SESSION 4: THE DANGER OF DISTRACTION
Matthew 14:22-33; John 15:1-11
Below is the Individual Study Guide for Session 3 of Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus, a new 8-session video series and digital curriculum resource from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Learn more at http://www.cbf.net/eyesofjesus.
By Paul Baxley, CBF Executive Coordinator
In our last session, we noticed the real power of seeing Jesus. Seeing Jesus is about more than superficial perception. It is a transforming observation in that the more we focus on Jesus, the more he grows in us and defines the way we see, think, feel and act. Carefully considering that truth allows us to begin to imagine the remarkable life that is possible for us and for our congregations if we “fix our eyes on Jesus” (to quote the preacher to the Hebrews).
But what happens when we are distracted? This is a powerful and pertinent question, that brings us back to our foundational text in Matthew 14:22-33. As long as Peter is focused on Jesus, he is able to walk on the water toward Jesus. He is able to share Jesus’ life, ministry and mission. But his focus does not hold. There are damaging winds and powerful waves and, when Peter begins to pay attention to them, he slips and falls into the watery chaos. So, we begin to see the danger of being distracted. When Peter no longer sees Jesus, he is consumed by the chaos and dominated by the distractions.
In John 15, Jesus explains the danger of distraction differently. There, he teaches his disciples that whoever abides in him is able to bear much fruit. In those farewell discourses found in John 14-16, we find that those who abide in Jesus, who remain in Christ, who focus their attention on him, can do anything. But, then there is the opposite truth: “Apart from me,” Jesus says, “you can do nothing.” Those who do not abide in Jesus have no capacity to participate in his life or share his mission. Like a tree that bears no fruit, they can only be gathered up and burned. “Abide in me” is the phrase Jesus uses to describe a life focused on him. Apart from that focus, there is danger.
In these days, we need to pay attention to Jesus’ teachings regarding the danger of distraction. If really seeing Jesus opens transformative possibilities for our life and faith, being distracted and unable to see is just as damaging at the other extreme. Like Peter who was surrounded by the wind and the waves, Christians and congregations today are surrounded by forces seeking to distract and undo us. We should begin to ask ourselves: What are some of those distractions in our world? What are the forces that could keep us from really seeing Jesus?
Even as we allow that question to sit in our hearts and minds, we need to remember that this danger of distraction is illustrated not just by Peter’s experience walking on the water. It is also affirmed by Hebrews, where the preacher calls us to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely” in order that we might run with perseverance the race set before us. What there described as “weight and sin” are distractions that hinder our faithfulness.
And, we read in Colossians 2, that Paul several times appeals to the Early Church not to fall prey to what he describes as “elemental spirits of the universe,” but instead to live their lives in Christ, rooted and built up in him. To read Colossians 2 more carefully is to recognize that Paul groups a wide range of forces, pressures and philosophies within this category of elemental spirits. His teaching in the epistle is the same as the lesson we receive watching Peter on the water. He is a vivid example of the power of elemental spirits, of wind and water, to distract us from Christ and disconnect us from his saving, transforming power.
So, what are the elemental spirits of the universe that are at work today? What are the forces that distract us? That keep us from really seeing Jesus and keeping our eyes fixed on him? What are the winds that blow around us and the waves that rise in our lives? How do these forces work in our personal faith and in the lives of our congregations? I want to suggest several of which I am increasingly aware and invite you to reflect on what you see.
First, I notice an increasingly rapid pace of life that blows with power in our lives. Throughout my adulthood, I’ve noticed the pace of life becoming more intense. Many of us work more hours and try to attend to more responsibilities with every succeeding decade. In my years as a minister in congregational settings, I observed that we were encouraging our volunteers to take more and more responsibility in more and more areas of church life. In congregational life, it is much easier to add a new ministry than it is to eliminate one that was once necessary but may be so no longer.
At the same time, I watched children and youth being encouraged to do more and more different things in the hopes not only of having a well-balanced life, but also a really appealing application when it came time to go to college. In the coronavirus pandemic, as many people experienced even further blurring of the lines between home, work and family life, the pace intensified. As we have to do more and more and try to do more and more, our capacity is stretched to the limits and it is difficult to do anything well.
Also, the ongoing changes in economic life mean that more and more people are working multiple jobs in order to provide for their families. The rapid pace of our lives gives us less space to ask big questions, prioritize, or pay sustained attention to anything and in the midst of all of that, it is hard to pay attention to Jesus or even make space for the habits and practices that cultivate attention toward him.
Not only are we experiencing an increasingly rapid pace in life. we are also challenged by constant access to “information” and “connection.” The dawn of 24-hour cable news nearly a half century ago followed by the advent of the internet several decades ago and the rapid proliferation of social media mean that most of us are always connected to media. Increasingly, our society is segmented around sources of news and information.
Social media sites direct us to postings and places that conform to our already established positions. Children gain access to the powerful and problematic world of social media at younger and younger ages, almost certainly before there is sufficient emotional or mental maturity to navigate its complexities alongside seizing its opportunities. More and more, text messages and emails are used for communication that previously would have taken place by phone or even in person.
