We live in what some psychologists have called a state of “Continuous Partial Attention”. We are at our desks writing a report or essay, and consciously and subconsciously we’re monitoring for WhatsApp pings, email alerts, text message beeps. Or we’re talking to someone on the phone, and scrolling Facebook, or flicking through Instagram or hopping TV channels—giving partial attention to all of it.
Tim Challies comments in his book The Next Story, “As we do so, we keep our brains in a constant state of heightened stress, damaging our ability to devote ourselves to extended periods of thoughtful reflection and contemplation. After some time, our brains begin to crave this constant communication, finding peace in little else.”
We are have rewired our brains for distraction. But in many ways it has always been like this. I was struck this week by a quote from a 17th century writer, Richard Sibbes:
“A stream cut into many channels runs weakly, and is unfit to carry anything. Babylon was so captured. They cut the river into many channels, and then he that captured it easily passed over them.”
What a powerful image. A mighty river can carry along the greatest of ships and defend the greatest of cities, but divide and divert it and it can carry nothing and defend nothing. So some of the great cities have fallen. Its life force is spent on smallness, its powerful current diminished.
Yet Sibbes wasn’t thinking about our work practices, but about our souls. He goes on to ask:
“When the soul is divided among many things, what about the one thing that is necessary, that we are ready for eternity?”
Life has a great ability to distract us—whether it is the immediate goals we are seeking to achieve, or the relationship we are pursuing, or the sports we enjoy, or the myriad of small things that gobble up a day. Do we miss what life is about?
This pandemic has had great ability to distract us. Maybe at the start we had a fear of what it might mean, and we gave thought to the big issues of life and death. Then our thoughts were divided and spread thin over lockdowns, restrictions, home-schooling, work, summer holidays, daily infection rates, vaccines—and the list went on. And add to that the things that we use and used to distract us from the incessant focus on the pandemic.
So I ask you: Amidst the tendancy to be spread thin, what is your focus?
We were made to know God, to enjoy him forever. Yet if we spread our soul’s attention over a multitude of small things instead of letting our soul run in the one great channel of seeking God, then we risk two things:
1. We risk missing God completely. And instead of our soul running in that one great channel, we will find our souls coming up short for all eternity—run aground in lostness forever.
2. We risk missing our God-given purpose. It is all too possible for the Christian to spread their soul thin too, and to miss out on a depth of relationship and purpose which God has for us.
I was struck recently by the following ‘one thing’ verses
Mark 10:21 “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
The rich young ruler wasn’t a ‘one thing’ man. His heart was divided between heaven and earth, and he would miss out forever. Instead of being in the deep waters of God, he beached on the shallows of wealth.
Luke 10:39-42 “Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Even in seeking to serve Jesus, Martha was forgetting the ‘one thing’—spending time with Jesus.
Philippians 3:13-14 “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Paul refuses to rest content on his past experiences, he wants more—more of God.
Psalm 27:4 “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to enquire in his temple.”
David too, with all his busyness, all his trials, all his blessings, won’t be distracted. One thing he wants—more of God.
David, Paul, Mary are all focused on one thing—knowing God himself, in all his beauty and richness. Is it any wonder Satan wants to spread our souls thin? Guard your soul against it. Keep your souls thick.
I came across a prayer once which I now use at the beginning of my devotions—the place I most need it: “Lord save me from the fragmenting effects of fruitless distraction.”