I am ordinarily averse to jewelry and allergic to accessories.
Our wedding video over two decades ago captures my twisting, fidgeting, and endlessly attending to the symbol of my wife’s vow that I have worn consistently since that happy Saturday. But that day, the ring caused claustrophobia for my finger.
So it feels a bit strange to wear an ugly, rectangular, and plastic contraption on my wrist. But I do. Because I have succumbed to the lure of the quantified self.
I wear a Fitbit.
At least while I am awake.
So I, my iPhone, and any number of unknown but omniscient electronic web-o-sphere minions (probably) know how many steps I take each day.
And what my heart rate was when I took them. And how many intervals elapsed in the day without my taking at least 250 steps. And it is all graphically, symbolically, and numerically depicted in congratulatory color schemes when daily goals are met.
The modern managerial proverb assures “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” and Louis Gerstner’s perceptive adage convinces that “folks don’t do what you expect, but what you inspect.” There are inducements to action when we are being monitored, and when our actions are quantifiable. And we’ve all been told that movement is a critical factor in longevity. The good life is a kinetic one. In 10,000 steps a day, you can biologically bless yourself with extra time on the planet.
But, of course, there are unexpected consequences.
When your Fitbit is charging and therefore, off the clock of charting your contributions to your own well-being, you may be lulled into counter-intuitive decisions, “Well, I suppose there’s no point of walking out to my car to get that ice cream I bought at the store. I won’t get any credit for it.”
If the measurement is our only motivation, then when not measured, our motivation melts, much like that unattended ice cream in the car.
And of course, you can completely scrap the idea of a pleasant post-dinner stroll down the street with your beloved if you’re overly attuned to the step-counting wizard on your wrist. Oh, you might take the stroll. But it won’t be all that pleasant. It will be quantified. Counted. Scrutinized. And you may not be able to afford a stop to watch your silly dog frolicking in the creek or to notice with childhood summer nostalgia the honey suckle wafting in the damp air just after a May shower.
But the Fitbit does undoubtedly succeed in motivating more movement.
And its liberality is encouraging.
A month ago when my Fitbit seemed to have breathed its last, and I was forced to rely on my phone’s step counting ability, I realized how much I valued the exceedingly more generous Fitbit.
The counter on my phone was downright stingy, like an old British schoolmaster who was never sufficiently pleased with my Latin translations. The Fitbit is so much more sensitively calibrated. It’ll even credit me for a particularly animated conversation if I employ my arms in the action. And preaching a couple of times on Sunday morning is easily worth 6-7ooo steps from hand gesturing alone!
But here’s the thing. While it alleviates my existential anxiety and vulnerability in the world by assuring me that I am elongating my destiny with each stride, I’m afraid it may be fabricating within me a false security. In fact, some reports suggest that folks who wear Fitbits, tend to eat worse, for instance, because they draw erroneous conclusions from their “accomplishment” of achieving the desired level of steps in a day. “Wow, 18,000 steps, Oreo McFlurry here I come!”
This little device urges me to believe, even if just a smidgen, that life and death is in my hands. “I am master of my fate. I am captain of my soul” and other silly Invictus declaring falsities.
But my soul is not in fact “unconquerable” and as a pastor called to move frequently in and out of terrifying sorrows and undoing maladies that are entrusted to all sorts of folks whether they are religious devotees of Crossfit Brigand and can back-squat refrigerators and fireman carry actual steel fire hydrants down Broad Street or if they are glued to a recliner in a trailer by a lethal combination of loneliness, mental anguish, and arthritis---nobody is exempted from the “menace of the years.”
Boy is it tempting though to imagine myself ensuring all my future moments, generating smooth arterial interstates in my blood stream, and single-handedly supplying the electricity that my heart needs to make deliveries throughout my body faster than Amazon Prime could ever hope, even with their army of drones.
And worse, what if the mindset that Fitbit and a thousand other modern promethean suggestions encourage, gets smuggled into my thinking about God? The steps give me a small, but daily, boast. No matter how badly I ate, how much I weigh, or how much didn’t go the way I imagined, I can point to my accomplishment of taking the requisite steps. I walked 17,000 steps today! And I am comforted. Whether I should be, is of course an altogether different matter. But it gives me a feather in the cap.
