Devotion in an Age of Distraction

How Beauty Breaks the Spell

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Mary Oliver once said, “Attention is the beginning of devotion” (Upstream, 8). Yet we struggle, don’t we, to set our minds on “the things of the Spirit” and “the things that are above, where Christ is” (Romans 8:5–6, Colossians 3:1–2)?

We know the mind attentive to the Spirit is “life and peace,” yet we’d blush to admit how often we reach for the empty stimuli of social media and news feeds. And it’s easy to wring our hands and declare that we’re uniquely handicapped by our Age of Distraction and the relentless competition for our attention. Are we really defenseless, though, doomed to distracted, ever-scrolling minds?

In the Footsteps of the Undistractable

In my own war against distractions, I find hope and help in saints who lived centuries before our digital age. Read slowly these words of Augustine, describing “the bridegroom who is beautiful wherever he is”:

He was beautiful in heaven, then, and beautiful on earth: beautiful in the womb, and beautiful in his parents’ arms. He was beautiful in his miracles but just as beautiful under the scourges, beautiful as he invited us to life, but beautiful too in not shrinking from death, beautiful in laying down his life and beautiful in taking it up again, beautiful on the cross, beautiful in the tomb, and beautiful in heaven. (Essential Exposition of the Psalms, 131)

If we had a time machine and could pull this man taken by the beauty of his Beloved into our digital age, would the wild horses of iPhones and earbuds drag his attention from God? By no means. The way Augustine talks about Christ convinces me that he could not not be captive to God’s beauty. He’s held firm and undistracted by the same one-thing passion that captivated David:

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. (Psalm 27:4)

Jonathan Edwards, another undistractable saint, found God not only beautiful but “the foundation and fountain of . . . all beauty” (Works, 8:551). In his sermon on “God’s Excellencies,” he told the congregation,

God is every way transcendently more amiable, than the most perfect and lovely of all our fellow creatures. If men take great delight and pleasure in beholding and enjoying the perfections and beauties of their fellow mortals, with what ecstasies, with what sweet rapture, will the sweet glories and beauties of the blessed God be beheld and enjoyed! (Works, 10:429)

Like Augustine, Edwards was enthralled by God’s beauty in Christ and would surely never trade those “sweet glories and beauties of the blessed God” for the empty cisterns of clickbait. The question is, would we? Can we ordinary saints living in the Age of Distraction be so captured by God’s beauty that we grow increasingly undistractable?

Beauty of All Things Beautiful

Before we answer, we should clarify what we mean by God’s “beauty.” Philosophers love to ponder the idea of beauty. When they meditate on what is truly beautiful, they are (perhaps without knowing it) granted glimpses of the God who is beautiful.

Beauty is the good, and God is most good (Psalm 119:68). Beauty delights and arouses desire, and God is our delight and the desire of our hearts (Psalm 37:4). Beauty displays perfection, and our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Beauty shines with radiance and splendor, and Christ is the radiance of our God who is clothed with splendor (Psalm 104:1; Hebrews 1:3).

Beauty resounds in harmony and unity, and the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit is the eternal perfection of harmony. Beauty is gratuitous, the way the dazzling colors of the sunset aren’t needed to mark the transition from day to night; and nothing is more gratuitous than the love of God in sending his Son to die for us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8). In short, beauty reminds us of God, “the Beauty of all things beautiful” (Augustine, Confessions, 3.6.10).

God’s beauty is a quality of his glory, and when we experience that quality, we are filled with delight and desire. We find him irresistibly lovely in our eyes, beyond compare (Psalm 89:6), and so we faint to be with him (Psalm 63). His beauty is what, when we have him, fills us “with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).

Who Can See Such Beauty?

Not everyone sees God’s beauty. Some are “haters of God” that have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (Romans 1:23, 30). That’s why Samuel Parkison says there is an aesthetic component to salvation: when the Spirit regenerates us, he enables us “to behold the beauty of the Trinity mediated in Christ.” This new ability to see God’s beauty isn’t mere intellectual perception; it “includes the affections,” so we are stirred and drawn by his beauty (Irresistible Beauty, 15).

John Piper clarifies, based on Ephesians 1:18 and 2 Corinthians 4:4, that this new capacity to behold God’s beauty is with the eyes of our hearts, our “spiritual eyes” (Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, 9–10). And as with other gifts and capacities we receive from the Spirit, we are “to fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6). Our spiritual eyes must be sanctified, must mature and develop, must be tuned and calibrated, until we find Christ irresistibly beautiful wherever we see him. Therefore, cultivating our ability to “see and savor” the beauty of God in Christ is a means of grace in the war for our attention.

How to Cultivate Eyes for God

Because this power of the new heart is aesthetic, we could learn some things about attending to God’s beauty from those who teach art appreciation. Museum docents and artists could train us in “slow looking” and “immersive attention,” and those skills, reapplied to our meditations on God’s word, could help hone our gaze on the beauty of the Lord.

But God is not a painting or a statue. He is both beautiful and personal; his beauty leads us through and beyond appreciation and admiration to affection and devotion. We must unite the aesthetic and the personal, the way Georgia O’Keeffe did when she said, “To see takes time like to have a friend takes time.”

So, when I suggest that one of the best ways to grow in our appreciation of God’s beauty is to read theology, you might immediately do a double take. But after you stop scratching your head (and before you stop reading), listen to C.S. Lewis:

For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand. (Introduction to St. Athanasius on the Incarnation, 10)

“The heart sings unbidden” when we work our way through the best theology because theology lays before us the goodness and perfections of God so that we see them — see him, our Beloved — more clearly.

Recommendations in Beauty

At its best, theology opens our eyes to the beauty of God in the Scriptures, elevating our Bible reading into an act of communion and love with our Lord as he pulls back the veil so that the eyes of our hearts behold the beautiful glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18).

But, of course, not all books of theology make our hearts sing. Some are written by Dr. Dryasdust, with a specialized vocabulary and attention to subtle controversies that can keep the veil over our eyes. But there are theological writers, the heirs of Augustine and Edwards, who see the beauty of God and show it beautifully. J.I. Packer’s Knowing God and R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God filled my heart with music when I first read them. John Piper intentionally and faithfully follows in the footsteps of undistractable saints like Augustine and Edwards.

And then there are the English Puritans. Their seventeenth-century prose sometimes tests us, but they are expert guides to God’s beauty. John Owen summarized the goal of all their counsel and practice: “To encourage our hearts to give themselves up more fully to the Lord Jesus Christ, consider his glories and excellencies” (Communion with God, 59).

Read, Pray, Encounter

As exhilarating as theology at its best can be, it isn’t an end in itself. It is never meant to replace a direct encounter with God, the very subject of theology. To admire triune beauty in Christ is personal experience — it is to commune with him. So, when we read theology, let our reading be immersed in prayer, as the writing of it most surely was.

Let us learn to love our beautiful God in his personal revelation, for “love alone makes it possible for contemplation to satiate the human heart with the experience of supreme happiness” (Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 82). And in that communion with God, we will be satisfied and find the undistracted “life and peace” that Paul calls us to (Romans 8:6), a daily foretaste of our eternal happiness, basking in the beauty of Christ:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)