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Substance (11) – Escaping Diversion

The last few weeks I wrote about things we ought to pursue like godly ‘ordinariness’ and self-sacrificial love. But in order to embrace and say “yes” to good things we often have to let go of and say “no” to lesser things. This week’s message will be about saying “no” to things that divert us.

Centuries before the iPhone Blaise Pascal wrote, “the only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries for it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us thoughtlessly ruin ourselves. Without [diversion] we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.”

Pastor Gibson talks about an experiment in which Japanese and American first grade students were given an unsolvable math problem. Many Japanese kids had to be cut off after an hour because they would not give up, while the majority of American students gave up after 30 seconds. This shows a distinct difference in character between the two groups. According to Gibson, the difference in their character was fostered by different cultural values and environments.

For many of us, diversion and ease have taken over the primary place of our God-given capacity for grit and focus. We accept our spiritual slavery and fail to rouse ourselves to freedom because of diversion. It numbs and binds us to our spiritual weaknesses and slavery.

As a culture, we are constantly limiting our attention span and our tolerance for sustained mental exertion or uncomfortable topics. Facebook allows us to pay attention to what and whom we like, Twitter demeans reasoned argument by limiting thoughts to 280 characters, Instagram favors pictures over words, we have a welfare state that will catch us if we fall so we don’t need to be vigilant, the news cycle gives us constant movement with no sense of relative importance or proportion while confirming our biases and feeding our fear and pride, entertainment displaces active leisure with passive amusement, video games replace real experiences with virtual ones, socialism makes us think we are part of a story we can’t control, technology allows us to do things with less effort, our phones notify us constantly with trivialities and divert us from full engagement in the present, and of course we fear missing out.

According to Pastor Gibson, there is no path to spiritual freedom and substance without the conviction that we must escape diversion. Diversions seem innocent and so we don’t focus on escaping them. But every diversion diverts us from something that requires our attention.

Why do we divert ourselves? Ultimately, we don’t want to deal with the fact that we are going to die. But when we divert ourselves we only avoid our cure.

This has always been a problem, but modern technology now allows us to distract ourselves immediately and precisely the way we prefer. Not only that, but the diversions we have are more intense and engrossing. The very things (e.g. computers and smart phones) that could allow us to be greater stewards and achieve new heights of creativity and productivity are actually distracting us from both. If we don’t learn to master technology, it will master us.

Yet, it is hard to recognize diversion because we see it as relaxation, leisure, fun, or a hobby. And it is easy to replace diversion with a set of legalistic rules. How do we reject diversion without replacing it with legalism? We must ask the questions that Paul does in I Corinthians: is a beneficial (i.e. for our own true good)?, is it constructive (i.e. for the true good of others)?, will it master us, and does it align with who we are in Christ? Thinking through these questions can help us to cut out non-sinful pursuits and activities that are crowding out better things in our lives.

It is essential to overcome diversions because diverted people do not grow in maturity. Diversion weakens our ability to focus at all and focus is like a muscle. We cannot be passive in our relationship with God. We need to keep up our passion for and devotion to God. That means we need to give Him time, focus, and attention. We must make “every effort” to grow in godliness, for godliness is part of the gift that Christ paid so dearly to gives us (II Peter 1:3-11).

This will take sustained effort! William Wilberforce said that his work “must be affected by constant and regular exertions rather than by sudden and violent ones.” The opposite of this is what John Piper calls “cardiac Christians”.

And yet, despite the work we must do this is ultimately not a question of accomplishment or effort. It is a question of faith. Do we think that growing in godliness is part of the great treasure that God has given us? Are Jesus and his work so beautiful to us that becoming like Him is as valuable as escaping Hell and gaining Heaven?