How to guard your attention in a world full of distractions

Published Monday, November 25, 2019  |  
(Photo: Unsplash/Seth Doyle)

Stewardship is a basic principle of discipleship that many of us have been taught. We know that we are supposed to treat our finances, gifts and talents, close relationships, career, and time as if they belong to the Lord. Yet, there is one spiritual commodity of coveted value in the 21st century that many of us have not yet placed under the umbrella of Christ's lordship. This is our attention.

While we treasure the hard currencies of time and money, and prayerfully weigh how we should use them for kingdom purposes, we allow our minds to drift untethered. We treat our attention as if it is the spare change of life that can be spent with the recklessness of a prodigal son.

There are two reasons why this attitude is dangerous. The first is the premium value that the modern world places on our mental bandwidth. A quick scan of the list of top 10 most valuable companies in the world will reveal that the reigning titans do not make their profit mining gold or drilling for oil. The precious commodity that Google and Facebook buy and sell is the attention of ordinary people.

For non-Christians this fact merits a yawn. However, Tim Wu in Attention Merchants makes a point that ought to leave every Christian thunderstruck: up until the 19th century there had only been one institution in the history of the world that cared about the attention of common people, the church. And why did the church care? The answer is because the mind is a reservoir of prayer; our attention is what enables us to be attentive to God.

To a degree that might baffle many contemporary believers, the Holy Spirit and Netflix are after the same thing. Both seek to direct the currents of consciousness. This is why, for Christians, the fierce competition to relentlessly distract us is nothing less than a spiritual assault. For modern men and women, 'standing firm' (Eph. 6:13) requires guarding our attention.

The second reason careless waste of attention is dangerous has to do with the spiritual potency of meditation. An older generation of Christians better understood this. Thomas Brooks, the great Puritan sage, says, 'It is not he who reads most – but he who meditates most, who will prove the choicest, sweetest, wisest and strongest Christian.' John Owen, another Puritan divine, makes the same point: 'So if we desire strong faith and powerful love, which give us rest, peace, and satisfaction, we must seek them by diligently beholding the glory of Christ.' And, of course, these doctors of the church were not being original in making these claims. The Scriptures themselves are filled with exhortations to focus our attention, to filter our minds, and to meditate diligently on both the word and works of God (c.f. Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1, Psalm 119, Psalm 145, Philippians 4:8, etc.).

Yet, as soon as we recognize the value of our attention, a difficult question arises, what can contemporary Christians do to avoid being tossed about by the modern winds of distraction? Here are three suggestions.

First, we need regularly to reappraise the worth of our thought-life. No level-headed person would drive to work casually tossing pound coins out of his window. And yet, weighed by the standard of spiritual growth, our attention is of far greater worth than our pocket change. Thus, step one of protecting our attention is choosing not to waste it.

Second, we need periodically to audit our attention accounts. This means taking time to test two things: (1) how often we allow our thoughts to be deflected by irrelevant notifications and (2) whether our mental investments in sports, politics, pop culture, and social media are staying 'in budget'. The point of this exercise is not to be tightfisted, but responsible. A person who spends 10 minutes a day in prayer and an hour scrolling Instagram needs to reconsider the implications of Psalm 1.

Third, we need to rediscover the well-tried discipline of Scriptural meditation. The goal of stewarding our minds is not simply to maintain a defensive stand against addictive technology, but even more importantly, to train ourselves so that we can be attentive to the truths of the gospel. If indeed Christ is the glory of the invisible God revealed, then there can be no greater privilege in this life or the next than knowing Him. Such profound truth deserves more concentrated thought.

Joe Barnard is the author of The Way Forward: a Road-map of Spiritual Growth for Men in the 21st Century (Christian Focus Publications). For eight years he pastored a church in the Highlands of Scotland. He is now the director of a men's discipleship program, Cross Training Ministries (