The Forbidden Woman

In Proverbs, the opposite of wisdom is often personified in a character known as “the forbidden woman” or “lady folly.” A woman of “smooth words” (Prov. 2:16–17) whose lips “drip honey” (Prov. 5:3), she is “loud,” “seductive,” and “sits at the door of her house,” “calling to those who pass by” (Prov. 9:13–15). Throughout Proverbs, lady folly is contrasted with lady wisdom, and readers are warned that listening to lady folly leads to destruction while listening to lady wisdom leads to life.

A. W. Tozer describes lady folly as “moral folly personified” who “works by the power of suggestion.” In today’s world, we see “lady folly” at work through the “watch this next!” algorithms that lure us into constant distraction by putting “suggestions” into our minds.

Here’s Tozer:

Many are brainwashed from nine o’clock in the morning or earlier until the last eyelid flutters shut at night because of the power of suggestion. These people are uncommitted. They go through life uncommitted, not sure in which direction they are going.1

Tozer might as well be describing our smartphone-addicted lives. From the moment we wake in the morning until the moment we go to sleep at night, many of us are constantly scrolling through various feeds and apps on our phones. It’s not that we have clear reasons or urgent things to do on our phone; it’s just that it’s there, and we’re bored. We’ve been conditioned to reach for the smartphone at every opportunity: in the 20 seconds we’re sitting at a red light, in the 2 minutes we’re waiting for our latte in the coffee shop, in the five minutes between one Zoom meeting and the next.

But to do what? That part is rarely clear. Our fingers open Twitter before our brain registers why. We swipe open a news app to “catch up” on the news we missed since the last time we checked (30 minutes ago). We have 45 free seconds as we walk from our car to a building, so we open Instagram to see how many story snippets we can catch in that span.

Too often it’s not about having a need or an active purpose to use this tool (and that’s exactly what a smartphone is, or should be—a tool). Rather, it’s about having an impulsive reflex and passive addiction. And that makes us extremely vulnerable in a world where powerful algorithms are waiting to pounce and consume our attention the minute we open our devices and let them.

Dangers of Digital Wandering
Here we see the crux of why today’s media environment is so prone to leading us into folly. When we grab our phones aimlessly, scroll our feeds without a goal in mind, or suggest to our spouse that “we should watch something on Netflix,” we are susceptible to whatever voices or images are the most seductive or alluring. To use Tozer’s language, we are uncommitted, not sure what direction to go.

This makes us utterly vulnerable to the power of suggestion, cogs in the machinery of algorithms ever more sophisticated at keeping us distracted on their platforms. We are digital wanderers, and this is a dangerous thing to be. Without a purposeful direction in digital spaces, we’re open to whatever direction an algorithm thinks we’ll like—a “suggested for you” movie, article, or YouTube video that will eat up a few minutes or hours of our time.

Are these algorithm suggestions ever right in thinking we’ll enjoy something? Yes, absolutely. More right than wrong, I find. But that’s what makes them so insidious. The more time we spend online—clicking, watching, listening, all of it tracked in scary detail—the better algorithms can predict the sorts of things we’ll struggle to resist. Just as the devil is a smart deceiver, tailoring his temptations to our particular weak spots and sinful proclivities, so too are algorithms. They know exactly how to commandeer our time and attention. They know our areas of weakness. They’re just like lady folly in that regard. The minute they “call out to those who pass by” with a customized siren song of suggestion, it’s hard for us to resist. Why?
Because we’re there without a purpose.

Go Online with a Purpose
The antidote to dangerous distractibility in the digital age is purpose, focus, and intention. Proverbs 4:25 says, “Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.” This is wisdom in contrast to the unwise woman of folly, who “does not ponder the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it” (Prov. 5:6).

Like lady folly, the digital wanderer is asking for trouble. Don’t go online without a plan. Go with a purpose, and stay online only as long as you need to.

Just as the devil is a smart deceiver, tailoring his temptations to our particular weak spots and sinful proclivities, so too are algorithms.

“Surfing the net” was one of the early metaphors for what we do online, bringing to mind a sort of leisurely, “we’ll see where these links take me!” approach to riding the web’s waves. But it is precisely this posture—going online just to stroll (or should I say “scroll”?) around its wide-open spaces—that leads us to fill every spare moment of our lives with insipid social media debates, mildly amusing cat videos, and other online ephemera. It is precisely this unconscious impulse to hop on our phone and just go somewhere that can lead us to dark places: pornography, toxic subcultures, fruitless comment section battles. Sadly, the ease with which we can jump online in our spare moments (whether 30 seconds at a stoplight or 90 seconds in the Chick-fil-A drive-thru line) conditions us to eliminate every last shred of unmediated space in our lives—which is a terrible thing for cultivating wisdom.

When you go online, ask yourself what you are going online to do. Is there a specific goal? When you open YouTube, is it to watch a specific thing? When you reach for your phone as you wait in line or walk from one place to another, is it for a purpose or just out of habit? When we aren’t going somewhere, we’ll go anywhere—and the “anywheres” of the Internet are rarely good for us.

Habits of Folly
These dynamics are why our digital habits—screen time, phone addiction, media sources—have a significant bearing on our spiritual health. It’s why “digital discipleship” should be a priority for churches going forward.

What we give our attention to—the voices we let speak into our lives, the ideas and images we let shape our hearts and minds—can make us spiritually sick or spiritually healthy. In an over-mediated age of constant digital stimulation, our media habits can make us wise or they can make us foolish. And one of the media habits almost guaranteed to make us foolish is the habit of reaching for our phone for no reason, going online without a purpose, and scrolling through feeds with no intention other than to casually click on whatever enticing thing lady folly puts in our path.

Brett McCracken

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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