Aldous Huxley called it “man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction” (Revisited, 35).
And sixty years later, our endless desire for “the totally irrelevant” has finally been matched by the endless offerings of irrelevance in our smartphones. We love to be fed worthless things.
This onslaught of produced media is a major problem for us all because we can focus our minds only on a limited number of stimuli that come at us. So, how do we discern and navigate the digital age with wise discretion?
In the first volume of his landmark work, The Principles of Psychology, William James (1842–1910) takes a stab at explaining what it means to be an “attentive” being (1:402–458). James defines human attention, at its root, as implying “withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction” (404).
Attention is the skill of withdrawing from everything, to focus on some things, the opposite of the dizziness of the scatterbrained who cannot attend to anything.
Thus, attention determines how we perceive the world around us. “Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why?” James asks. “Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos” (402).
James argued that of the million possible things that could fixate our minds right now, we have chosen to attend to one thing (this sentence). Thus, this paragraph is shaping your cognitive experience of life right now, not the million other things around you at the moment.
In other words, we’re not simply creatures of our environment; we are creatures shaped by the selective input we choose to focus on in our environment. Big difference. We really only see what interests us, and what interests us, we attend to. This is the fundamental nature of how each of us experiences our world.
Thus, there are few more important skills for our flourishing than learning the art of refocusing a wandering mind, because “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will” (424).
Welcome to the Digital Age
James could not have predicted the digital mass-media age, but he would not be surprised at our declining powers of attention. Even Scripture, written in a pre-mass-media age, offers relevant warnings for us today. And these are even more significant for us.
So, what does the Bible say about the media we ingest?
- What movies should we watch?
- What movies should we avoid?
- Which television shows are appropriate?
- Which television shows are inappropriate?
- What does binge-watching do to our souls?
- Which celebrities (if any) should we follow online?
- What types of images should fill our Instagram feeds?
All of these questions are complicated by the fact that I know my own heart wants to attend to things that are vain and worthless. So, when these questions of the media age barrage me, and I am unsettled when I think of my own heart, I turn to the psalmist. He helps us to see one universal principle that provides immediate answers for our lives. The principle appears in the forms of both a God-centered resolution and a Godward plea.
The God-Centered Resolve
First, the psalmist proclaims his personal resolution in Psalm 101:3:
I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless.
The term here — worthless — is a compound. Literally: without + profit = worthless.
It is “the quality of being useless, good for nothing” (source). And for the psalmist, something that is “without profit” is not simply reduced to neutrality — it is evil in the sight of God. Why?
We are heirs of eternal, glorious wealth, so our lust for any worthless thing is an offense to God. Thus, the psalmist makes the resolution, “I will not set before my eyes anything that will not profit my soul.” God’s incomparable, eternal glory builds this unshakable, God-centered resolve.
The Godward Plea
Next, the psalmist entreats God in Psalm 119:37:
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.
Worthless things include “anything that is unsubstantial, unreal, worthless, either materially or morally” (source). As in the first passage, the word here translated “worthless things” fits into the Old Testament’s surprisingly vast and comprehensive vocabulary for moral evil (source).
But do “worthless things” fit into our vocabulary for moral evil today?
The warning here is against trusting in anything with an inherent promise that proves hollow in the end. A worthless thing is something false — not false as in a bold-faced lie, but false in its effectiveness, “the idea that hopes and expectations prove false when placed in persons or things that are ineffective and therefore untrustworthy” (source).
This prayer is a plea from a son to a father. God must literally take our head in his hands, and divert our eyes in another direction away from empty things.
And we have such a Father, whom we can ask to fill our hearts with what is eternally valuable (Psalm 119:33–40). Only in the pleasures of our heavenly Father do we have hope, as his children, to turn our eyes and our hearts from worthless things, and to refocus our attention on eternal things.
This is the psalmist’s urgent prayer and plea: “God, grab my head, and turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways as I behold the inestimable worth of your glory.”
Worthlessness covers over a breadth of very serious sins: rebellion, idolatry, moral evil, falsehood, lies, and deception. All of these sins fit under the category.
But worthlessness extends far more broadly. It forces on us the question: What really brings value, meaning, and purpose to our lives? Biblical ethics is not about simply avoiding corrupting things. It is about learning to enjoy and embrace the things that truly bring meaning and purpose and eternal joy into our lives. The worthless things of this world form a steady stream of eye candy. I must firmly resolve not to set my eyes on worthless things, but I must also resolve to know that the worthless things will allure me in those moments when I need God to act on my behalf.
A Big Deal or Not?
As Charles Spurgeon said, “It is the tendency of things that are gazed at to get through the eyes into the mind and the heart.” Worthless things in the eye, gazed at, become worthless things lodged in the heart. Our precious attention gets used for futile ends.
We understand this. Today we talk about “ingesting media” as though we eat it. Media goes inside of us, enters our bloodstream, and becomes a part of us. The Puritans used to call the eyes the “eye-gate,” an entrance into the heart. If you let worthless things linger in your eyes, you will inherently muse on their promises, the drawbridge of discernment will lower, and those worthless things will enter into your heart’s affections.
“Let not my eye betray my heart unto vanity” was a common Puritan prayer, echoing the resolve and prayer of the psalmist.
Eye Candy in the Digital Age
Even if the Bible was written in a pre-mass-media age, it still delivers principles that are incredibly relevant and important in the digital world. Our smartphones constantly put before our eyes worthless things. Idols. Lust-driven images. Appeals to our materialistic desires. We endlessly scroll through things that are not, on the one hand, explicitly wrong and wicked, but, on the other hand, are things without any value-add to our joy or purpose on this planet.
Paul’s commendation applies fittingly to what we give our attention: “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise,” fill your attention with these things (Philippians 4:8).
Whatever things are without worth, don’t gaze at them.
The End of the Matter
One writer summarized William James’s contribution on human attention by offering this synopsis of the psychologist’s warning: “When we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default” (Wu, 7).
That is a warning for all of us in the digital age. And it echoes the urgent resolve and plea of the psalmist. Fundamentally, we can take God’s word for it. Every worthless thing that fills our attention has long-term consequences, killing our joy in attending to God in his word, distorting our lives, and simply adding more dead weight on our pilgrimage toward the eye-ravishing home that awaits us.