Recently I wrote an article calling on Christians to invest their attention more carefully. Beyond simply budgeting a finite resource, I argued that “how we invest our attention pays dividends in our own personal formation.” In other words, “what we give our attention to has a direct impact on who we become.” This isn’t limited to what we put before our eyes. It extends to our habits, requiring us to discern not only the quality of what we give our attention but also the quantity of attention we’re willing to spend thoughtlessly.
Stewarding Our Attention
Perhaps I can illustrate this, by developing an analogy I’ve used before: the similarities between our attention (or time) and money. It’s no coincidence that we refer to spending both, as well as wasting or investing them. Few of us give away money as freely as we do our attention. Most of us are greedy with our money and reckless with our attention. Now, you could claim: that only proves that money is a far more valuable resource, and you might be right, but I’m inclined to argue that it simply reveals our gross undervaluation of attention and time. We steward our money carefully, probably because we all want to have more of it, yet we barely reflect on our media habits and how they might be shaping us. We just don’t care.
In Hebrews 2:1 the author writes, “We must pay much closer attention.” He continues in Hebrews 2:2-3, urging Christians to pay more careful attention to Christ and our salvation. Reflecting on this verse, I wondered what else God exhorts us to give our attention to. A simple word search brought up a few results, which I will conclude this post with. My search also yielded a host of things that God exhorts us to vigilantly guard against, being careful not to devote ourselves to them. Below are three that stood out to me.
Three Things to Beware
1. Virtue Signalling
Firstly, in Matthew 6 Jesus says: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” At the risk of lifting this imperative from its historical context and landing it straight into the 21st century, Jesus is saying this: Don’t virtue signal. Stop grandstanding on social media. Don’t do things so that other people will notice you. Quit making statements so that people will think more highly of you. Don’t adopt positions and advertise them because they will earn you relational credit.
Now, there are innumerable New Testament passages exhorting Christians to love selflessly, sacrificially prioritise others, and learn genuine empathy. On one level, the basic Christian ethic is painfully straightforward: love both God and neighbour. The problem is this: we love ourselves. In fact, we love ourselves so much that we shamelessly leverage obedience to the simple Christian ethic in a way that promotes ourselves. Guard against virtue signalling. Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.
Secondly, speaking of God’s judgment Jesus warns: “Watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap” (Luke 21:34). The “cares of this life” are related to the “riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14). In keeping with the rest of the New Testament, this is a warning against materialistic living, consumerism. We all believe that more money to spend on more possessions will lead to significance and security. Jesus teaches the very opposite, cautioning us against wealth and possessions, against the cares, riches, and pleasures of life.
Living in the 21st century, this is probably one of the most countercultural things Jesus preached. For we would all prefer the weight of wealth than the faith born from having less. We incapacitate ourselves with cares, pursuing possessions and pleasures. Yet, unsurprisingly, when we get them we only want more and remain unsatisfied. So our lives are marked by chasing things rather than God; consumerism sets us on a course away from Christ. That’s why Jesus’ warning is so stark, framed by the context of divine judgment. Watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with cares of this life.
3. Fixating on Controversy
Finally, Paul warns both of his understudies against paying undue attention to “myths and endless genealogies” (1 Timothy 1:4; Titus 1:14). This isn’t a caution against reading J. R. R. Tolkien or Old Testament narratives. Within the larger context of the Pastoral Epistles, Paul is warning Christians against being drawn to controversy and dispute (1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:23-24). That makes it a timely and unsettling word, for we all love a scandal. Returning to the point that has pervaded this post, Paul is warning Christians about the stories we consume. I recently argued this at length, exploring the popularity of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.
What is it that drives our insatiable appetite for investigative journalism, ministry failure, and church scandal? Perhaps one of the driving factors is sharing in God’s heart, which longs for justice and loves victims. But I worry that another factor is our delight in seeing others fail. Interestingly, the human fixation on controversy is not new, however our access to a near infinite amount of content means Paul’s caution deserves sounding. So watch out that you don’t subsist on a diet of controversy.
Reinvest Your Attention
But what should we give our attention to? Very briefly, picking just three examples from the New Testament, God exhorts us to pay careful attention to our salvation (Hebrews 2:1-4), corporate worship (1 Timothy 4:13), and Scripture (2 Peter 1:19). Perhaps then we might transform our virtue signalling into meaningful justice; our consumerism into a desire for God; and our delight in controversy into constructive conversations.