It happens to us all. We all have, as John Newton once remarked, a “works principle” baked into our inner lives; that indigenous instinct to earn our own way, to make a case for, and to defend ourselves.
And while it may be substantially less harmless, and maybe even a bit helpful, with respect to our physical health, it turns out to prove disastrous to our spiritual health and standing before God.
Repent of Your Damnable Good Deeds?
Another Gerstner, John, the theologian, once gruffly and prophetically urged his hearers:
“Repent of your damnable good deeds.”
“Sheesh!” you may reply. Of our good deeds?
Gerstner knew that when you think you’re “good”, you’ll lean on that goodness and parade it proudly like that insufferable Joseph and his sparkly coat before his brothers. But when it comes to God’s standards, leaning on those supposed good deeds is as precarious as a robust fella sitting in a portable, camping chair from Dick’s. The nylon never holds the whole man for long. (I have embarrassing proof!) And neither does a resume of goodness, or a data report of many moral miles offered to God.
God doesn’t grade on a curve. And our meager moral steps can’t come close to scaling the heights of his law’s requirements. Even the twitter-sized version of his intent for humans, “to love God and love neighbor” is a damning indictment if it turns out to be, as Scripture clearly suggests, our grading standard.
Does any of us imagine that we have loved God with each fiber and fragment of ourselves?
We don’t even think of Him most the time.
And maybe we feel noble when it comes to our friendliness and warmth at work, or on our kid’s teams, or on our street. But it’s the “as yourself” part that makes our obligation to our neighbor more comprehensive than the IRS tax code.
Can any of us confidently take the stand and give compelling evidence to our being as obsessed about other people’s feelings, well-being, sense of belonging, health, care, and joy as we are about our own?
None of Us Can Take Enough Steps
The once religion-on-steriods practicing Apostle Paul came to realize that God’s law was largely installed, to use the Fitbit metaphor, to show us that none us us can ever take enough steps. The law of God requires, say, a million steps a day and monitors us to show us we can’t manage even an infinitesimal percentage of the requirement. And of course, our failures to take these steps of love, aren’t nothing....our lack of love toward our spouse, orphans, folks of other races, and the poor, etc. are acts of treason to the universe’s King and punishable by death.
Righteous is the divine ruling we all need to receive, and if you listen carefully, the one we most want. Just try telling someone they aren’t a “good person.” After you come to, you’ll be convinced.
Righteous is the adjective that will get us God-welcomed after all our steps have been walked. Happily, Paul also insists, that although we’ve all been exposed as hapless, unrighteous, law-keeping failures, ANYONE who will receive it, can win God’s lottery....a free-for-all, (literally!) laundering of all the stains of our existence, AND our coming to be counted as moral superstars in God’s eyes. Theologians call it justification:
“An act of God’s free grace wherein he pardons ALL our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, AND received BY FAITH ALONE.”
In Search of “Even One Care-Free Minute”
The Fitbit fallacy makes me want to justify myself. To point to how many steps I have taken. To be encouraged by racking up weeks and weeks of noteworthy moral data to present to God.
Robert Farrar Capon sized up this deceptive dynamic brilliantly:
“Our pride drives us to establish our own righteousness. We strive all our life to see ourselves as keepers of rules we cannot keep, as loyal subjects of laws under which we can only be judged outlaws. Yet so deep is our need to derive our identity from our own self-respect – so profound our conviction that unless we watch our step, the watchbird will take away our name – that we will spend a lifetime trying to do the impossible rather than, for even one carefree minute, consent to having it done for us by someone else.”
Anyone interested in “being good” is susceptible to being mislead. And falsely secure. And joyless. Oh, and snarky and judgmental. “Care-free” is the one freed from wondering whether they have done enough, and who instead, leans the whole weight of their existence on Christ who emphatically has. And he has offered us a “great exchange.” Our regrettable resume replaced with his sterling one. And God’s granting us a solid “A” in the coursework of our lives, based ENTIRELY on the life Christ lived.
Frederick Buechner had it right. We understand God’s self-emancipating economy of grace where our rightness and life with God is entirely gifted to us through Christ’s sacrifice when we are at least occasionally euphoric with relief in knowing: “There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There is nothing you have to do.”
Eric Youngblood is the senior pastor at Rock Creek Fellowship (PCA) on Lookout Mountain. Please feel free to contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @GEricYoungblood.