For 2018: Stay Focused In a World of Distractions

By Neil Earle

One statistic claims that North Americans touch their smart phones 2,617 times a day.

Not to add to the litany of bad news most of my Facebook friends ascribed to the year 2017 but this seemed to be the year that the all-pervasive social media came in for some top-flight criticism. What AARP Bulletin labelled “the fixation on video screens large and small” seems to be affecting the way our brains work! It’s claimed that North Americans on average touch their smart phones an astounding 2,617 times a day. Now this gives younger people a decided advantage in transitioning quickly from task to task but at the cost of some punishing side-effects. Item: In one experiment 94% of Chicago pedestrians using cellphones didn’t see cash hanging from a tree.

Losing “free money”? Now that’s punishment!

An age of distraction. This is what we don’t need in a world where we need to keep all our wits about us, as 2017 made abundantly clear. Nuclear war has once again raised its ominous head and guarding against unexpected natural disasters demands all the focused attention we can get. Our phrase “focused attention” embodied one of the very prescriptions Ross Campbell prescribed in his helpful 1990s bestseller “How to Really Love Your Teenagers.” Again, a practical point that affects us all, especially when teen shooters erupt at a mega-mall just 3 miles away from our house!

Strange Paradox

Dr. Tim Wu of Columbia and author of The Attention Merchants paradoxically labels this obsession with 27.5 minute attention spans “an advantage to older people.” “Older Americans are better equipped for serious thinking,“ Wu argues. They have a higher tolerance for boredom which translates into that timeless virtue called patience. Seniors minds do not wander as often, Wu claims, and they are better at screening out task-irrelevant thoughts. I’ve noticed that too. If I receive an FB or Linked In update about a notification I’ve missed it can generate enough curiosity/anxiety for me to drop what I’m viewing at the time and scurry to the site. So far, however, I’m not like the high percentages of people who check their phone messages in the middle of the night.

Somehow our culture has subtly embraced a modern form of servitude which has contributed to that epidemic of sleeplessnees that made a celebrity out of the makers of “My Pillow.”

At a time when we need all our attention to focus intelligently on complex issues of work, jobs, elections, controversial laws being passed in Canada and the United States, we seem to be drifiting, distracted. “Exhaustion and anxiety” are often by-products of what psychologist Archibald Hart calls the Digital Invasion.

The Key Focus

Jesus outlined the central focus for his people in Matthew 6:33, one that applies in 2018 and all the years ahead. “Seek first the Kingdom of God.” Kingdom thinking and kingdom values have a positive retro effect on Kingdom living, which can help us navigate life in an ever more complex world. But these are themes all people need to hear, especially when we focus on just one passage of Scripture – Romans 8:28.

John Stott

The late great Bible teacher John Stott gave a close reading of Romans 8:28 in his powerful commentary The Message of Romans. According to careful scholars this text should read, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” It could also read, “We know that for those who love God he is working for good…”

Now there’s no way that a cancer or diabetes condition or a sick child is good, or the shooting stories we seem fated to witness ad infinitum on the nightly news, or the Syrian civilians who have died these past five years. No. Nothing good here. But Stott asserts that for those who listen to him, God is able to ceaselessly, energetically work for good in their lives. Let’s see how Stott does this in his own focused attention style of explaining Romans 8:28:

1. First, God is always at work. Scripture tells us that we can never forget how Jesus prays for us in heaven and sends His Spirit to help our own sometimes desperate pleadings from here on earth (Romans 8:26). God is at work in the lives of his people. He called us for an eternal purpose totally beyond the cares of this world, those urgent concerns that we sometimes make the dominant factor in our lives. General and President Eisenhower had a saying, The urgent is not always important and the important is not always urgent! Eternity is God’s main concern. Quite often, trials come at us to drive us back in utter dependence upon the God who is our ultimate Source of strength and hope.

Bible writers consistently propound that the evil that swims around us serves the purpose of perfecting us, molding us and shaping us for our ultimate life in the eternal Kingdom. It can teach us discernment. St. Paul who said “I fought with beasts at Ephesus” (1 Corinthian 15:32). Yet God delivered him again and again to teach him how to show others that God will deliver us (2 Corinthians 1:3-6). Remember that: He has a purpose in our lives, in 2018 and beyond.

2. Romans 8:28 follows up with: God is at work for good. One of my parishioners was sternly summoned to court because he had forgotten the date of a previous court appearance. He was scared. The judge looked tough. The plaintiff just ahead of him was trundled off to jail post haste. But my friend had prayed about this, even though he was still rather scared. Then…the judge looked straight at him: “Now, Mr. _______ , I don’t know you from Adam but I am here to listen to your story.” He told his story and escaped without paying a fine. I know because I was his supervisor for later community service which he performed faithfully.

As the patrirach Joseph summarized about his up-and-down life experiences of betrayal, rslavery, innocent victimhood and life in prison (Genesis 50:20), God makes bad things turn out good. Keep that focus and we can get through the curves life throws at us.

3. Romans 8:28 reminds us God works for good in all things. That has to include the worst situations we can go through. I read an article “How Diabetes saved my Life.” It showed how a man diagnosed with this condition was finally forced to get a doctor’s help, get better life care, look after himself more as old age approached. Ths particular focus radically changed his life for good. He eats better, sleeps better, works better. My mother taught me a song at age 7 titled “It is no Secret what God can do.” One section read: “There is no power can conquer you/While God is on your side/Take him at his promise/Don’t run away and hide.” These words are good to cherish as we go through 2018 together.

4. God especially works for the good of those who love him. This is, as Stott says, a necessary limitation. We have to love God which means serving God and his people, serving our neighbors, above all spending time with God, being passionate in our pursuit of God, repenting, acknowledging our sins, and forsaking them by the power of the Spirit. Think of how our lives might change if we spent more time with God and less time with smart phones. Those who love God can’t stand being 2-3 days away from a Bible. It cries out to them for they know that in that Book is emblazoned the promise that God will not fail us or forsake us, no matter what our handicap. Here is one of my favorites: “Even the youths shall faint and be weary…but those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40: 30-31). This focus helps me face the year ahead.

5. God works for those called according to his purpose. This means life is not the random disconnected mess it sometimes seems where troubles sometimes assail us like the waves of the sea – or text messages from the omnious world of the Cloud. Nor does it mean that the Eternal God is a Fairy Godmother or Genie of the Lamp. But sooner or later true Christians realize that God is there, really there, in all life’s seemingly senseless distractions. That means we have to complete the circuit. Part of God’s purpose in our lives is to transmit the love and faith and hope that we feel to other people. We are his agents on earth – his hands, his arms, his eyes and ears.

This is summarized in 2 Corinthians 5:20. There we are called already-credentialed Ambassadors for Christ, “as though God were pleading through us.” That’s quite a mission statement. God has a Purpose. His purpose goes beyond us just “getting” salvation. It involves us being the people who display the love and mercy of God to others 365 days a year. This is true for 2018 and all our lives long.

Now that’s an exceedingly high calling. As we seek for ways to serve and help and be of use in 2018 let us remember we can never ever do it on our own. We have to keep focused on reminders such as Romans 8:28 and, with God’s help, we will get through this year and the years to come.