You may have seen the recent study done at UVA that found that people preferred electric shocks to being left alone with their thoughts. As the Atlantic reported,
Considering the many challenges life has to offer, entertaining yourself with your own thoughts for a few minutes seems like one of the easier hurdles to overcome. You could recall your favorite childhood memory, plan your weekend, or try to solve a problem from work. But it turns out that people find this assignment incredibly hard. And, according to new research, they’ll even resort to giving themselves electric shocks to keep themselves entertained.
“We, like everyone else, noticed how wedded people seem to be to modern technology, and seem to shy away from just using their own thoughts to occupy themselves,” the lead researcher, Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, told me. “That got us to wondering whether this said something fundamental about people’s ability to do this.”
All people had to do was spend 11 minutes alone, and yet hardly anyone could do it. Most preferred the experience of physical pain over doing absolutely nothing.
The distraction of the smart phone is clearly an issue today. You hold in your hand a 24 hour a day ticket out of your own thoughts. I would suggest, however, that although modern technology aids and abets the problem of being alone with our thoughts, it is not the root of the problem. After all the ancient Romans complained that young people did not spend enough time in contemplation. And Paschal famously said, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
St. Paul gives us an explanation of people’s ability or inability to sit in a quiet room alone with our thoughts. In his follow up to Romans 7 – about which Dave Zahl powerfully preached last Sunday – Paul expands on his answer to the torment of being alone with his own thoughts. Remember he confesses to being in an inner war in his inner man – not being able to do or think the things he should. A few minutes alone with his own thoughts leads him to exclaim, “Wretched man that I am!” and cry out, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Paul’s experience, which I take to be universal, is the experience of an inner voice of self-condemnation. It’s like having an inner drill sergeant, demanding, belittling, and accusing you.
This inner drill sergeant must work for Lowe’s, whose new advertising pitch is “Never Stop Improving.” This voice demands perfection, this voice will accept no measure of failure. This voice will not allow you to rest or be idle. It is no wonder that we turn to electric shocks in an attempt to quiet the voice.
Theologically speaking, the origin of the voice is the Law – God’s demand on our lives. Yet, it speaks everywhere and about anything – your looks, your relationships, your inabilities, your very self.
As theologian Gerhard Forde says,
“The voice can and does arise from anywhere and everywhere. It is not limited merely to what might call the sphere of morality. The voice might arise from something as simple as the sudden rustling of leaves in the forest…More unmistakably it arises from the demands which society makes of us, the demands of family and friends and the voices and faces of suffering humanity…And above all it is the command of God that we must love him with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves.”
“The law is not defined only as a specific set of demands as such, but rather in terms of what it does to you. Law is that which accuses and terrifies and in a real sense, anything that does this functions as law…It is the voice, which for the sinner, never ends.”
For the poor Brazilian soccer team, and maybe for the whole nation, the voice never ends. Even before their humiliation at the hands of the Germans, Carlos Alberto, the captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup Championship team, criticized the current players, saying, “The team is crying when they’re singing the anthem, when they get hurt, when they shoot penalties. Stop crying! Enough! They say it’s the pressure from playing at home. But they should have been prepared for this.”
One doesn’t even want to imagine what he and everyone else is saying following the team’s devastating loss. Brazilians still talk about a 1950 loss to Uruguay, a “humiliation” that still brings tears to Brazilian eyes. Talk about a voice that never ends.
The irony of the voice’s ceaseless demand is that it can never be quieted even if you do perform to the standard the voice requires. For example, just moments after Alabama’s national championship win 2 years ago, coach Nick Saban, looking grim, said in effect – “we can’t even take 30 minutes to enjoy this, we’ve got to start working toward next year.”
The other irony is that because of this voice, praise becomes just the other side of the criticism coin. Yes, I’d rather have praise than criticism, but the inner drill sergeant tells me that praise must be earned and re-earned and re-earned. Praise is never permanent. It’s just one end of the performance spectrum. Granted, a nicer end than criticism, but still on the same grid of performance.
What we need, in fact, is to get off the grid altogether. Because it’s one thing when you’re talking about sports, it’s another thing when you are talking about your identity as a person, your ability to get through 10 minutes, let alone a lifetime with your undistracted thoughts. To sit quietly in a room alone requires the cessation of the voice of the Law.
The cessation we crave comes to us from off the grid of performance and deserving. It comes from the outside, it comes from a voice stronger than the law. It is the voice of the gospel, which says “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” As the scripture says, Christ is the end of the law! The voice of law is silenced by the Word of the Gospel. Jesus Christ is the…Logos… the Word made flesh. That is the gospel.
How is Christ the end of the law? By the law being the end of Christ. On the cross, he took the condemnation of the law in our place. So now, there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. As Paul tells us this morning, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.
It’s been 2 months since we’ve heard a Dave Johnson sermon, so I think it’s high time for a rock-n-roll reference. Springsteen, no less, so we know Dave would approve. In his song “Cover Me” we hear a clear allusion to the God who covers and protects us from the law of condemnation.
The times are tough now, just getting tougher / The world is rough now, just getting rougher / Cover me, come on baby, cover me / I’m looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me.
The whole world is out there just trying to score / I’ve seen enough, I don’t want to see anymore / Cover, come on in and cover me.
Christ is the end of the never-ending voice of condemnation. He covers you. Practically speaking this means I’m free to fail, because Jesus has succeeded for me. I’m free to lose, because Jesus has won for me. I’m free to be weak, because Jesus was strong for me. And I’m free to sit quietly and enjoy peace, because Jesus has taken the electric shock – and more – for me.
In fact, to sit quietly alone with one’s thoughts in a room is to engage in the ancient gift of Christian meditation – meditating, savoring, absorbing, inwardly digesting the message “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”