Spiritual Attention in an Age of Distraction
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
21 May, 2016

We live in an age of distraction. Apparently, the average long-term attention span is only 5 minutes. The average short-term attention span is only 8 seconds due to the influence of social media. Constant skimming content online means that we can struggle to read books closely. Yet the most important subjects require extended attention span. With this we must disengage from distractions to give exclusive attention to something. Nothing is more significant for the good of our soul than sustained attention. Scripture emphasises this constantly.

This daily cacophany of competing messages (together with the beeps and chimes that announce them) has reshaped our thinking. Constant interruption has trained our minds to tune out the messages we receive. Sustained exposure to electronic, image-based media trains our minds to change gears constantly. Much of the content that we absorb is also trivial or at best highly simplified; this also shapes our thinking.

This growing inability to engage in deep reading of Scripture and other vital spiritual books is a serious problem. Many find that they cannot sustain the attention needed to get beyond a few pages of any book. The good news is that this can be recovered through weaning ourselves from distractions and training our minds in deeper sustained attention.

Attention is precious, we only have finite amounts to devote and we need to spend it on what is best. We need fixed, united hearts that are ready to give full attention to the voice of God (Psalm 119:10; Proverbs 2:1; Matthew 15:7-8). “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip” (Hebrews 2:1). We must “attend to know understanding” (Proverbs 4:1).

Christ commands us that if we have ears to hear, we must hear (Matthew 11:15; Revelation 2:17). This is especially repeated at the close of every letter to the Seven Churches of Asia. It is a word of divine authority from Christ but also the voice of the Spirit speaking to the Churches. James Durham draws out the meaning of this arresting phrase which he calls a “weighty admonition”.

This is Christ’s way of “commending what has been said to the consciences of the hearers; because what is said, is said by the Spirit to the Churches.  It well befits those who have ears to hear, to hear what is said by Him”.  These comments are an extract in updated language from various parts of Durham’s Commentary on the book of Revelation.


1. Spiritual Attention is Rare

All that are spiritually affected and have the sense of right hearing are exhorted to hear what God says by His Spirit to the Churches. They are to hear as if it were spoken to them in particular. This does not suppose that men naturally have such ears to hear. It implies the contrary, namely that not everyone has ears to hear but that it is rare to find someone with them. No one can hear spiritually what the Lord says to the Churches but those that have them (as Moses says in Deuteronomy 29:4).

The Lord presupposes that not everyone to whom this Word comes will have hearing ears. They will not hear this Word so as to lay weight on it and give themselves to it.

2. Spiritual Attention is Required in Every Generation

That which is spoken about these Churches applies to them as Churches and, therefore, to all Churches at all times. Both the duties required and the dangers to avoid are common to Churches at all times. It speaks to the Church in all ages to the end of the world as well as at that time. It is perpetual and binding to the Church until the end of the World, like all other directions, exhortations etc. in these epistles. Christ’s aim in sending this revelation is for the good of His servants unto the end of the world.


3. Spiritual Attention is Required of Everyone

The Lord gives this watchword and warning to all that are in Ephesus and all that would hear this epistle. They should observe what the Spirit says to them because:

  1. it concerns the whole Church not just the angel (or minister);
  2. it concerns individual believers as well as the churches – all hearers must consider it as spoken to them in particular;
  3. usually, all do not hear;
  4. yet those that have ears should hear.


4. Spiritual Attention is Required for Understanding Scripture

In Revelation 13:9-10 describes the mystery of the Antichrist. In this, the Holy Spirit lays down that common and often repeated proclamation that those who have ears to hear, must hear.  By this, in this passage, He shows that:

  1. the knowledge of this mystery concerns believers. Thus, we should not think it unworthy to take the effort to search in it.
  2. It indicates that it is impossible to take it up and understand it (except for those who have ears). Therefore it needs greater diligence in searching it.
  3. It implies deafness in many who lack ears for such truths.

This book (of Revelation) is commended in Revelation 1:3 to stir people up to make use of it. This is because He knew many would take fright at it and be ready to let it lie beside them as useless and unprofitable. But all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16). This book is not a thing only to be spoken about but not read and studied. “Blessed are they that read it” (Revelation 1:3).

It is a blessed and a good thing to read it seriously and humbly and seek to understand it. He adds “and keep those sayings that are written therein” (Revelation 1:3). This means that it is not simply reading or hearing that brings the blessing; it requires observing and making right use of it. It is a good thing to be studying the Scripture: this is a mark of the blessed man in Psalm 1. It makes the man of God wise to salvation.


5. Spiritual Attention is Required for Applying Scripture

We need conviction, awakening or life to prepare us for hearing. Those who have any of this should especially be busy in making best use of the Word they hear. “It is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given” (Matthew 13:11). It befits believers (whatever others may do) to be busy storing up promises, directions, reproofs, threatenings, etc. It is written and taught mainly for their use to make the man of God perfect (see 2 Timothy 3:17).

It implies that hearers should labour to make use of the Word spoken (no matter to whom it was first spoken) as if it were particularly and especially spoken to them. This is the excellency of the Word: it contains many conditions and suits many generations in others places as well as in Ephesus.

It is not enough to be given to reading and hearing the Word.  Neither should folk depend on this but combine practical obedience with both. “Blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it” (Luke 11:28). The blessed man is not the reader, or hearer but the doer. This is true even supposing you were able to open and unfold all the mysteries that are in this book (of Revelation).  If your practice does not conform to this book, you are only like that man spoken of in James 1:23-24 who forgets his reflection. He who is a hearer and not a doer deceives his own soul. Much hearing and reading does you good only as it is made use of in your practical obedience.



Spiritual attention is something as much required of our generation – an age of distraction – as any other. It is not just for ministers; Christ requires it from every Christian. If we are going to profit spiritually in any way, we need spiritual attention.

The Puritan minister Richard Steele (a presbyterian minister in England) wrote a book on this subject. It is called A Remedy for Wandering Thoughts in the Worship of God. Steele bases his counsel on 1 Corinthians 7:35 which speaks of attending on the Lord without distraction. He stresses the need for constant watchfulness, not just during the time of worship.

You can be safe nowhere without watchfulness, at all times, in all places, with all companies, even with no company at all, in all callings: there is a snare for the heart everywhere…Be in the fear of the Lord, involved, surrounded and swallowed up in the sense and fear of God’s glorious presence all the day long… A watchful Christian has his heart ready and on call. It is easily put into tune when it was never out of tune.

Richard Steele gave practical advice for being able to cultivate and maintain spiritual attention.  The first step is watchfulness. What is the second step? Watchfulness. The third step? Still watchfulness. We need to watch against the distractions and the habits that weaken our ability to give true deep attention to the things of God. By switching off the distractions we can control them rather than let them control us.

We may be busy with many responsibilities, but this is all the more reason to be selective with our attention and focus on priorities. We are given time enough from God to balance our priorities. Our problem is not so much with being distracted as our desire to be distracted. The more time we spend in meditating on Scripture and in prayer, the more delight we will find in these things.



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