Why I gave up my smartphone

Carter Ferguson

By Carter Ferguson
Special Contributor

Editor’s Note: This is the first commentary in a two-part series about giving up a piece of technology many now consider essential to daily life.

Never in my life have I been more afraid to click my mouse to confirm an action than I was Jan. 18, 2017, at about 11 a.m. I was confirming a temporary switch of cellular service from my new iPhone 7, the most convenient and incredible tool I’ve ever owned, to the LG Revere 3, a phone with technology so paltry in comparison that it felt as though with that click I was condemning myself to using papyrus (please feel the hyperbole in that statement, but not too much).

I’d had the idea of going back to a basic flip phone a few weeks earlier, as a means of preparing for a new sermon series called “Disconnected,” in which I would explore what happens to my interpersonal connections and my connection to God if I disconnect from most of the things the smartphone enables me to do. Several things prompted this change:

First, I found that, if I’m honest, social media irritates me. Rarely did I leave a session on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram without feeling as though I had been sucked dry emotionally, as though everything there was an attempt to grab my attention, to garner my affectionate approval through the hallowed “like” button or to sway my opinion in that person’s favor. And yet, despite the fact that I nearly always left social media drained, I felt compelled to look at it… a lot.

If it were any other thing—a food, a drug, alcohol or other substance—we would look at this behavior and say, “Carter, you have a problem. You need to go to a 12-step meeting.” Yet because it’s social media, it’s somehow acceptable. I suspect, though, that whenever something commands our time, attention and focus in such great quantities, we should be wary of it and ponder what’s really going on.

Second, I found a disturbing pattern of inattentiveness to my five-month-old beginning to emerge. She’s a daddy’s girl, and I’m OK with that; but what lessons is she learning from her father being so easily distracted by a digital device rather than paying attention to her? Is it possible she’s being told “I love you,” but experiencing something more like “I tolerate you?”

Third, I noticed that when I was stuck in my phone, for whatever reason, my interaction with and affection for my wife was demonstrably lower. I spent an incredible number of years praying for God to bring the one who would be my love, my “person,” for the rest of my life. I’ve prayerfully wept over the loneliness I felt before I met her. So why would I choose to spend hours looking at my phone instead spending hours with the love of my life?

Above all, I’ve noticed that the biggest enemy to my relationship with God is not disliking him, or refusing to spend time with him because I don’t want to, or not “feeling it”—as though the connection simply wasn’t there. The biggest enemy to my relationship with God has been that phone. Why? Because it’s easy; it’s convenient. Because it’s easier and more convenient than God.

Oswald Chambers wrote, “The good is always the enemy the best.” But is it possible that in American society, the greatest enemy of what is best is not what is good, but rather what is easy, what is convenient?

I once had a church secretary who loved Michelob Light because it “had the highest alcohol content and the lowest number of calories.” She said that it got her where she wanted to go at the lowest possible cost (in calories). We are a people who settle for spiritual Michelob Light; a people who settle for what gives us the greatest buzz for the least amount of effort, time and energy. But this isn’t how faith works. It is creeping into the area of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. (Pull out your smartphone and Google that. You’ll see what I mean.)

As I clicked that mouse confirming the switch, I was overwhelmed with a wave of discomfort. However, committed to this exercise and to whatever this digital self-deprivation would bring upon me, I sat with the feeling. I slowly realized that I was experiencing two powerful emotions:

1. Loneliness. Because being in constant connection with others simply wasn’t as convenient or as possible as it was before. I couldn’t get that shallow and tepid, at best, relational connection that social media so falsely creates.

2. Perhaps more embarrassingly, I felt fear. I was afraid of not having my iPhone. Of the possibility that the LG wouldn’t connect to my car. That I may not be able to listen to music while at a coffee house. I may not have that calculator present. How will I post a picture or status on Facebook, garner the likes that somehow inform me about how wonderful or how happy I am?

Over the first few hours without my iPhone, I realized that the removal of the phone didn’t create these emotions. The phone hid them from me in the same way alcohol or drugs or pornography can mask feelings. I wonder what it means for pastors and leaders of our churches to be actively engaged in an addiction of this magnitude while trying to spiritually lead others?

The Rev. Ferguson serves as pastor of CanvasCommunity, a United Methodist mission congregation in Little Rock. A version of this commentary originally appeared on Canvas’s blog at welovelittlerock.org.