It’s pretty hard to overstate how the computer altered our lives. And as I listen through his old sermons, I’m struck by how quickly Pastor John knew that the microprocessor would change all our lives — bring computers into our homes and then eventually bring smartphones into our pockets. He saw the implications of this computerized world decades ago, way back while he was shopping for his first computer in the early years of his pastorate. He explains some of those implications in a sermon from the spring of 1984. Our new digital powers would be bewitching. Our gadgets would take hold of our affections. Computers bring tremendous blessings to our lives, but they can also corrupt our hopes and affections. Here’s Pastor John explaining how, from 36 years ago.
Last Thursday, the day I usually take off, Noël and I took about three hours out of our day to go visit computer shops in downtown Minneapolis. I thought I would poke around to see if there might be some kind of word-processing equipment I could someday afford. And it was an amazing experience — my first foray into the big world of computer life. We went to the library first and read the latest consumer reports on word processing, and then we visited four stores and came home with a big stack of colorful brochures.
Computers are like sex, I discovered. There’s something in us that they can hook into and hold onto. Computers are like a romance or an epic or an adventure, which has come true right before our very eyes. They combine mystery and power and precision and beauty. They’re exciting. They’re new. They’ve got open-ended possibilities. Our culture is going to be irreversibly transformed by the microcomputer revolution. Every one of you will have one in your home by 1994, because prices are going to fall. The uses are going to expand. It will be as common as the telephone, I don’t doubt. But for now, they are strange and wonderful things.
And one of the effects that they can have on Christians is to make us begin to feel that spiritual things aren’t very real or exciting — that spiritual things can’t compare to these wonders. You can touch a computer. You can see a computer. It’ll talk back to you. It’ll solve your problems instantaneously. It is a powerful fascination.
But the Bible speaks largely of unseen things. They don’t force themselves onto your senses. The Bible talks about things often way off in the past or way off in the future. You’ve all experienced it, haven’t you, with a new gadget or a toy or appliance? Either you bring it home, or you come home with a bundle of literature all about it — literature you’ve only half-read about word processing. How easy is it to take it and lay it aside and, with all your heart, open the Bible and listen to the voice of God?
Let me ask another question to put beside that one: If you were laid low with kidney failure this week and a congested heart, and were told by the doctor, “You have three days at the most unless we use extraordinary measures, and we don’t think that would be wise,” which would you prefer? Would you ask your family to sit by your bed and read the latest program developments of IBM or the Bible?
What’s happened? What happens in those minutes after the doctor walks out of the room and leaves you with the imminence of your death? What happens to that gripping fascination of RAM, ROM, CPU, CP/M, PC DOS, multicolor monitors, Perfect Writer, and Profit Plan? What happens?
What happens is that here at the end of your journey through the valley of life, the haze of the computer craze just gets blown away. And all of a sudden you see, perhaps for the first time in your life, the lucid reality of the mountains of eternity just hit. You look back on that fog falling away into the valley, and you wonder how you could have been so entranced, so captivated, so swallowed up in the mechanical functions of a man-made machine. And you look ahead, and you see the spectacular peaks and the awful ravines and the unapproachable crags of those mountains, and you wonder how all that could have played such an insignificant role in your life.
But it’s not only the mountain you see. In this short distance that you have to traverse between your hospital bed now and those mountains, you look off to the side. And on this side, you see thick green grass and trees with luscious fruit, and crystal streams and darting fish, and a huge white dove hovering in midair over it all.
And then you look to this side and you see a wasteland of half-eaten corpses and cracked riverbeds and dry ashes. And lurking in the midst of it, there’s a huge, gaunt, hungry lion, with its shoulder blades sticking up through his mangy fur and his big eyes looking you right in the face. And all of a sudden, in one immeasurable moment, you discover what life has been really all about in the midst of all the hazes of computers and trinkets and toys and cars and houses and business. The real issue of life becomes really clear — namely, a battle for your soul between the dove who gives life and the lion who destroys.
This morning, I’ve come to proclaim to you that whatever has entranced you, whatever has captivated you, whatever enthralls you, if it dulls your sensitivity to the mountains of eternity, if it somehow encloses you within a haze so that you don’t feel what is really at stake every day in your life between the lion and the dove, it’s an illusion from hell. I want us to see Christ in combat today, so that our lives can be cleared away of whatever haze is blinding us to the combat that we face.
People sometimes ask, “If Satan is real, why don’t we see more demon possession and exorcisms in America? How come we just hear about that from Indonesia?” I’ve got an idea. Satan holds American Christianity so tightly in the vice grip of comfort and wealth, that he’s not about to tip his hand with too much demonic tomfoolery. What Satan fears most, Bethlehem, is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that causes you and me to say with Paul, “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish . . . that I may know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:8, 10).
Powerful statement, as relevant for the smartphone age and for all the bewitching technologies of our age. This sermon was preached 36 years ago, on March 18, 1984, in a sermon titled “Christ in Combat: Defense by the Spirit.” You can find and listen to the entire sermon at desiringGod.org.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Coronavirus and Christ.