The Danger of Distracting Ourselves

As we come to the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010 we will begin to see the greatest episodes of self-deception given at any time in a given year. More individuals lie to themselves from the end of December to the start of January than any other week. Promises about exercise, diet, moral change, renewed devotion, and the like fill our minds. For most, however, by the time mid-January arrives we find ourselves to be remarkably adept at convincing ourselves of the foolishness of the earlier commitments we so jealously championed only days before.

Such a practice simply cannot be helpful to our spiritual growth. God is more interested in our consistency than He is in our dramatic plans. He would rather see us keep our word than preach to thousands, and seek wisdom more than displaying our passion, even our passion for Him.

Why do we do this? Are we so obsessed with the approval of people that we value the recognizable more than the real? In most cases I think our motives are more pure than our actions are wise.

What if instead of making the popular, common commitments everyone tends to make and then break, we focused on one or two areas in our lives where we truly needed to make a change? After all, we are all in a process of becoming more like Christ if we claim to follow Him, so we all are a piece of work in need of change.

Sometimes I fear in my life and in the lives of so many I see, especially among younger adults, the focus is totally misplaced. Rather than asking God to show us what truly must be changed—the rock upon which we continually stumble, the question we never want to face, the one habit we know we SHOULD change—we choose another area on which to focus. Problem: even if we make a valiant commitment to change in another area, we may succeed in that commitment and yet fail at discipleship.

Allow me to introduce you to the ideas of a couple of men who were believers and mathematicians. These men understood both how to analyze a problem and how to deal with it. The first is Blaise Pascal, famous for his analogy that in every man there is a “God-shaped vacuum” that only Christ can fill, and for his wager.

Pascal makes the point I am trying to give here:
“Seeking happiness by distracting ourselves from thinking about our problems is a temporary ‘concealment’ not a real ‘cure’.”

It is much easier to distract ourselves from an area we really need to change simply by focusing on something else that may in fact be spiritual and thus commendable. But in so doing we may miss a great opportunity for real growth.

So, that young person who is overly in need of a relationship with the opposite sex for personal happiness (or so he or she thinks) may be distracted from dealing with this area of idolatry by speaking much of his or her love for Jesus. “I Love Jesus” you may say until blue in the face, but if you are constantly fueling your own happiness with another person, you are in fact an idolater. As a pastor friend noted: if you are single, until Jesus is enough you do not need to be in a relationship.

Another: the young man called to preach may need to deal with his own personal pride. But instead of confronting that issue which could shipwreck his entire ministry, he focuses more on “learning” from wiser, older men of God. This of course is wise to do. But if you do not, with their help or not, confront your pride, you will only add to your problem by the names you can drop by virtue of the relationship you have gained from those more experienced.

Maybe at this point I have only added to your despair. “How on earth can I learn what are the most pressing issues in my life and focus on them rather than distracting myself from them by substituting something else in their place?”

It is precisely at this point that another Christian and mathematician can help us. Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) was a leader in the Free Church of Scotland. He preached a famous message (I encourage you to google it and read all 7000 words) entitled “THE EXPULSIVE POWER OF A NEW AFFECTION.” It is based on the Scripture ”Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” 1 John 2:15. Chalmers argued the best way to deal with the evils that plague us is to replace our affections for them with a greater affection for God.

In his own words (yes, the English is a bit dated):
“By setting forth another object, even God, as more worthy of its attachment, … the heart shall be prevailed upon not to resign an old affection, which shall have nothing to succeed it, but to exchange an old affection for a new one.”

If you truly want to grow in 2010, forget the silly resolutions. Set aside time with God. Honestly look at your life. By the way, keeping a journal and reviewing it at year’s end will tell you surprising (and sometimes depressing) things about yourself. Seek the wisdom of others who know and love you and will tell you the truth. Caution: you may have to this point not allowed anyone such freedom, so perhaps that is the one thing you should do in the coming year!

Some questions to help:
What is the ONE thing that keeps you from surrendering totally to Jesus?
What is the recurring issue that constantly frustrates you? Is it

-relational? Do you seek the approval of others more than God? Do you fear people more than God? Do you find yourself constantly pursuing relationships that either dishonor God or simply distract you from Him? If a young person with godly parents, do you truly seek to listen to the advice of your parents, even when they tell you what you do not want to hear? Regardless of whether your parents are believers, do you honor them appropriately?

-emotional? Do you constantly struggle with: depression, insecurity, anger?

-spiritual? Do you truly love Jesus more today than ever (I do not mean emotionally, but as Jesus said, “if you love Me you will keep My commandments,” so do you love Him by obeying Him)? How is your devotion to the Scriptures? Your witness? Prayer?

Okay, maybe this is information overload. I did say to seek out ONE area. After all, the greatest distance is not one to a billion, it is zero to one. Do ONE thing that will fundamentally attack an area you know needs to change.

Chalmers argued that “Misplaced Affections Need to be Replaced by the Far Greater Power of the Affection of the Gospel.” Let me make a suggestion that may help you move beyond becoming frozen in self-reflection. This coming year, determine to learn what it means to live a gospel-centered life, a life where every decision you make-relationally, emotionally, spiritually, economically, etc—is made based on how you can better understand the gospel and make it known to others as a result of that decision.

In other words, find an area where you need to change, and in that specific area, place the gospel fully in the center of your vision. If pride, then focus on the fall and your own sinfulness, and learn to treasure the wonder that Christ would redeem a wretch like you. If too dependent on others for your esteem, glory instead in the reality that in the cross, as Christ died for sin, you too by His power can die to such insecurities, and revel in the fact that He has given you, yes even you, a mission.

Think of one area you need to change to help you become more like Christ. Begin to focus on the gospel and seek to find how the gospel is greater than that issue. If you learn this, you will discover a secret to overcoming so much junk that seems attractive, but can become quite ugly when we see how it can keep us from Christ.

I could not put it better than Chalmers:
“The best way to disengage an impure desire is to engage a pure one; the best way to expel the love of what is evil is to embrace the love of what is good instead. To be specific, we must replace the object of our sinful affection with an infinitely more worthy one – God himself. In this way we do not move from a full heart into a vacuum. Instead we move from a full heart to a heart bursting with fullness. And the expulsive power of our new affection weakens and even destroys the power of sin in our hearts.”

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