The Whole Sin of the Half-Distracted Mind

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about how it has seemed harder and harder for me to carve out the same amount of focussed time of prayer and Bible study in the morning than it used to be. Certainly, I am weak and easily distracted. But it is no help that an entire economy exists to deliberately distract me by twinkling shiny bits of content in my eyes with the goal of gaining my attention so that they can advertise to me. Yet, I seem drawn, like a moth to the flame, to give myself to the apps, websites, and programs that consume and monetize my attention. The result is a negative impact on my spiritual life as I become more and more distracted from giving all of myself to my Lord. I am beginning to see that I am committing the whole sin of the half-distracted mind.

Perhaps if we can understand how advertisers and content marketers work to attract our attention, we can break the spell. So, how does the attention economy work to distract us from keeping our eyes fixed on Christ?

The Attention Merchants

In 1833, printer Benjamin Day started The Sun newspaper in New York City. Day started his paper in hopes of salvaging his failing printing business which had taken a financial dive as a result of the cholera epidemic of 1832. There were many newspapers in New York at the time, but what made Day’s paper so remarkable was that copies of his newspaper sold for just one cent each.

Most newspapers had to sell for at least six cents an issue to be profitable. So, how could Day expect to have a viable business when he charged just 1/6th the price of his competitors? Because though Day was distributing newspapers, he wasn’t actually in the newspaper business at all.

Unlike the other newspapers, he wasn’t selling articles, information, or news. What Day realized was that by selling a cheaper newspaper, he could sell more papers, then he could turn around and sell the attention of that large readership to advertisers. Thus the so-called “Penny Press” business tactic was born and with it an entirely new industry, attention merchants.

This is the thesis Tim Wu develops in his book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. And while we might rightly critique the influence this shift toward an attention-based economy has had on journalism in America, I want to look instead at how the commodification of attention has negatively affected the devotional life of Christians to this day. There’s a reason we are as distracted as we are, but there’s also a solution.

You Are the Product

In our day, this business tactic of attracting a crowd then selling their attention to advertisers is no longer innovative. The internet has only made it more common. Daily, we willingly enter into the contract of reading free articles and watching free videos in exchange for our attention being sold to advertisers. It’s just what we expect.

Where we would be loathed to open our wallets for these services, we instead surrender a currency far more valuable than cash—our attention.

Now, people are surprised, even annoyed, when some article or video on the internet isn’t completely free. This is only possible because of the ads that pay the content creators. Even Benjamin Day would likely be surprised to discover that access to services like Facebook or any other social network doesn’t cost even a penny, nor does it cost to stream countless gigabytes of video on YouTube. When we do get linked to a news website with a “paywall” we scoff at the prehistoric business model. Why would I pay for that? Free access is the norm.

But as the saying goes, “‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” And that is precisely what is going on with the selling of our attention to advertisers.

The “content” we consume is not the product, it’s the bait. Because whether it’s a headline, video thumbnail, or Instagram image, that content exists to draw us in with a flashy picture or a click-bait title only to jiu-jitsu our attention toward advertisements. And these content marketers are getting smarter every day. Ads track your movements across the web, showing you ads for things you searched for days ago on entirely different websites. And who hasn’t been creeped out to discover something they were talking about mysteriously started showing up in sidebar ads on their favorite websites?

But while the invasiveness of such advertising strategies can be alarming, the irony is that we alone are the enablers of such tactics. It is us who willingly flock to the free services, who soak in the complimentary content and mindlessly scroll through feeds, articles, timelines, and stories. Where we would be loathed to open our wallets for these services, we instead surrender a currency far more valuable than cash—our attention.

The more we have trained ourselves to be attention spendthrifts, the more we have foregone investing that currency where it really matters. And the Scriptures would have us not as half-distracted zombies, an eye on the phone, and an ear on the conversation, but with our minds fully attentive to the Lord God and His work in this world.

Never All There

The Lord will not be treated like a beggar, happy to have the scraps of our thought life only after we’ve offered up the best of our focus and affections to media and advertisers. He wants it all.

But, it’s so hard in these modern times! Distraction is everywhere. I think it’s fair to say that due to the rapid advances of information technology we live in an objectively more distracted age than any previous generation. And the result is a constant state of never being all there. The ill-effects of this state are most nefarious when it comes to our spiritual lives.

A quick check of the texts during church, then back to listening. A buzz on the wrist then back to prayer. A quick tweet then back to studying the Bible.

If we were honest, we would admit that our God gets less and less of us with each passing year. Fewer Scripture passages read, fewer minutes of prayer, fewer undefiled moments of worship, fewer hours focussed on family, fewer Christian books read, fewer nights at the church, and when we do actually deign to participate in such activities we are only half there! Instead, the best of us is willingly shoveled into entertainment and distracting media, only to be monetized by ad men. We are the willingly preoccupied shills of content marketers.

Being half-distracted seems better than being fully inattentive to God, though, right? But the Lord will not be treated like a beggar, happy to have the scraps of our thought life only after we’ve offered up the best of our focus and affections to media and advertisers. He wants it all.