Undeniably, there are wonderful opportunities and transformative innovations bound up in this increasingly connected world. But there are also incredible dangers. In recent years, we’ve seen these means of constant connection and information used to divide people and to reinforce prejudice. Beyond all that, these devices are more and more the focus of our attention, so much so that if you are in a restaurant or any other public place, you are very likely going to see more people looking down at a device than up at the world around them. While those devices can include apps that help us see Jesus, they also contain tremendous power for distraction and division. I’m confident that if Paul were writing to the Colossians today, he’d describe much of this culture of connection as an elemental spirit of the universe.
It is not just the rapid changes in our larger culture that have the power to distract us. Sometimes the way we think about faith can also be a distraction from how Christ is really seeking to work in our lives and our congregations. For example, the notion that faith is one part of a balanced life is an incredible distraction right now. In their work on the current religious faith of American Christians over the last several decades, sociologists like Christian Smith and theologians like Kenda Creasy Dean have described the dominant faith in our culture as “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which essentially believes that God’s greatest desire for us is that we be happy, and that faith is an important part of our lives that gives us a certain set of moral values.
But this kind of faith is shallow and empty compared to the discipleship to which Jesus calls us. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels not only has the power to feed the multitudes and walk on water, he also has the power to invite us into that work with him, as Peter begins to learn. Jesus’ desire is not just that we be happy or attain a basic moral code. He isn’t even interested in being one allegiance among many in our lives. Our primal profession of faith is not that Jesus is among multiple authorities in our lives, but rather that “Jesus is Lord.” To believe that Christ is but one part of a balanced, happy life, or that Christ exists to give us a basic set of values is to be dangerously distracted from what Christ is really about in the world and what Christ is calling us to do.
Furthermore, sometimes this dominant understanding of faith leads to the development of the assumption that faith is a private matter without public consequence, that the substance of our faith is our personal beliefs and our internal spirituality. While personal spiritual practices are essential for maintaining a focus on Jesus, these interior elements of Christian faith are not the sum of Christian faith. Jesus calls us to join him visibly in the world, to be salt and light, to be a visible community, to engage the great challenges of our time. To limit faith only to private matters is another way of thinking about faith that can become an elemental spirit of the universe that distracts us from really following Jesus.
No discussion of adverse winds and distracting waves in our culture can be complete without naming the terrible brokenness in American public spaces. Over the last half-century, political processes have become more and more partisan and more and more divisive. Blended with the abuses of social media, the partisan divide is incredibly destructive at almost every level and intensely distracting Constant messages invite us to define our lives based upon allegiance to political personalities and agendas.
The tone of public discourse turns us against one another and causes us to demonize anyone who thinks differently. Not only is our politics characterized by demonization and destruction, it is also increasingly incapable of accomplishing objectives that serve the common good. All around us is evidence of deep social problems, persistent injustices and urgent needs. But the political system is increasingly incapable of dealing with these challenges.
From the perspective of faith, the greatest danger associated with our increasingly partisan environment is the co-opting of faith by political forces for political purposes. This danger is reinforced when Christians, particularly Christian leaders, allow themselves to be used by political leaders or to believe that political power is the ultimate power in the world, when all around us the truth is that politics is accomplishing less and less.
For more and more people, a primary identity is now found in a politician or a political party. That is not a new challenge. In the time of Jesus, the Roman Emperor wanted to be worshiped as a god and Christians were persecuted in many places if they refused to declare that their primary allegiance was the empire.
The danger of excessive political tribalism was especially demonstrated by the genocide in Rwanda. In his book, Mirror to the Church, the African theologian Emmanuel Katongole offers a theological assessment of how the most evangelized nation in Africa in the 1990s came to experience a horrific slaughter as tribes turned against one another, so that Christians who worshiped together one Sunday were slaying one another within days. His grim assessment: “The blood of tribalism ran deeper than the waters of baptism.”
As Christians and congregations, our identity is to be found in Jesus Christ and him alone. All other allegiances are to be far diminished in comparison to him, and understood in light of our commitments to him. We are to live as people who see Jesus more and more deeply so that we come to see more and more as he does. In this world, there are so many elemental spirits at work, so many adverse winds blowing that, like Peter, we are often challenged to stay focused on Jesus long enough to really live in his power.
The danger of distraction, particularly now, is intensely real. How do we keep our eyes on Jesus? We will turn next to that question.
Questions for Reflection
By Harrison Litzell
- Are there forces in your life deliberately distracting you from Jesus? What are they?
- Read Colossians 2. What stands out to you? What questions arise for you? How can you pursue those questions further this week?
- Reflecting on the past three years, what has been the pace of your life? Who or what drives that pace? Is the current pace of your life helpful or harmful to you?
- Do you have the resources necessary to disrupt the distracting forces in your life? If your pace is harmful, do you have the resources necessary to correct it? If not, what needs to change for you?
Invitation to Prayer
Life is busy and can quickly fill with activities. Even a calendar full of good things is still a full calendar and that can be draining. This week, we invite you into silence. Sit in a quiet place and sit in stillness. If you are accustomed to this practice, follow your typical patterns. If you are unaccustomed to silence, set a timer for a short space as a reasonable goal (one or two minutes). Focus on your breath and allow thoughts to pass through your mind without grabbing hold of them. Slow your pace and sit in silence.
Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus is a new resource from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that calls us back to the central focus of our Christian faith—the Risen and Living Jesus!
Access this free 8-session video series and digital curriculum resource at https://www.cbf.net/eyesofjesus