Endangered Attention

How to Guard a Precious Gift

When we give someone our full attention — our patient, focused, self-forgetful gaze — we look a little like God. The glory of God consists partly in the fact that he, unlike the gods of wood and stone, pays attention to his people (1 Kings 18:29; 2 Chronicles 7:15; Psalm 34:15). No distraction averts his gaze; no interruption snaps his focus. The true God is a perfectly attentive God — and when we offer our full attention to others, we look a little like him.

At the same time, of course, our attention is amazingly unlike God’s. God can give his full focus ten trillion places at once; we must choose one among the trillions. God’s sight can range through all space and time; our two little forward-facing eyes frame our sight here and now. God can walk through the million-acre orchard of life and see every piece of fruit; we must stop before this tree, this branch, this apple.

Which means human attention is one of the most precious gifts we have to give. By it, we offer another creature the dignity of our loving regard. We humble ourselves to know and be known. We invite someone or something to stamp us, even for just a moment, with their unique, surprising existence.

And perhaps never more so than in an age like ours, when human attention is an endangered species.

Lessons for Stewarding Attention

Over half a century ago, the great Martyn Lloyd-Jones groaned,

The world and the organizations of life around and about us make things almost impossible; the most difficult thing in life is to order your own life and to manage it. . . . There are so many things that distract us. . . . Every one of us is fighting for his life at the present time, fighting to possess and master and live our own life. (Spiritual Depression, 209)

There are so many things that distract us. Lloyd-Jones had distractions like the morning newspaper in mind. What would he say of a society where most live with a newspaper-television-camera-telephone-radio-mailbox strapped to our hand? We are all fighting for our lives — and whether we realize it or not, fighting for our attention, fighting to possess and master and give our attention, rather than having it taken from us.

And fight is the right word, for the stakes are high. We cannot follow Jesus without giving him our attention (Mark 4:24; Hebrews 2:1). We cannot become like Jesus without attentively beholding him (2 Corinthians 3:18; Hebrews 12:1–3). And we cannot love like Jesus without offering others our unhurried, undistracted, calm, attentive regard.

How then can we steward our limited, precious, endangered attention? In short, by living as humans made in the image of God, rather than as gods made in the image of the Internet.

Simplify your inputs.

If you’re like most people in the digital age, you take in far too much information every day — at least, far too much information to process, much less store as long-term knowledge. You wake up every morning subtly tempted to attend to the world as God does. And as always, those who reach for deity forfeit their humanity: by trying to give our attention everywhere, we weaken our ability to give it meaningfully anywhere.

“By trying to give our attention everywhere, we weaken our ability to give it meaningfully anywhere.”

We could look for support from neuroscience, which assures us that an abundance of information, especially the kind shot at us from the Internet’s hundred firehoses, impoverishes memory and addicts us to distraction. In his landmark 2010 book The Shallows, for example, Nicholas Carr writes, “The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing” (194).

But neuroscience only confirms the anthropology we find in Scripture. Humans are far more tree-like than computer-like: information becomes knowledge and wisdom only as fast as water becomes fruit on the branch. Water cannot travel into roots and up trunks and through limbs in a moment; it takes time, and often requires the painfully slow process of meditation (Psalm 1:3). An abundance of information processed rapidly makes for distracted, superficial souls; a limited amount of information processed slowly makes for knowledge and that increasingly rare quality so lauded in Scripture: wisdom.

Consider, then, simplifying your inputs. Read less, but read better. Learn less, but learn better. Listen to less, but listen better. You cannot eat all the apples in life’s information orchard; you would be foolish to try. So make peace with your gloriously limited humanity, and learn to choose and savor just a few.

Prioritize near over far.

For most of history, humans had no choice but to give their attention to those people and things that lay near at hand. Adam and Eve not only did not know what was happening outside Eden; they could not know. There was no Ancient Near East Times back then. So, what could they do but spend their waking hours devoted to what they could see?

Today, we are just as limited as our first parents, with just as many hours in the day and just as much capacity for focus, but with billions more objects vying for our attention. We no longer need concern ourselves with people who can talk back or with the sensory world. We can spend all our time on the digital side of the globe.

Such availability, however, has not fundamentally changed our responsibility. Though we can know nowadays about matters far beyond the garden called home, God still holds us responsible, first and foremost, for how well we love, care for, and attend to those people and callings within arm’s reach.

What was once an inevitable fact of creaturely life now needs stating: proximity heightens responsibility. The Ephesians were to care for the whole church’s households, but especially for their own (1 Timothy 5:8). The Galatians were to do good to all, but especially to fellow believers (Galatians 6:10). Israel fell under judgment, not for neglecting Edom’s poor, but the poor within their own gates (Amos 8:4–6).

“What was once an inevitable fact of creaturely life now needs stating: proximity heightens responsibility.”

And if you are a normal, busy person, your nearest circles likely need all the attention you can give. Few of us can attend well to spouse and children, church members and neighbors, while also attending well to digital controversies, international news, and high-school friends’ Instagram posts. Something must give, and we need not feel guilty for prioritizing the near over the far.

Don’t just see, but notice.

The muscle of attention strengthens or atrophies, in part, during everyday, ordinary moments. What do you do when you arrive somewhere five minutes early, or when you wait in line at the grocery store? Like so many, I find myself reaching for my shiny pocket rectangle, that beloved window into distant realms. But this window is also a shutter, closing my eyes to the realm right in front of me.

Creation has grown dim to many. We see without seeing and hear without hearing. The world’s ecstasies have become a background hum; the color spectrum has turned to shades of gray. We have grown unrighteously unlike the God of Psalm 104, that Wonderer who never grows weary of gushing springs and valley beasts, branched birds and growing grass, schools of fish and the hidden deeps (Psalm 104:10–11, 12, 14, 25–26).

We have also become unlike the attentive Jesus, that Psalm-104 God made flesh. He had a way of noticing what others only saw, didn’t he? The disciples saw some birds and flowers; he noticed God’s fatherly hand (Luke 6:22–31). The crowds saw seeds and yeast; he noticed the coming kingdom (Matthew 13:31–33). The multitudes saw a blind beggar; Jesus noticed Bartimaeus himself, in all his desperate need (Mark 10:46–52).

In Jane Austen’s Emma, as the heroine finds herself waiting at a storefront with only a dull street outside, the narrator tells us, “A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer” (174). Yes, a mind lively and at ease — a mind attentive — need not reach compulsively for the pocket. It can do with seeing what seems like nothing, because in that “nothing” is the handiwork of God, ready to answer our gaze. Do you notice?

Live in the attention of God.

Scripture’s charge to “pay attention” almost always includes God or his words as the object. So, he calls his people to pay attention to “all that I have said to you” (Exodus 23:13), “my words” (Jeremiah 6:19), “the prophetic word” (2 Peter 1:19), or simply, “me” (Isaiah 51:4). Yet when we give him our attention, we find that he has already given us his (Psalm 34:15).

Perhaps many need a Hagar moment, a moment of waking up to the presence of El-Roi, the God who sees us (Genesis 16:13) — and in Christ, the God who sees us graciously, ever and always. We do not find, when we look to him, a God who gives us half his attention, or half of himself, but all: his full gaze, under his full grace, now and for endless ages.

Nothing so shapes our attention like living — daily, adoringly — in the loving attention of God. Turn your eyes upon him at first rising, and see his eyes turned to you. Speak to him in the day’s lulls, and find his ear open. Return to him before shutting your attention off for the night, and then lie down knowing his will not.