Confession: I struggle to focus in both public and private worship.
Instead of lifting my soul to gaze upon the Lord’s beauty while in a church service or reading my Bible at home, my mind drifts to my plans for later in the day, my favorite sports team, or to what is stressing me—and Satan loves it. When our minds are somewhere else, they can’t be fixated on worshipping God our Creator and Redeemer—our reason for existence (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14; Isaiah 43:7).
If you think distraction is unique to our tech-driven generation, think again. Puritan Thomas Brooks wrote about it in his 1652 classic Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices* and shared seven remedies to help us focus while seeking God. I’ll interact with these remedies below.
Remedy #1: Focus your heart on the greatness, holiness, majesty, and glory of God.
Let God’s glory still your soul in His presence. Brooks writes:
“Oh! let your souls be greatly affected with the presence, purity, and majesty of that God before whom you stand. A man would be afraid of playing with a feather, when he is speaking with a king… There is nothing that will contribute so much to the keeping out of vain thoughts, as to look upon God as an omniscient God, an omnipresent God, an omnipotent God, a God full of all glorious perfections, a God whose majesty, purity, and glory will not allow him to behold the least iniquity.”
Remedy #2: Let wandering thoughts drive you to more diligent worship.
If you read Scripture and have no recollection of what you read, your soul misses out on God’s benefits. The same goes for allowing a myriad of thoughts to swarm your mind like a cloud of gnats during a worship service. We must swat distractions from our minds and use them as motivation to seek His face all the more diligently.
“When Satan perceives that all those trifling vain thoughts that he casts into the soul do but vex the soul into greater diligence, carefulness, watchfulness, and steadfastness in holy and heavenly services, and that the soul loses nothing of his zeal, piety, and devotion—but doubles his care, diligence, and earnestness, he often ceases to interpose his trifles and vain thoughts, as he ceased to tempt Christ, when Christ was steadfast in resisting his temptations.”
Remedy #3: Hate trifling thoughts instead of indulging in them, for doing this will keep us from sin and ensure blessing.
Devilish distractions are not just a petty nuisance, they are a tool of the enemy that wage war against our souls. We are not just to swat useless thoughts away, we are to hate them because they keep us from beholding the glory of the Lord and being transformed into His image (2 Corinthians 3:18). Consider Brooks’ recommended prayer:
“When a soul in uprightness can look God in the face, and say, Lord, when I approach near unto you, there are a world of vain thoughts crowd in upon me, which disturb my soul, and weaken my faith, and lessen my comfort and spiritual strength. Oh, these are my clog, my burden, my torment, my hell! Oh, do justice upon these, free me from these, that I may serve you with more freeness, singleness, spiritualness, and sweetness of spirit. These thoughts may vex that soul—but they shall not harm that soul, nor keep a blessing from that soul.”
Brooks’ summarizes: “Vain thoughts pass through the best hearts; they are lodged and cherished only in the worst hearts.”
Remedy #4: Keep watch against sinful thoughts, resisting them and mourning them.
Brooks says this is not only “the sweetest and strongest evidence of the truth and power of grace, and of the sincerity of your hearts, and is the readiest and the surest way to be rid of them (Psalm 139:23).”
The underrated discipline of watchfulness, by the power of the Sprit, will snipe anything that pulls our attention from heavenly things. Make pleasing the Lord in every thought your delight and reject soul-polluting thoughts that distort the image of Christ in you. Consider each distracting or wicked thought as a seed that could turn into an orchard of destruction if given time to germinate and reproduce.
Again, Brooks: “Inward bleeding kills many a man; so will sinful thoughts, if not repented of.”
Remedy #5: Labor to be filled more and more with the fullness of God, and to be enriched with all spiritual and heavenly things.
This application makes sense and applies to all of life. If our constant meditation is God’s Word (Psalm 1) and greatest desire to be in His presence, walking by His Spirit, then “the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace” as the hymn testifies.
“What is the reason that the angels in heaven have not so much as an idle thought? It is because they are filled with the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19). Take it for an experienced truth, the more the soul is filled with the fullness of God and enriched with spiritual and heavenly things—the less room there is in that soul for vain thoughts. The fuller the vessel is of wine—the less room there is for water. Oh, then, lay up much of God, of Christ, of precious promises, and choice experiences in your hearts—and then you will be less troubled with vain thoughts. ‘A good man, out of the good treasure of his heart, brings forth good things’ (Matt. 12:35).”
I’ve found this remedy powerful. For me, this means cutting back on time-wasters like constantly checking my phone, reading email, or looking up sports scores and replacing those actions with affection-stirring activities like prayer and Bible meditation.
None of us will ever seek Him perfectly, but a lifestyle seeking His fullness will pay off when it comes to paying attention in devotions and worship services.
Remedy #6: Continually fan into flame your spiritual affections.
Or in other words, always seek to grow in your love for Jesus. The summer camp spiritual high doesn’t have to always wane if you stoke its flames with fellowship, Bible reading, and prayer. Jesus is just as real and present this moment as He was in your greatest spiritual experience. Seek Him!
“‘Oh how I love your law! it is my meditation all the day’ (Psalm 119:97). What we love most, we most muse upon. ‘When I awake, I am still with you’ (Psalm 139:18). That which we much like—we shall much mind. Those who are frequent in their love to God and his law, will be frequent in thinking of God and his law—a child will not forget his mother.”
Remedy #7: Avoid worldliness.
Worldliness—even worldliness acceptable in Christian circles—can hijack our minds with distracting thoughts.
This is especially hard for me as one who works full-time in ministry. If I don’t discipline my mind when visiting a church, my mind runs to critique the service or think ‘How would I have done things differently?’ My Bible reading may turn my thoughts to “I wonder if I should by a new commentary on this book of the Bible?” or “I wonder what my theological hero says about this passage?” instead of letting the message penetrate my soul. Worldliness comes in all shapes and sizes but always has the same result of killing worship in our hearts.
“Souls which are torn in pieces with the cares of the world will be always vexed and tormented with vain thoughts in all their approaches to God…2 Tim. 2:4, ‘No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs–he wants to please his commanding officer.’ This is a comparison which Paul borrows from the custom of the Roman empire, wherein soldiers were forbidden to take up private businesses.”
I try not to look at my phone before my morning Bible reading and prayer are over. Before church on Sundays this is even more important, as is curtailing discussions of afternoon plans with my wife. While these thoughts aren’t necessarily sinful, they pull my attention down to earth when it should be on the things of heaven (Colossians 3:1–3).
Preparing my heart for worship means dodging everything that hinders that important work. Lord, keep me from worldliness.
Don’t let your lack of focus discourage you—we all struggle with it to one degree or another. What you have control over is your response: Will you let distraction win the day or will you fight against it with these remedies? Let your prayer be that of the Psalmist:
“Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.” (Psalm 119:37)
* I reworded some of Brooks’ remedies for easier reading. Quotation marks preserve his original words.
And speaking of his book, simply reading the table of contents would be more spiritually beneficial than reading most Christian books published today. It is truly a goldmine of spiritual insight worthy of the name ‘precious.’