Do You Have Your Attention?
Taken from an article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
One of your most valuable assets is your attention. What sights get before our human eyes, and what words get into our human ears, influence us image-bearers of God and bring deep and lasting impact in the world. Including how we spend our money.
In a previous generation, the largest companies sold oil and gasoline. Today, the largest companies sell human attention. Facebook and Instagram want your attention, to sell it to advertisers. Google and YouTube want your attention for the same reason. And Apple, the largest company of all, created the device that turned all of life into endless possibilities for capturing human attention — the pixelated billboards we now carry around with us all the time.
In one sense, this so-called “attention economy” is not new. It’s almost two hundred years old, going back to the 1830s when a New York businessman created a newspaper costing just a cent, because instead of selling the content to readers, he planned to sell his readers to advertisers (Cal Newport tells the story in Digital Minimalism). Eventually newspapers were filled with ads. Then when television came, it filled with ads. Then, the Internet.
In the last decade, the smartphone has taken this attention economy to previously unforeseen heights, because we keep our mobile devices constantly on our person. And the “attention merchants” like Facebook and Google are doing all they can — with sophisticated psychological tactics — to compete for the scarce and lucrative resource called human attention. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, says, “We are moving from a world where computing power was scarce to a place where it now is almost limitless, and where the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention” (quoted in Competing Spectacles, 57).
We thought Facebook and Instagram and YouTube were free services. They are not. They may not cost us any money, but we are paying with a more precious commodity: our finite and valuable human attention.
While some advocate for an attention resistance movement, we as Christians will want to ask what we’re saving our attention for. If we steward what finite, precious attention we have, and keep ourselves from wasting it on worthless distractions, to whom, then, will we pay attention? Simply keeping it from the attention merchants won’t produce any positive good on its own. How will we invest the capacities for attention God has given us?
Tony Reinke’s Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age addresses this pressing issue in our day by focusing on “the competing spectacles” of modern media versus the person, work, and words of Christ. Reinke defines a spectacle as “something that captures human attention, an instant when our eyes and brains focus and fixate on something projected at us” (14).
Attention and spectacles go together. The spectacles of life, whether the transient and trivial media spectacles online or the massive and eternal Spectacle of what God himself did for us in Christ, call for our finite human attention. The question is not whether we will “pay attention” or “fix our attention” somewhere, but to what, and to whom, will we give our attention?
This is not just about what we see, but perhaps just as pressing, if not more so, is what we hear, and to whom we listen. “Faith comes from hearing,” says the apostle Paul (Romans 10:17; also Galatians 3:2, 5). What voices we allow habitually into our heads have profound shaping power.“In the sensorium of faith,” writes Reinke, “the ear is chief” (148).
Who’s Paying Attention?
The digital age may be newly realizing the value of human attention, but the reality is nothing new for the people of God. From the beginning, God made humans to anchor the rhythms of their attention in him, to see his eternal power and divine nature in the things he has made, and to honor him as God and give him thanks (Romans 1:20–21). Then, with Christ, came faith in a new, decisive sense (Galatians 3:23–26), and this saving faith has us, as a vital prerequisite, giving our attention to the great Spectacle of Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection.
Faith grows in the finite garden of human attention. Apart from particular investments of our attention in its Object, faith will not thrive, or even survive. As we fill the limited soil of our attention with more and more shrubs, we first restrict the growth and health of faith, then crowd it out, and eventually leave it for dead.
Attention in Scripture
From early in his ministry, Jesus enjoined his disciples, “Pay attention to what you hear” (Mark 4:24), and the author of Hebrews highlights the importance of our attention not just in our coming to faith, but in enduring in the faith. “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1). How will Christians stay true, and keep from drifting from the gospel? Not by moving on to other foci, but by paying increasing attention to “what we have heard” in Christ.
Such faith, then, will have its specific expressions in the everyday Christian life. Peter notes “the prophetic word . . . to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). Paul points to the fixing of our attention on God’s word (“holding fast to the word of life”) as the key to showing ourselves to be “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14–16).
In such faith, we do not overlook self-examination and self-awareness and personal vigilance: “Pay attention to yourselves!” (Luke 17:3; 21:34). Including the specific call of pastor-elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28).
For the Christian, each new morning is an opportunity to freshly anchor attention in our Lord. We call it “devotions” because we’re recalibrating our highest devotion through the refocusing of our attention. Every meal is a reminder of his goodness, a chance not just to rehearse our gratitude but to make it holy through prayer (1 Timothy 4:4–5). Weekly worship gathers together our collective attention on the singular tie that binds us in Christ. And each evening, as we retire for the night, is an opportunity to recall the grace that’s brought us safe thus far, and that will lead us home.
Who Has Your Ear?
Hearing God’s word through faithful, healthy teaching is a matter of life and death, because “faith comes from hearing” (Romans 10:17). Not just one-time hearing, but ongoing hearing. Whom we pay attention to really matters. Those who regularly have our eyes, and get inside our heads through our ears, are leading us somewhere, either towards life or towards death. So, who has your attention? To what are you giving your attention? What’s on your screen? Who’s in your ear? Whatever is on our screens today (or in our podcast feeds) is a glimpse into who we will be tomorrow.
Jesus is worthy of our ear. Christian teaching, formed and filled by Scripture, culminating in Christ himself, is worthy of our attention. He will not disappoint, both in this life and forever in the life to come.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.