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When we intentionally put away our phones, is it a fast or a sabbath?

Lynne Baab • Thursday September 26 2019

When we intentionally put away our phones, is it a fast or a sabbath?

Our lives are “thickly technological,” writes Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Theological Seminary.[1] Because of this shift, intentionally stepping aside from technology is becoming increasingly important. This might mean turning off cellphones for a period of time, not turning on laptops or tablets, refraining from checking email or social media, or choosing not to use another form of technology that plays a role in our lives.

When we do that, are we fasting from that form of technology or having a Sabbath? I have heard people use both terms, and I want to explore some of the issues related to which word we choose to use.

Backing way up to the first two decades of Sabbath keeping for Dave and me, it never crossed my mind that a Sabbath would be anything other than 24 hours. We had experienced the Sabbath that way in Israel, and it was described in the Bible as a day. After I wrote my book, Sabbath Keeping, I got invitations to write articles for magazines, and a couple of times the editors wanted me to address the possibility of a shorter Sabbath. When I did the interviews for my book, all my interviewees talked about Sabbath lasting 24 hours or longer, but after the book came out, I did hear a couple of stories from people who observed a Sabbath for a half day or a few hours.

Therefore, one way to differentiate between a Sabbath or a fast from your phone might be the length of time. Lots of people go off social media for the forty days of Lent. That’s clearly not a Sabbath – no one ever talks about a Sabbath lasting that long. So the best word would be “fast.” Even a weekend or a week away from some aspect of technology is not a Sabbath from the standpoint of time. But the choice of wording gets murkier when we want to set our phones aside for a few hours or a whole day.

So here’s another way to differentiate between a Sabbath and a fast – intention. In the Bible, the Sabbath is for stopping, resting, enjoying God as Creator and Redeemer. Sabbath is for family and friends (or delightful down time alone), relaxed meals, carefree walks, poetry and art. We might turn off technology in order to rest more deeply, enjoy the people in our lives more fully, or engage in a sensory and tactile way with the gifts God has given us in the beautiful creation.

One Sabbath is meaningless. Only after twenty, fifty, a hundred Sabbaths do we relax into the life-giving rhythm Sabbath keeping offers.

In contrast, a fast creates space to evaluate our lives or pray intensely about something. In the Bible, fasting is associated with repentance from sin, intense intercessory prayer, and mourning the death of loved ones. One of my interviewees for my book on fasting talked about fasting every Monday, and someone I spoke with recently talked about the value of fasting repeatedly, but most people who fast do it when specific needs arise. Often, then, fasting does not involve a repetitive rhythm, and in some instances one fast can be life-changing.

We might fast from technology in order to make space to pray for someone in need or for guidance in our own lives. We might fast from technology in order to evaluate the effect technology is having on us and to make space for pondering and praying about how to place wise limits on its use.

We also might turn off technology to focus on the people around us or simply to have a break. I put my phone in my locker when I exercise at the gym. I find the rhythm of using weight machines to be meditative, and I don’t want to be interrupted by my phone. Is that a fast or a Sabbath from my phone? Neither. It’s just a preference, a choice I make to give me mental and spiritual freedom during exercise.

I believe that in our “thickly technological” culture, we will need to embrace new patterns like fasting from technology and turning technology off for a Sabbath day. Hopefully I’ve given you some ideas of the language you might want to use. Whatever you call it, I encourage you to pray for wise use of the technology that serves us in so many ways, yet can also distract us from things that matter.

Next week: the significance of fasting in a discarnate age. Illustration by Dave Baab. I always welcome new subscribers. Sign up below to get an email when I post on this blog.

Sometimes we put our phones down so we can listen. Some articles I’ve written about listening:

[1] Mark Labberton, “Strangers, Neighbors, and the Unexpected Promise of Rideshare Technology,” Fuller Magazine, 2019, page 8.

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