For most of human history, deciding where to devote your day’s attention was relatively simple.
Imagine that you are Adam, waking up in Eden. You rise to the sights and sounds of the garden: a leaning cypress here, a trilling robin there. You turn to Eve, your wife and helper and fellow image-bearer. You think ahead to the day’s work of tending the garden, with more regions to discover and subdue. You breathe gratitude to the God in whom you live and move and have your being. No phone to check, no news to read, no status to update, no email to answer.
Now imagine that you are a typically modern, technological man, waking up in our world of mass communication. Like Adam, you find yourself tied to a particular time and place, with your own near relations and your own patch of ground to cultivate. Unlike Adam, however, your world is exponentially more crowded, with a hundred concerns competing for your attention.
Our anthropology has not changed since Eden — but oh how our technology has. Of all the options available, then, what will get our attention?
Proximity and Responsibility
The question of where to devote your attention is not a totally new one, of course. Even before we could talk across continents and watch 24-hour TV, humans have wrestled with how best to distribute our limited focus. And repeatedly, Christians have articulated a simple principle, drawn from Scripture: proximity heightens responsibility.
In his book Reading the Times, Jeffrey Bilbro quotes Augustine: “All people should be loved equally. But you cannot do good to all people equally, so you should take particular thought for those who, as if by lot, happen to be particularly close to you in terms of place, time, or any other circumstances” (31). Similarly, John Calvin notes that since human ambition “longs to embrace various things at once,” every person has objective callings “assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander about throughout life” (Institutes 3.10.6).
Before Augustine or Calvin, however, the apostles distinguished degrees of responsibility in our varying relationships. Like a pebble dropped into a pond, we are each surrounded by concentric circles. In the nearest circles live our natural household and spiritual household (1 Timothy 5:8; Acts 2:45), followed by our neighbors and more remote Christian family (Galatians 6:10; 2 Corinthians 8–9). Farther still dwell our distant non-Christian neighbors.
The principle admits exceptions, and we should beware of becoming like the lawyer who sought to redefine neighbor within bounds suitable to the flesh (Luke 10:29). “Proximity heightens responsibility” does not justify callousness to distant miseries, for example. But it does warn us against fixing our gaze on faraway vineyards while foxes devour our own (Proverbs 17:24; Song of Solomon 2:15).
Among the world’s billions, a few people are “particularly close to you.” And more than those farther off, they deserve your “particular thought.”
Who Needs Your Attention?
One question may help us apply the principle with greater clarity: Who needs your attention?
Many of the people and concerns to which we give our attention do not, in fact, need it — as evidenced by the fact that they will never know they had it. Celebrities and sports stars do not need our attention. Foreign dictators do not need our attention. Most high-school friends on social media do not need our attention. We may still decide sometimes to give them our attention, but whether we do or not, they likely will neither know nor care.
“Withdrawing our attention from Twitter will go unnoticed; withdrawing our attention from our kids will not.”
Meanwhile, we can easily pass by those who do need our attention — those people who would genuinely be worse off without our focused, warmhearted care: our spouses and children, church members and neighbors, friends and coworkers. Withdrawing our attention from Twitter will go unnoticed; withdrawing our attention from our kids will not. Far more than the far-off, those near us need our attention.
And for the typical busy person, chances are high that our nearest relationships need not just some of our attention (the day’s leftover minutes), but all that we can reasonably give. Few wives flourish under a half-attentive husband. Few children feel cherished by a distracted dad. Few small groups thrive with kind-of-committed members. And few jobs succeed under a slack hand. Whatever the relationship, caring well for those closest to us calls for our concerted focus — and our concerted refusal to give that focus elsewhere.
Three Practices for Proximity
If we live within our limits, prioritizing the near over the far, we may need to die some small deaths. But if we prioritize the far over the near, the people around us will need to. How, then, might we devote our far-flung focus closer to home? Consider three areas of life where we might practice the principle of proximity.
Prayer: From Near to Far
If we want to remember our main responsibilities each day, we may do no better than to remember them before God each morning. Before you turn on your phone, and fly to circles far away, take hold of your nearest, dearest concerns, and place them before your Father.
In his book Dynamics of Spiritual Life, Richard Lovelace writes,
If all regenerate church members in Western Christendom were to intercede daily simply for the most obvious spiritual concerns visible in their homes, their workplaces, their local churches and denominations, their nations, and the world and the total mission of the body of Christ within it, the transformation which would result would be incalculable. (160)
“Where your prayers are, there your attention and affection will be also.”
Note that praying in concentric circles doesn’t keep us from interceding for national or global issues. The practice just ensures that we begin where we are, that we spend time at home before traveling abroad.
The transformation from such a practice may indeed be incalculable — not only in the answers that would follow, but in the posture of heart and mind that would be formed. For where your prayers are, there your attention and affection will be also.
Time: Budgeting Our Days
Many budget beginners are astonished to discover where their money actually goes every month. How did they spend $50 on coffee or $150 on clothes? As they begin reallocating their dollars, they may realize they were less cash-strapped than they thought: they were just spending their money in the wrong places.
No doubt, many of us would discover something similar if we paid more attention to where our time goes. Who or what deserves little of our time but gets a lot? Who or what deserves a lot of our time but gets a little? As we begin reallocating our hours, we might also realize that we weren’t as time-strapped as we thought: we were just spending our moments in the wrong places.
What if we took some of our time reading the news and used it to pray for our small group? What if, when we felt an urge to check email, we texted an accountability partner instead? What if we turned a desire to post something online into an opportunity to pen a note to a neighbor?
Either way, consider giving your time the same way God calls you to give your money (Proverbs 3:9): the first and best goes to your nearest circles; anything remaining becomes discretionary time.
News: History Without Headlines
If he wanted, the apostle Paul surely could have filled his letters with news from the empire. He could have offered hot takes on current events or mentioned the latest controversy in Ephesus. Instead, he spends most of his time speaking into local needs and local relationships: he wants the church at Colossae to really be the church at Colossae (Colossians 1:2). And when he does mention news, he focuses on events rarely mentioned in high places: the gospel’s advance through his missionary labors. As he tells the Colossians, “Tychicus will tell you all about my activities” (4:7).
History’s greatest events rarely make the headlines. For the main thing happening in the world is not the rise and fall of nations, or the election of presidents, or the changing of the climate, or man’s exploits into space. The main story in the world is how Jesus is building his church, and how the gates of hell are falling before it (Matthew 16:18).
We enter this story in our nearby circles, as we bring the grace and good news of Jesus to our families, friends, neighbors, and workplaces. And we enter this story in the more distant circles of frontier churches, bound to us by the same blood. So why not curate our daily news accordingly?
Circles of Life
We no longer live in a world as simple as Eden. Adam had no choice but to devote himself to his surroundings; we can surround ourselves (at least digitally) with almost anything we want.
But we still walk through the world as Adam’s children, finite as our first father. We are limited creatures, bound to a place and time, with less attention, energy, and emotion than we sometimes want to admit. We cannot be everywhere always; we can’t even be two places at once. And those who try often end up being nowhere at all.
The distant life can feel desirable, an escape from the monotony of the present moment. But in the beginning, God spoke a benediction over these limited bodies (Genesis 1:28, 31), and in the incarnation he crowned finiteness with his eternal approval (Colossians 2:9). And so we may also find that the circles God gives are gateways to life: the happy and human life for which he made us.