“I know it’s dinnertime, but I need my phone for just a sec! C’mon, Mom, everybody’s on the group chat.” Irene shakes her head, glancing down at the device pinging in her palm, upping the unread messages beyond 200.
Elsewhere, a father sits with his collegiate son at a homey Asian restaurant. The waitress approaches with pad Thai, to find Dad perusing news clippings and his son playing a first-person shooter game. The men look up briefly to smile at her, then pick up their phones to eat one-handed. Are they really out to lunch together or simply “out to lunch”?
What is the Fear of Missing Out?
The Oxford English Dictionary added FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out, to its lexicon in 2013, but the term originated at Harvard Business School in the early 2000s. In the wake of 9/11, the new cohort of business majors grappled with the brevity of life, becoming obsessed with experiencing all life had to offer while they still could.
Grad student Dan Herman described the Fear of Missing Out as a “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.” With the proliferation of smartphones in the intervening years, the term has morphed from obscure to commonplace, as 24/7 access to other people’s attention becomes the accepted norm.
Recent studies examine the relationship between impulsive “checking the phone” and a host of psychological conditions like anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, attention deficit disorder, body dysmorphia, and the physical symptoms of those disorders.
Though FOMO is not included in DSM-5, the diagnostic “Bible” of the American Psychiatric Association (published in 2013), it is no less real. How one defines FOMO is not as important as how one deals with it.
What does the Bible have to say about comparing with others, looking to others for approval (“likes” or number of followers), and holding commitments at bay in case better offers for social engagement arise? Do Christians need to fear missing out?
Long ago, King Solomon wrestled with acute FOMO, trying arduously to satisfy his longings.
“I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces…I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me…I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure…Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes2:4,8-11
God knew that His creatures would crave more. He built us to grow physically, emotionally, and spiritually with a forward inclination. Yet He also values the developmental process. How many proverbs address the concept of sowing and reaping, and the spiritually correlated process of growing incrementally in wisdom and stature? God sent Jesus to earth as a baby rather than air-dropping Him in as an adult, which may seem more efficient to 21st-century Christians.
Though the term FOMO is recent, the tendency to covet anything other than one’s own lot goes back to the Garden of Eden. The serpent plied Eve with seemingly legitimate questions: “Did God really say ‘Do not eat of this tree’?”
Eve dwelt on the fact that the fruit looked delicious, likely to benefit her in a way God wasn’t doing. She – and Adam, in turn – wanted it bad. Once our First Parents entertained doubt and temptation, taking matters into their own hands made sense.
Though he joined the apostles after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul tookJesus’ instruction to not worry about what to eat or drink (Matthew 6:31) as seriously as the eleven disciples did. How often do Christians quote Philippians 4:13 as a rallying cry to fuel great exploits in Jesus’ name? Was that Paul’s point?
Look at the verse in context. “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11b-13).
Note that Paul exhibits the freedom from materialism that Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul does not embrace an entitled “good life” of “health and wealth” but neither does he eschew it with a vow of poverty, as though living in lack makes a person godly; seeking either extreme is legalistic and distracting. Rather, Paul asserts that the physical circumstances in which we operate are beside the point. Christ empowers Paul to live selflessly no matter what.
This was not always the case for him. Before Jesus confronted him with a blinding light, Paul (Saul, at the time) was used to being first in his class, with all the pedigree of a devout first-century Jewish boy.
He could have pulled rank on any of his contemporaries. In Philippians 3, Paul acknowledges the tendency to find value in accomplishments, but considers them “dung” so that he might “be found in him, not having a righteousness of (his) own.” All other passions (what Calvin calls the heart’s “affections”) need to fall into line behind the Christian’s primary purpose of “glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.”
In our digital world, this reordering of priorities requires constant vigilance, as advertising accosts us at every turn. Take an elevator in downtown Seoul, Korea, complete with imbedded LED screens, for example. A person cannot gaze at the floor while riding up to their apartment without being sold on some new gadget or experience, with the false urgency of marketing.
Temptations have always been part of earthly life, but we can coach our souls to draw our value and security from God. Hurricanes flatten mansions as well as shanties. Instagram “friends” take offense at some comment and “un-friend” each other. With global connectivity, someone somewhere will have or do something that others cannot.
Comparing ourselves with others naturally foments anxiety and discontent. Conversely, comparing our present condition in Christ to how lost we were before Him can produce gratitude and contentment, antidotes to so many health concerns. Getting “outside oneself” to relate with others refreshes both parties.
Fear of Doing Anything
With FOMO, the early aughts grad students would be eating dinner with friends, then receive a text from someone at a party elsewhere. Suddenly their delight fizzled, as they scrambled to the next venue, and the next, often activity-hopping all night. How could they enjoy being one place when doing so meant foregoing “all else”?
A bride and groom must relinquish other options to focus on their marriage. Such exclusivity, such trust, terrified the Harvard students who were still reeling from the recent terrorist attack. Their compulsion to do everything soon became a burden, a paralyzing fear of doing anything, which they dubbed (of course) FODA. Whether they engaged or retreated, many of them burned out by age thirty. Ironically, the fear of missing out on life and love became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Breaking the Bucket List
The pressure not to miss anything can easily become a cruel master as one reaches mid-life and perceived “time left to play” grows short. Who doesn’t want to leave a legacy of a full life?
Jesus knows better than we do the number of our days. He assures His followers that whatever we give up in this life for the sake of the gospel prioritized will be more than compensated in the life to come.
If, as Lewis posits, these “Shadowlands” only imply the truer reality that exists within God’s presence, then we have much “Insta-worthy” life to look forward to. Can you imagine exploring the new heavens and new earth without the constraints of our present world?
Each person’s lifespan is set by God’s providence and the most impactful discourses happen in person, in real-time. (Who wants a marriage proposal by text?) Since we cannot will ourselves into omnipresence, we need to allocate attention wisely. What a challenge to rein in one’s wandering thoughts and affections!
King Solomon epitomized the lifestyle of the rich and famous, and still had a fear of missing out. He applied his abundant resources to chase pleasure “til I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.” (Ecclesiastes 2:3).
Then after his exhaustive experimentation, he concluded that “there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 3:12, 13) Sounds like we have nothing to fear.
Christian Counseling for the Fear of Missing Out
If your fear of missing out is affecting your life, consider reaching out to a Christian counselor. There may be something deeper at the root of your fear, and a Christian counselor could help you identify the primary cause and show you how to overcome so you live a life of freedom, not fear. Browse the counselor directory above to find the right fit for you.
“Bubbles”, Courtesy of Alex Alvarez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Selfie”, Courtesy of Gian Cescon, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Dancing in the Wilderness”, Courtesy of Scott Broome, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Joy”, Courtesy of Preslie Hirsch, Unsplash.com, CC0 License