Since the fall of man, people have had trouble staying focused, but we live today in an age of unprecedented distraction. Since you’re already reading this on some electronic device, I don’t need to elaborate.
Lots of experts are talking about the negative effects this is having on us. Many of us feel it: the buzzing brain, the attention atrophy, the diminishing tolerance for reading, especially reading books.
We’re becoming conditioned to distraction, and it’s harming our ability to listen and think carefully, to be still, to pray and to meditate. Which means it is a spiritual danger, an evil from which we need God’s deliverance (Matthew 6:13).
The Causes of Distraction
Distraction, at least the dangerous kind I’m referring to, is shifting our attention from something of greater importance to something of lesser importance.
Our fundamental and most dangerous problem in distraction is in being distracted from God—our tendency to shift our attention orientation from the greatest Object in existence to countless lesser ones. The Bible calls this idolatry.
This fundamental attention shift disorders us in pervasive ways. We find our tendency to be distracted from the more important to the less important cascading down detrimentally affecting our relationships and responsibilities. So at the deepest level, we are distractible because of our fallen, selfish nature; we have evil inside us.
But not all our distraction problems are due to our resident evil. Some are simply the result of the futility infecting creation (Romans 8:20–23). This futility can infect our biology as well as our environments. All of us have faulty brains and bodies, and so some of us battle distraction more than others due to factors like ADHD and other mental or physical illnesses. Environmental factors like poor nutrition, unhealthy family systems and cultural/technological forces (such as the constant stream of media) can also affect our ability to focus.
All these factors mix together in most cases, making it nearly impossible to tell how much sin, fallen biology or environment is to blame for our distraction. But if we ask God, he will deliver us from evil, whatever the cause, by using these powerful foes to our advantage, helping us see what our hearts love and pressing us by his grace into greater levels of humble faith and self-control.
A Heart Revealer
When we are regularly distracted by something, we need to take note. Our attention often runs to what’s important to us. So distraction can reveal what we love. This happened to Jesus’ friend, Martha.
Martha was busy in the kitchen while Jesus taught in her home. When Martha complained that her sister, Mary, wasn’t helping because she was sitting at Jesus’ feet, Jesus replied,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41–42)
Martha was distracted from Jesus. By what? By serving her guests. Why? Because she was anxious. Anxious about what? Anxious about feeding everyone, and in all likelihood anxious about what everyone would think of her and her household if she didn’t do it well.
But Martha didn’t recognize her distraction until Jesus helped her see her heart. She thought she was doing the right thing by serving everyone. But Jesus pointed out to Martha that her values were disordered. She had shifted her attention from the greater importance to the lesser.
So in our busyness, we must ask, what is the real distraction? What does our heart desire? Are we choosing “the good portion,” seeking the great “one thing” (Psalm 27:4), or something less?