Someone is trying to get inside my head. You think I’m crazy? Well, let me tell you this: someone is trying to get into your head, too. I mean, a whole bunch of really smart, dedicated, creative people are trying to get into our heads. They want to capture and steal our attention. They aren’t bad people; they’re just doing their jobs—and for the most part we go along with it.
That is the thesis of The Attention Merchants, a book by Columbia law professor Tim Wu. The subtitle says it all—“The epic scramble to get inside our heads.” Wu argues “every sliver of our attention is fair game for commercial exploitation.” We are no longer “homo sapiens”; we have become “homo disctractus,” people with an “ever shorter attention span known for compulsively checking his devices.”
Consider the cell phone. Since about 2015, Wu writes, “wither thou goest, your smart phone goes, too, and of course the ads.” We respond to our phones like English butlers responded to their Lord or Lady. Our cell buzzes, our newsfeed fills up, an email comes in, social media dings, and we come running. What is it, my Lord, smart phone, My Lady email or social media?
Does this epic battle matter? Wu, who as far as I know is not a Christian, says, “Our very lives are at stake ... [because] when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to ....” The very last line of the book Wu urges, “We must act … to make our attention our own again, and to reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.” That quote grabs me! Our very lives are at stake. Really? I think Wu is right: our life will equal what—or Who—we have paid attention to.
Jesus and Embodied Practices
In Matthew 6, Jesus has already taken up Wu’s challenge. Jesus describes two ways to live your life. First, there’s the inattentive life—scattered, noisy, unfocused, or entirely focused on all the wrong goals and desires. Or there’s the deeply attentive life, focused on the one goal that really matters. In this passage Jesus is telling us “Bring your attention to the One who is already attentive to you.”
Jesus offers a simple but arduous path towards an attentive life. He gives three embodied practices, or spiritual disciplines, that can re-focus our attention on God. God the one who is already paying attention to us.
Now when I say “embodied practices” don’t think of something strange and hyper-spiritual. You do all kinds of embodied practices every day. Running on a treadmill, brushing your teeth, chopping an onion—these are all embodied practices. They aren’t just in your head. You are engaging your whole person, but it starts with your body.
Here are the three embodied spiritual practices: Giving, Praying, and Fasting. I was trying to make this sermon focus on just one of these practices. But I realized that’s not the way to interpret this passage. I think Jesus meant all three to hang together.
Practice Giving and Fasting
So, first, notice verses 2-4, the practice of giving. Verse 2—“When you give to the needy …” and verse 3—“When you give to the needy ….” Do you hear what Jesus is saying? He assumes that noticing and then giving to the needy, the poor, the persecuted, the vulnerable, will be part of our Christian practices as much as fasting and prayer. In Isaiah 58, God tells his people, “Is not this the fast that I choose … to let the oppressed go free … to share your bread with the hungry.”
In a few weeks, you will start hearing about our Good Friday offering. Here’s our focus: “Creating a home for orphans in northern Nigeria.” It’s an incredible chance to put Jesus’ words into practice—“When you give to the needy ….”
Now, skip down to verses 16 and 17, “And when you fast … When you fast….” Again, Jesus assumes that we will fast. Fasting is the third embodied practice Jesus said can help us give our attention to God. Fasting is really very simple. Here’s all you need to do: just don’t eat—for one meal or maybe 24 to 48 hours.
So it’s simple, but here’s the problem: It is so hard! Within a few hours your stomach starts complaining to your brain: Hey, I need some attention down here. Give me some food. Give me some sweets. Give me some meat. I need, I need, I need. But fasting is an embodied way to say, “Now, hunger, food, snacks, that juicy Jimmy John’s #13, I hear you demanding my attention. But I am choosing to attend to something even more important right now. I want to pay attention to the God who is already seeing me.”
Then the hunger becomes a prompt for prayer. As you turn your attention to God you can pray, God, I am hungry, but even more, I’m hungry for you. I need you to show up in my life. I need you to show up in my world. I need you to show up in my marriage and in my parenting. I need you to show up in my sexuality. I need you to show up in my temptations. I need you to show up in my anger and my craving to have my will be done. Fasting is a difficult but simple way to re-capture your attention and focus it on God, the God who loves you and sees you.
Here are some ways to fast this Lent. Skip a meal once or twice a week. Give up snacks for the entire season of Lent. Give up meat, sweets, carbs, or snacks. Go 24 or 48 hours with just water or juice. But it has to be something that will get your attention. Is the Lord leading you into a season of fasting this Lent?
Now let me back up to verse 5, Jesus’ second spiritual practice for getting our attention back on God—prayer. Verse 6 says, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your father who is in secret.” Let’s break that down into small chunks.
First, Jesus said “When you pray.” Again, not if, but when. Jesus assumes we will make a decision and do it. Stop saying, “Well, if I get around to it.” You see how Jesus attacks a grave problem in the spiritual life—it’s called the sin of sloth. Sloth is not laziness. It’s a lack of spiritual nerve. A lack of spiritual energy.
When I was living on Long Island, I often walked past the home of a cordial atheist professor. During one of our chats, I asked him about his garden shed. He said, “Oh, I built that with my own hands.” I said, “Wow, how did you do it?” He said, “Well, you must first decide to build a shed. That is the first and most important step.”
Only you can decide to pray. Nobody can do this for you. In his marvelous little book Prayer for Beginners, Peter Kreeft says, “The single most important piece of advice about prayer is one word: Begin!” Or begin again, I would add. Begin haltingly. Begin awkwardly. Begin stumblingly. Begin with baby steps. But as we begin this Lenten journey together, make a decision right now to begin or to begin again.
