I’m guessing that, as you read this, several things are demanding your attention.
Since sitting down to type this article, my email reported two new messages, my phone alerted me to a new text, and Spotify just finished its third consecutive commercial — and I’m only finishing the second paragraph! Times are few and far between when we are completely undistracted.
And distractions do not stay in the car when we enter into church on a Sunday morning. We arrive with the intent to worship Jesus with focus. But the burdens of our week, the tensions of our morning, the children by our side, the anxiety of our upcoming schedule, and the wandering of our thoughts all conspire to distract us.
Blame It on Technology?
Because temptations toward distractions often arrive through our devices, distraction can feel like a new problem unique to our current technological age. But that reaction concedes defeat too easily. If distraction is technology’s fault, then we have no way to escape the problem without unplugging all of our devices and holing up in a cave somewhere.
“The battle for undistracted worship on Sunday morning really begins on Saturday evening.”
That is why it was so encouraging to find an old book (first published in 1673) called Remedy for Wandering Thoughts in the Worship of God. Its author, Richard Steele (1629–1692), meditated on a phrase from 1 Corinthians 7:35: “That ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction.” He wrote the book after noticing his own mind wandering in worship, noting, “My own disease caused me to study the cure.”
Steele’s book is a call for believers to take purposeful action. Often we think about distraction in passive terms, blaming social media or our devices for distracting us. But distraction is our active choice to briefly escape something demanding. We are not slaves to our distractions. Therefore, we can take heart knowing that distraction in worship can be fought.
Five Tips for Focus in Worship
Steele argues that distraction should be fought because God commands undistracted worship (1 Samuel 12:24). He warns Christians about the duplicity that distracted worship represents. “Is it reasonable that you should cry out for the Spirit, and think on the flesh? Be hearing about another world and ruminating on this [world]? Your eyes directed to heaven, and your heart in the ends of the earth? . . . There is no coherence, no reason, in this” (37).
Here are five helps from Steele on how to direct our eyes towards heaven in a room full of distractions.
1. Draw encouragement from your discouragement.
In a paradox of true faith, believers should actually draw encouragement from their discouragement. The desire to love our Savior more, with the corresponding discontent with our current feeling of distraction, is a mark of maturing faith. Steele explains, “A holy Christian is more troubled at a vain thought in duty, than a slight Christian is at the total neglect of a duty” (71).
“With cell phones vibrating, children crying, the week’s troubles intruding, how can we worship without distraction?”
2. Rely on God’s strength.
Steele urges Christians to believe Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” He writes, “When you look on a hard task, and your heart fails you, raise your eye of faith, and you will find God the strength of your heart. . . . His power is at your service, and therefore serve yourselves of it” (23–24). Other believers have experienced the strength of God in their fight against distraction in worship, and easily distracted Christians ought to be encouraged by “the experience of many servants of God, who by a habit of holy watchfulness have attained to considerable strength against these wanderings” (25).
3. Rest the night before, and eat breakfast the morning of.
Sounding surprisingly contemporary, Steele connects the mind and the body as important factors for concentration. He writes that one “cause of distractions in the service of God is, the corruption of our nature, that is, of soul and body” (64). Therefore, proper rest and diet should not be considered unimportant tools in the fight for undistracted worship. In that sense, we begin the battle for Sunday morning’s focus on Saturday night.
4. Prepare your heart before the service.
We also can increase our focus in worship early on Sunday morning. Before the worship service begins, devote time and effort to prepare your heart for the gathering. As the service begins, cultivate a sense of urgency and purpose for the gathering.
He that runs looks at nothing but the goal. Though he meet passengers, or pass by palaces, he is in earnest and stops for nothing. It is he that walks at leisure who turns his eye to every trifle and descants on every object because he is not in haste. (79)
5. Cry out for help during the service.
And of course, we fight distraction during the worship service itself. When you find your mind wandering, continually ask God for help to pay attention. Steele writes, “Do as holy David did . . . be ever calling to God, as he who is at it eight or nine times in Psalm 119: ‘Quicken me in thy way, quicken me, and I will call upon thy name.’ And if he had need thus to fetch fire from heaven, how much more have we?” (83).
“Too many of us have our eyes on heaven in worship, but our hearts buried in the things of earth.”
Don’t Give Up
Focus is not easy work, and it can be tempting to surrender to distractedness. But God’s promises “were never intended as a pillow for the lazy, but as a support to the weary; not to exempt us from our duty, but to comfort us under our weakness” (57). If God does not immediately give you a perfectly undistracted mind during worship, don’t give up. Instead, thank him for whatever grace of attention he did give you during this past service, and ask for more next week.
May God give us undistracted minds and hearts when we gather with his people this weekend. May he be growing us as we battle to fix our eyes on him. How sweet it would be to say with the psalmist, “My soul followeth hard after thee” (Psalm 63:8, KJV).