Review of Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Most of us are accustomed to a maximalist approach to technology. As long as it’s new and has some value to us, we adopt it. But according to Cal Newport, that sets the bar way too low and is leading to all kinds of negative consequences.

Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, has written several books about what it means to do valuable work in ways that don’t lead to burnout. In his latest book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Newport focuses on how our approach to technology needs to change.

Newport calls his approach: digital minimalism. The digital minimalist doesn’t reject technology—Newport still has an iPhone—but chooses his or her tools carefully and optimizes them. As he puts it, digital minimalism is

“a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

Like Marie Kondo, Cal Newport, is helping us to understand that there’s a cost to having things that clutter up our lives. Even though digital things may not take up much physical space, they still require a lot of mental and emotional space. Digital minimalism is, in part, about becoming sensitive to the cost of our digital tools.

Digital Minimalism, is not all philosophy though. The book also offers lots of practical advice on how to become more focused and reduce “the hum of low-grade anxiety”—or worse—“that permeates [our] lives”.

For example, Newport believes that we use digital distractions to try and fill our true need for high-quality leisure, like eating a bowl of mints, one after another, when what you really need is some homemade chicken noodle soup. And these low-quality leisure activities tend to exhaust us instead of refresh us. They tend to make us feel less human and more lonely. I believe distraction has its place, but learning the difference between low-quality and highly-quality leisure is important. Newport gives examples and suggests ways to incorporate more high-quality leisure into your life.

He also gives this helpful advice: make sure you find high-quality leisure activities before you start “decluttering the low-value digital distractions from your life”. Why? Because removing these distractions without filling the need first “will be unnecessarily unpleasant at best and a massive failure at worse.”

Sanely, Newport never promises that if you adopt digital minimalism that everything in your life will be perfect, the kind of overpromising that is common in self-improvement books like this. But he does think that digital minimalism will make a difference for the better. And he’s right about that. Being a digital minimalist hasn’t saved my soul but it has decreased my anxiety, increased my productivity, and improved my focus. It has helped me be a better husband, father, and pastor.

I’ve been on the path of digital minimalism for a few years now. Amoung other things, I’ve canceled or discontinued use of most of my social media accounts. I’ve reduced the number of podcasts, RSS feeds, newsletter subscriptions, etc. to about 15% of what it was. And I’ve optimized my phone to limit its ability to distract me. But the pull to a maximalist or reactive approach to technology, or life in general, is strong for me. So I appreciated the way Digital Minimalism strengthened my resolve and suggested new ways to grow.

I highly recommend you read this book and consider this approach for yourself.

Find Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World via WorldCat.

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Prickly Pear flowers

Tears of Love

David sang,
My heart became hot within me.
As I mused, the fire burned;
Then I spoke with my tongue.

Without meditation
He would have been a cold man
Who looks at a fire from a distance,
And sees the flames, but never gets warm.
But David saw God’s dancing truths,
Moved closer, and in meditative praise,
Put out his palms.

When you feel the heat from meditation,
Don’t leave. Muse on the truths
Until you are warmed
And ready to speak to God.

Focus your thoughts on a heavenly thing.
Treasure its source, virtue, and blessing.
Then plant it like a seed in the soil of your heart,
And ask: “How this might bear fruit in me?”
Divine fruit.

Be resolute.
As bold as a puritan.
Like Watson, who said:
Leave not your mediations of God
Till you find something of God in you.

For godly musing
Melts the heart when it is frozen
And makes it drop into tears of love.

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Love Incorruptible in Ephesians 6:24

Paul ends Ephesians, with the following benediction: ἡ χάρις μετὰ πάντων τῶν ἀγαπώντων τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ. What does this mean?

The English Standard Version translates this verse: “Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible”. And so, perhaps you’ve wondered: How can anyone love with incorruptible love? There’s a good answer to that, but it may be the wrong question. That’s because in Ephesians 6:24, “incorruptibility” probably doesn’t refer to the love given to Jesus, but to Jesus himself. As my friend, S. M. Baugh, translates it: “Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ, who dwells in incorruptibility.”

Dr. Baugh gives two reasons for this in his commentary on Ephesians. First, while it’s grammatically possible, there is no reason to link the prepositional phrases ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ back to the earlier participle phrase “all those who love”. The word order suggests, however, that ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ should be connected to its most recent antecedent: “our Lord Jesus Christ” instead. Second, the incorruptibility of Christian love was not a major theme in Ephesians, but the incorruptibility of Jesus was. Through Jesus, whom God raised from the dead and seated at his right and in the heavenly places, we are blessed with every spiritual blessing. In him we receive a glorious, incorruptible inheritance of life together worshiping the Trinune God. Ephesians begins with these things in mind, and with this benediction it ends with this way too. “As [Christ] dwells in incorruptibility,” writes Baugh, “so shall all his people dwell together evermore.” This is “the central message of Ephesians.”

And we can add another reason. Throughout the Bible, we see that the purpose of God’s pronouncing benedictions on his people is to bless them with his glory and the gifts of salvation. So naturally, these blessings tend to spotlight God’s work for us, not our work for him. We have that in the ESV translation, but it’s stronger in Dr. Baugh’s.

Before God loved us in Christ, we were corrupt and corruptible, able to decay and even already dead. “But God,” Paul writes in Ephesians 2, “being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”

Ephesians also teaches us that this salvation changes us. It turns us from enemies of God into friends with him and each other. It puts peace our hearts and it teaches us a new way in Christ. It incorporates us into a new body, with Christ himself as our living head. And as such, in this salvation we learn a new way to live: a way that is marked by love and sustained by the grace of our incorruptible Lord from his incorruptible kingdom.

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John Cassian Explains Suffering

John Cassian (ca. 360-435) was a world-travelling ascetic who thought a lot about suffering. And in his work, On the Death of the Saints (conference 6, chapter 11), he takes an aside to consider why God brings trials into our lives, both believers and unbelievers.1

Here’s my summary of Cassian’s reasons for suffering, along with a verse for each reason. He includes some of these verses and many others in the work I’m summarizing, which you can read online or in Accordance.

God uses suffering for probation.

And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. (Deut. 8:2 ESV)

God uses suffering to warn us.

When a scoffer is punished, the simple becomes wise; when a wise man is instructed, he gains knowledge. (Prov. 21:11 ESV)

God uses suffering for punishment and justice.

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezek. 18:20 ESV)

God uses suffering to reject us, which is “worse than all other punishments”

The bellows blow fiercely; the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed. Rejected silver they are called, for the LORD has rejected them. (Jer. 6:28-30 ESV)

God uses suffering to improve us.

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. (Rom. 5:3–4 ESV)

God uses suffering to prove his work in us.

You have been grieved by various trails, so that the tested genuine of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in the praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:7 ESV)

God uses suffering to manifest his glory.

“It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3 ESV)

  1. For more thoughts on the trials of Christians in particular, read Joel Beeke’s exposition of Westminster Confession of Faith 17.3. [return]