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Five things I learned by giving up TV for lent

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28 [NIV]

I know what you’re thinking… the same as everyone else probably:

Is that just normal TV then, or also Netflix?” and “Gosh, that’s a bit restrictive isn’t it? What are you going to do instead?

The answer to all the above is, “Yes”, and then, “I don’t know”, but isn’t that often the answer to things we feel the Holy Spirit is calling us to do? A leap of faith into something we know is going to be challenging but ultimately bring us closer to Him.

For a while now, I’ve struggled to feel fully rested, even after doing “nothing” all evening (ie binging a Netflix Series). When I tried to find rest with Jesus instead, it felt like homework, and I just didn’t have the mental or emotional energy to devote myself to prayer, worship or reading the Bible. It just didn’t feel like rest, and so I often ended up in a vicious cycle of then muting my brain with TV, hoping to find rest somewhere on the way.

At the time of writing this, we’re about half way into Lent, and so this is by no means a finished journey. However, I want to share with you the five key lessons I feel I’m already learning:

1. Most of us are mildly addicted to TV

Whether it’s watching Netflix, Prime or the news as it happens, TV punctuates so much of our daily rhythms, like ad breaks between the moments in our lives. In 2021, UK adults spent a third of their waking life watching TV. A third! That means it’s the main way we spend our down time, but is it really relaxing us or is it just habitual? We so often go through a rollercoaster of emotions when watching something and, given that we spend a third of our time in front of a screen, that means we spend more time experiencing (often fictional) emotions than our own. Yep! Anna Delvey and the creepy guy in the Tinder Swindler have taken up more of your attention than you give to yourself, never mind Yahweh!

2. TV isn’t the real issue.

When I initially turned my TV off at the mains, there was no miraculous giving of myself to Jesus in the time I gained. No, I found something else to numb my brain with: to start with, it was tidying/cleaning, and then it was scrolling on my phone. Even when I deleted the most culpable apps, I was still killing time and finding a voice in some endless googling spiral. But why?

What was I avoiding? Why couldn’t I just surrender myself to time with God? Why was it so hard and such an effort?

3. Physical relaxation is not the same as spiritual relaxation.

So often we fill our quiet time with prayer, reading, singing and things we feel we should do. Don’t get me wrong, those are important things to maintain and grow the most important relationship of our lives. But, if we are totally honest with ourselves, do those things always truly give us the rest Jesus promised? Is our quiet time even that quiet? Or is your brain on loudspeaker most of the time, muting your soul and fears that the Holy Spirit won’t speak to you if you don’t go through the motions? What if you came to Him with no agenda at all?

4. Staring into space is underrated.

Have you ever tried to eat a solitary meal without once looking at your phone or a screen? Fully present and aware of all your senses? Most of us would struggle to do it for more than five minutes without feeling uneasy and restless. Even though eating is technically doing something, we are so used to our brains being stimulated that we’ve forgotten how to just be.

Part way into my Lent journey, I tried what Brennan Manning calls “the great stare” meditation. If you want to reach the end of yourself, then try it. It’s frustrating and teaches you that Yahweh is not a streaming service you can turn on when you need a pick-me-up. But the more I leant into it, the more my mind wandered, relaxed, contemplated, imagined…

5. Time with Yahweh should not be rushed

By learning to literally do nothing in my time with my Abba, I realised I had been trying to lead Him in my quiet time! By surrendering my agenda, and my ideas of how I should and shouldn’t spend the time, I let Him lead me. I felt led to not only express myself to Him, but to do so through mediums I hadn’t done in ages, like painting. Mediums that show me that my father truly knows what I need to relax physically, emotionally and spiritually, and meets me there in those moments. We paint together.

The more time I spent in creative outlets, the less I felt I was muting my mind. Freedom of expression, unrestricted by time, gave way to spontaneous prayer, worship and unhurried conversations with the Creator of the world. I even found myself devouring Scripture more than I ever had. It became organic, not laboured.

Maybe you juggle quiet time with the demands of working, studying, childcare or ministry. Maybe doing literally nothing is unrealistic for you and, after a hard day, sometimes it can be nice to cosy up and watch a good film.

I don’t think we should give up TV altogether – there are definitely good things about it – but maybe you could try cutting out TV on a night or two when you don’t have any plans, and surrender your agenda to your maker. See how your Abba wants to give you rest, and the fruits that grow from it. Fruits He has in store just for you. Maybe you’ll paint or write like me, and maybe you won’t, but I pray that if nothing else, you’ll just be overcome by the wonder of who He is and how beloved you really are.

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