“You seem distracted…” Argh…caught again. We were talking through a difficult issue and my thoughts had drifted to visions of countering accusations and brilliantly winning the argument (I have NEVER lost an argument, by the way – in my head). But as I was absorbed in that private courtroom, the all too familiar disconnection was evident to those nearby. “What was that?” I said. “You’re distracted!” was the reply. Guilty as charged.
I have become quite skilled at being distracted. It can take a number of forms. I get lost in my thoughts. But it’s more than daydreaming – it has negative associations – there is annoyance or worry. I’m either in the courtroom, as on this occasion, or I’m in the ‘wilderness’ where fear of the future, of unmet needs, of risk, or of some threat ahead lurks. Anger and fear fuel my distractedness. The fruit is obvious: I’m quiet, look pensive, and with furrowed brow stare far away, my attention absorbed.
But it’s not always a slide into some black hole of judgment or anxiety. Sometimes it’s a flitting around from one attraction to another. Distraction can mean not staying with one thing. I jump from answering an email to googling, or from writing something to scrolling on my phone. I can’t settle, my mind keeps wandering. In this case, fear and anger may be nearby, but it feels more like avoidance. I want to escape for a while. The latest news item or football score (or Instagram, or Facebook, or cat video…) feels easier and more interesting than the matter in hand.
What is this distraction about? It’s about things capturing my attention. When feeling accused or wronged, then vindication – being right – captures my attention. When feeling fearful, then being safe by fixing the situation becomes my preoccupation. When feeling overwhelmed, then I become absorbed with being elsewhere.
Can scripture shed light on our preoccupations?
There is a ‘wordly’ distraction. This is the kind that Jesus and Paul warn of. ‘Be anxious for nothing’ they tell us in Philippians 4 and Matthew 6. Interestingly, the word that is used in these passages has the idea of a divided mind. And, for sure, when we are anxious, our minds are divided. We are divided in our attention, and divided from those we are with. But the New Testament word is a bit more specific. It means that our thoughts get derailed from their destination. They go off-track. It’s the ‘worry’ bit of anxiety. Thoughts spiral off into another land where different kings – anger or fear or escapism – rule. Our attention gets captured.
It’s important to note that such distraction may not be sin. In depression, for example, bleak feelings place a dark filter over our gaze drawing us into preoccupations which are much more about suffering than sin.
But there is also ‘godly’ distraction. The same word Paul uses in Philippians 4, he uses in 1 Corinthians 12 for the kind of ‘care’ that should exist in our churches, “…that the members may have the same care for one another.” In 2 Corinthians 11:28 he uses it in a similar vein of his own care for the flock – even though he is far away with many pressing things where he is. “My thoughts focus on you” he writes. You are ‘on my mind’, we might say. Paul is saying that the various needs and burdens of the church are capturing his attention – and he is pleased they are; it is a privilege to care for others. There is then a ‘good and godly’ distraction of mind. But how can we achieve that?
The centre of attention
Our distractedness seems to be an opportunity to ask the question, what’s capturing my attention? Or what could captivate me instead?
Let’s listen to Isaiah:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights.
‘Behold’ is a frequently used word in the Bible. What is being said? ‘Pay careful attention to what follows! This is important!’ Isaiah wants the hearers to have their attention absorbed by this coming servant-king.
The New Testament writers add to the chorus of demand for our attention. John the Baptist begins: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Here he is at last – God’s true sacrificial lamb who will atone once and for all for the sins of the world. This should attract you and absorb you! Derail your attention from lesser matters. Be captivated by him and what he has come to do. Concentrate on him.
Rather than being distracted by the world and losing sight of Jesus, we can be distracted by Jesus and think less about the world. Doing so has an amazing effect. Hear Paul again:
And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord,
are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.
(2 Corinthians 3:18)
What happens when Jesus is the centre of our attention? We are transformed. It makes sense. When fear fuels our distraction, faith beholds the one who says, ‘I am Lord, and I am with you.’ When anger fuels derailed imagination, faith beholds the one who says, ‘I am judge, and will do what is right.’ When escape lures our attention away, faith beholds the one who says, ‘I am your place of safety and help.’
Such a transformation won’t happen overnight. We will need to consciously choose to move our minds to Christ. We will need the help of brothers and sisters in Christ too. We might helpfully start by ‘taking off’ one distracted thought and ‘putting on’ one Christ-centred one, as Ephesians 4 sets out. And doing so repeatedly until it feels more natural. But there can be growth.
We live in a distractible world. Let’s grow in making our captivating saviour the centre of our attention.