Second, Jesus says, “Go into your room.” Jesus was referring to the little storerooms in the houses of his day—a very rustic, ordinary room filled with tools, supplies, maybe some extra food items. But it was private. It was the only door that could be locked. Jesus is asking us, what is your storeroom? Do you have a storeroom? A place to be with the God who is waiting for you?
Some of you may need to find a storeroom in your heart because your day is filled with small children. I was talking to a mother of young children this week and she told me that she can’t often get to a private room. So she has to grab snatches of prayer in the midst of caring for her small children. But she told me that she’s constantly in contact with God … Lord Jesus, help me be patient. Or, Thank you for the sun streaming through the window. Or, Help me to attend to this season of my life because it will be gone so fast.
But many of us can go to an actual place. An ordinary room or a chair. Where is your place? Go to that place.
Jesus then said: “Shut the door.” Wow, is that simple, or what? Shut the door. Get alone. Now sometimes, if you’re single/celibate, for instance, you just have to find a spot without distractions and noise. But the key is this: you must block out distractions. What are the practices, habits, images, or noises that distract you from giving your attention to God? Your phone? Email? Social media? Newsfeed? Noise? Go into that storeroom and then—as much as you are able—leave those distractions behind.
True confession. I love detective TV shows. My favorite is a Scandinavian murder mystery. The writing, acting, and cinematography are amazing. But it’s dark and nihilistic. The plots are grim. The detective’s personal life is a mess. He strives for human justice, but he does not believe in God or ultimate hope. After enough 90-minute shows this view of life was starting to seep into my mind and my heart. One day I thought, do I want to immerse myself in this worldview? I had to say, no. I had to shut the door on that intriguing but dark and nihilistic show. And then I went even further—bye, bye television for Lent. Hello times of silence and solitude for prayer and good reading.
What about you? What do you need to shut out of your life, especially your prayer time? Are you binge watching TV shows that offer a worldview antithetical to your faith? Has your cell phone become an appendage on your soul? This Lent you may need to repent by making some tough decisions to shut the door on some things in your life.
The rest of verse 6 says, “pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” This is remarkable! You go into your storeroom. You shut the door. And what do you find on the other side of that door? Not just an abstract God, but your heavenly Father. He was already waiting for you.
This is what motivates us to pray. Three times in this passage Jesus says, “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” What is the reward? In this context, the reward is simply being with your heavenly Father. It involves hearing God say, “It's good to see you. I’ve been waiting for you.” It’s intimate. You know how you have some friends who you tell, “Let’s hang out together,” and they say, “Yea, let’s do that someday.” But you never get a date on the calendar. And then you have friends who say, “Yea, let’s hang out.” And then you actually get a date on the calendar. Well, God is that kind of friend. No, really, he says, “It’s already on my calendar.”
Wait, God is seeking me in all of my sin and distractedness? Yes, that’s the gospel. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:6). He loved you before you even thought of loving him. He was looking for you before you ever gazed upon him. Go to your storeroom. Shut the door. He’s waiting for you!
Now let me speak to our single/celibates for a moment. Let me talk to you as a spiritual father and as a fellow single/celibate. The world wants to define us by what we lack—you are single. You are not a couple. Sometimes your heart aches for that special person. But is that the whole story of your life? No! Honestly, we have a gift—maybe it’s a gift you don’t want, but it’s still a gift—of more freedom to serve the poor and more freedom to be with the Father who is waiting for us. To borrow an image from Henri Nouwen, this Lent may the Lord turn our deserts of loneliness into gardens of solitude.
Now back to verses 7 and 8. How does all of this practically change how we pray? Look with me at verse 7—“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Your prayers can be simple. The 16th century Christian reformer Martin Luther said that our prayer should be “brief, frequent, and intense.” I love that!
There’s a story about an old preacher who was giving a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer. Those who heard the sermon said that the old man had a hard time moving past the first two words. He kept saying, almost like a stutter, “Our Father. Our Father. Our Father.” He was so full of love and gratitude and wonder for all that Christ had done that he could not get past those first two words.
So Jesus said, “When you give to the needy … When you fast ... When you pray ….” Not if, but when. As we begin the journey of Lent, let me ask you two questions: (1) What are the devices, practices, or viewing habits that are capturing your attention and turning you into “homo distractus”? What do you need to shut out of your life? What would repentance look like in your attention habits? (2) What are the embodied practices (especially related to giving, prayer, and fasting) that you can start, restart, or deepen during this season?
Let me be honest: these embodied practices are hard. You start fasting and you get crabby. You start praying and your brain feels it’s filled with a barrel of monkeys jumping and screaming for your attention. You will feel resistance to these practices. You will probably fail at them, or at least realize that you have a long way to go. Is it worth the effort?
Remember Tim Wu’s words—“Our very lives are at stake ….” That quote stirs me. But there is a much greater power here to stir our hearts to attention today—Jesus. His call stirs us. His words in the Gospels stir us. His desire to meet with us stirs us. His holiness stirs us. His love stirs us.
I want to stir you up today. I want you to stir me up this Lent. But more than anything, may the Spirit of God stir us up for the good but arduous journey this Lent. It’s a long journey. Put effort into this journey. But also realize that you aren’t making a lonely journey. The church throughout the ages, including the saints and martyrs are with you. The suffering but faithful church around the globe is with you. But even better, your heavenly Father who sees in secret is waiting to meet and reward you.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.