 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 5:6) and to “look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.” (Eph. 5:15)

Tim Keller, commenting on Ephesians 5:15 in his book Every Good Endeavor, said, “To be wise is to know how to best use every moment strategically. And this insight comes from the influence of the Holy Spirit, who also strengthens us to live a life worthy (Col. 1:11) and is referred to as a ‘spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.’” (2 Tim. 1:7)

It’s impossible to walk carefully with our noses stuck in our phones. We know this, yet we do it anyways. A recent New York Times article on smartphone usage cited Nancy Collier’s new book, The Power of Off. Whe writes, “We are spending far too much of our time doing things that don’t really matter to us,” and that we’re “disconnected from what really matters, from what makes us feel nourished and grounded as human beings.”

We are blessed by the ease with which we can access information, but, like the best buffets, this can easily be abused. Gluttony starts with fulfilling a need. Then, there’s temporary joy in the excess. But we’re often left feeling dissatisfied and regretful, especially when we’ve filled ourselves on something besides the soul-satisfying nourishment of God’s Word and prayer.

Practicing priorities

There are ways to push back against the world’s endless droning and create space to worship Christ during the day. I’d forgotten that, when I don’t give myself over to distraction, even the smallest moments could be used to clear my head and commune with God.

A morning time of Bible reading and prayer is important, but there’s a reason acedia, which is defined as “spiritual sloth or apathy,” is known as the “noonday devil.” The day is long and we need to abide in Him throughout.

Putting down the book while I held my sleeping newborn son gave me time to pray for him instead. Standing in line at Starbucks without checking my phone provided a few minutes for prayer or, at least, time to reflect on my objectives for the day ahead. I’ve tried to give myself a fixed amount of time, say 15 minutes, to read the news, visiting my most important sites first. Setting aside that time for that single purpose limited my mindless browsing throughout the day. It’s similar to the advice that we should check our email at specific times throughout the day, instead of responding immediately to each email that enters our inbox.

One of my church’s elders told me prays during his morning commute. Using a pen and paper for brainstorming has allowed me to step away from the internet, even for a few moments. Turning off Pandora and Spotify has helped me focus during trying tasks (there are other times where the music can aid with menial tasks, of course). These steps have helped me remember to seek the Lord in the midst of work’s stresses. There’s plenty of other ways to do this.

There’s a reason David writes in Psalm 103:2-5:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good,
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

If King David can be forgetful, we must recognize our propensity to do the same and fight to return our focus to Christ, even in the midst of a busy workday.

Sean Martin

Sean Martin lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with his wife, Abby, and son, John. Sean has worked in golf media for the past 11 years, and currently serves as the events editor at PGATOUR.COM. He's covered golf tournaments on four continents, including all of the game's major championships. A native Californian, Martin … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24