By Mike Flom —
One of the things the coronavirus pandemic has done is to reveal what is important to us and where our affections truly lie. On the one hand, because of the many shutdowns, we have had various comforts, entertainments, and activities taken away from us, at least temporarily, and we have had the opportunity to assess their importance to us. For example, before the pandemic struck, I was looking forward to watching the Final Four, the Masters, and NHL hockey tournaments on television. All were cancelled or postponed. Thankfully, I did not miss them, giving me some assurance that these things were not really important to me and not idols to me. In the past, they may have been distractions to me, but not idols. Whether or not your experience with cancelled activities was similar to mine, I think we all have missed in-person church services before they resumed (for some of us). They are important to us.
On the other hand, with so many of our favorite pastimes gone and/or our jobs cut back, we have had to fill our free time with other activities. These activities, also, reveal what is truly important to us. On this count, however, I didn’t do as well. Early on in the pandemic I was engrossed, excessively so, in news coverage of it. I also found myself indulging in more screen time (internet and television) than I should have. Not that these things are bad, but I think Jesus might call them distractions. Remember the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. Mary was listening to Jesus’ teaching while Martha was “distracted with much serving” (v. 40). From what was Martha distracted? Jesus said Martha was distracted from “the one thing [that] is necessary” (v. 42): learning from Him and getting to know Him more intimately through His word.
Paul might have defined a distraction as any thought or action that leads us away from a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3, 1 Cor. 7:35). The actual distractions might include sins, false teachings, worldly things, or in the case of Martha, even good things such as serving Christ in tangible ways. As I look back in my Christian life, the things that have distracted me most from devotion to Christ have been worldly things such as politics, talk radio, TV, and sports. God has gently corrected me about some of these things.
Your list of distractions might be different than mine, but I think we all have had them at one time or another. Why are we so easily distracted in our devotion to Christ and why are we, as the hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing says, “prone to wander... and to leave the God [we] love”? It is because of our sinful nature. John Calvin said that our human hearts are “idol factories,” and so it is not a stretch to say that our personal distractions can easily become idols to us if we let them. God was so concerned about ancient Israel falling into idolatry as they entered the promised land that He banned certain distractions from them: they could not intermarry with pagan nations and they had to destroy the actual wood and metal idols of those conquered nations (Deut. 7: 1-5).
How can we guard against our particular distractions? First, because they can be very subtle, we should ask God to reveal them to us in mercy. Often, the Holy Spirit will reveal negative fruits of our distractions. For example, early in the coronavirus pandemic, after watching too much news coverage of it, I became fearful and, in general, spiritually out of kilter. Other distractions of mine in the past have led to feelings of guilt, anger, and emptiness. Such feelings are clues that we need more time with Jesus, especially in His word.
Second, we should apply the principle that the Scottish pastor Thomas Chalmers expounded: “the expulsive power of a new affection.” In other words, we need to increase our affection for Christ so that our affections for other things decrease. But this is the hard part. How can we grow in our affection for Jesus? We can follow Mary’s example in Luke 10 and listen to Jesus’ teaching. We can do that through regular Bible reading, meditation, and listening to sermons. One thing that helped me out of my spiritual doldrums during the pandemic was to study an aspect of the gospel each day. This practice, suggested by many Bible teachers, helps to focus on the glory and beauty of Christ which are so evident in the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Likewise, in one of our church’s online studies of 1 Peter, Jon and Elaine Pratt suggested that listening to Christian music, having conversation with the brethren, involving oneself with the local church, and enjoying God’s creation can also fan the flames of our love for Christ.
In these difficult times, may the Lord direct our hearts to Him (1 Chron. 29:18, 2 Thes. 3:5)!