Our failure to devote our full attention to God is the whole sin of being half-distracted. Because full devotion requires full attention.

Full Devotion Requires Full Attention

This state of affairs seems so normal to us though. That’s just life today, we say. But it just takes a brief look at church history to realize that this malaise of distraction which has settled on Christ’s church in the West is far from normal. Reading saints of the past puts our modern shortcomings of piety in bold relief.

In the introduction to the Diary and Life of Andrew Bonar, John Murray demonstrates that the diary portion of the book actually serves to explain how Bonar was so influential and effective in ministry in his day. His inner life of prayer as captured in the diary is truly remarkable. Writing in 1960, Murray notes, “It is apparent to all right-thinking people that there is a lack of depth and reality about the lives of Christians today. We are in too frequent fellowship with outward things. . . Our lives are not God-centered; they are not Christ-centered. We allow other things to usurp that place and so we miss the real blessing.” How much truer that is for us today!

We might be tempted to settle with this arrangement—”that’s just how the world is now. Why fight it?” But we cannot allow ourselves to make treaty with this shameful lack of love for God. Full devotion is the call of every Christian.

It is not without reason that our Lord when queried as to the priority of the commandments listed as the first and greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'” (Mark 12:30; cf. Matthew 22:37; Luke 10:27). This, of course, was Jesus quoting the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4–7, ” “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…”. Have you considered what a high calling that is upon us?

Commenting on the parallel passage in Matthew, John MacArthur says that loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind “connotes comprehensiveness. We are to love the Lord our God with every part of our being.” God alone is worthy of such full loving devotion. But how often can we honestly claim that our love for God is so adequately comprehensive?

We are far too distracted; far too inattentive to what really matters.

Reallocating our Attention

It seems to me that if we are to honestly face the source of our lack of devotion that there is most certainly an intrinsic tie to our lack of attention. In other words, the half-distracted Christian cannot be a wholly-devoted lover of God. We have poorly allocated that finite resource of attention. We have willingly fallen for the schemes of the attention merchants and offered up vast quantities of our attention at the expensive of devotion to our Lord.

If that’s the case, then the unavoidable remedy to the half-distracted mind is the deliberate reallocation of attention away from media and toward that which matters. We must extract ourselves from the meaningless attention hogs and give back to the Lord what is rightfully His.

We need to stop telling ourselves the lie that we can do it all. I can keep my social media addiction, my late-night Netflix binges, or my mindless surfing of the web, and also be fully devoted to my Lord. we aren’t even talking about the content being consumed through these media, mind you, but the portion of our attention which they withdraw from our limited account. There are only so many hours in the day.

The question you need to ask yourself is am I really willing to continue to trade the sweetness of sustained fellowship with the Lord, a powerful prayer life, and an eternal impact, for the passing pleasures of the perpetually distracted mind? Will it be entertainment or eternity? And at the end of the day, it’s really not an option, is it? It’s a matter of loving the Lord as I am required by the chief commandment—with all of me.

So how much longer will I continue in the whole sin of the half-distracted mind? How long until I make the radical break from those mediums which happily accept my donated attention for their profit, and I instead reallocate that attention back to the one who deserves all my attention and all of my affection? How long until I love the Lord with a whole heart and cease to only give him my half-distracted mind?

I have offered some practical helps in this area before, but for any permanent change to occur we need more than just tips and tricks, we need a heart change. We need to honestly face the fact that if the dingy trinkets of worldly media are enough to draw us away from fellowship with the Almighty, perhaps our love for Him has grown colder than we thought.

Join the discussion

  • Very well, noted. This distractedness robs both the quality and quantity of intimate time with our Lord and Savior. It risks unaccomplishing all that God gave us to do (Jn 17:4), and taints the vision of hearing Jesus say “well done, good and faithful servant”.

  • Such a needed, timely reminder! Ha! Had to laugh at all the “marketing distractions” as I sought to read your article????. Passing this one along to my beloved children who (even more so than me) are unwittingly enraptured, captured and enslaved by their phones…instead of Christ.

    • Haha! Yes, the irony is not lost on me!

      Even as I was writing this piece I realized that I am an unwitting member of the so-called “attention merchants” I was writing about because of these silly ads. I would justify my apparent hypocrisy by noting that I’m not suggesting there is something inherently wrong with advertising as such, but rather that we as Christians are responsible to steward our own attention. And part of taking responsibility in that realm is being aware that even if we don’t put a high value on our attention, there are others who do and will happily take as much as we will give them. And attention is a zero-sum game.

      I also worry about those who are younger who, as you said, are unwittingly enslaved to their phones. They have been born into a world where this level of audio-visual bombardment is assumed to be “normal”. I’m just old enough to remember a time where the world was much quieter and the internet much slower. But the believing digital natives are the ones who will need to take the most pains to disentangle their attention from the unending litany of distractions which march before their eyes each day if they hope to return that attention back to the One who really deserves it.

  • Reagan, I am so touched by the depth and clarity of your writing. Thank you for challenging my heart through this article. Blessings on you. Rich and I are LONG time friends of your Mom and Dad. With Love, Joyce Bademan

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