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How to stay focused in days of distraction

The biggest impact of the coronavirus pandemic for those semi-sequestered in their homes is probably not the fear of contracting COVID-19, but the ever-present distraction of it.

Every day I wake up thinking about the affects this could have on my family and others. I check stats and national updates by the hour. Sundays I preach to a tiny camera lens to those huddled around technology devices and honor worship distancing.

These are different times and focus can easily blur amid the challenge of trying to know when this pandemic season will end and normalcy — even a new normalcy — will begin.

Interestingly, the distractions with which we struggle today are not new. In ancient times, Nehemiah addressed and resisted insurmountable distractions while seeking to fulfill the mission and plan of God.

Nehemiah — a visionary leader and man of God — left his life of service in Persia to return to his homeland and provide leadership for the rebuilding of a wall around Jerusalem, a wall destroyed more than a century earlier.      

In Nehemiah 6, we are told the wall was almost complete except for the placement of doors within the gates — nearing the finish line, but not quite there.

Nehemiah’s enemies sent an invitation — a distraction — to Nehemiah: “Come and let us meet together at the plain of Ono” (Nehemiah 6:2 ESV).

The plain of Ono, about 25 miles northwest of Jerusalem, was not a far distance, but far enough from the project for Nehemiah’s enemies to take advantage.

Nehemiah’s RSVP?  “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3 ESV).

Distraction is a Temptation

Distraction is the temptation to give the focus and energy needed for something highly important to something that is often quite insignificant.

When distractions present themselves (as they often do on a daily basis), are you tempted to respond? Nehemiah had convictional focus that refused distraction and compromise.

What are some of the common voices of distraction we hear and face today? Here are few suggestions:

• Curiosity

Curiosity can be fun. It can prompt us to think, explore and investigate, but it can also open doors to vulnerability and evil fantasy.   

We’ve all heard the adage, “Curiosity killed the cat.”

Would Nehemiah’s invitation to meet lead to the establishment of a peace accord?... Open a door for new opportunity?… Allow Him to satisfy the concerns of his enemies? Not likely. Nehemiah knew “they intended to do me harm” (Nehemiah 6:2b ESV). He knew the outcome of chasing the distraction because he knew the character of the invitation and those behind it.

Not all distractions are bad in and of themselves, but they can lead to places and patterns of life we never planned or intended.

Who or what is providing a distraction for you? Do you know the character of it? Will it compromise your convictions… purity… fidelity… commitments?

Guard against allowing curiosity and the time-consuming distractions it can provide overtake you.

• Criticism

Is criticism stealing your focus and providing distraction?

After receiving Nehemiah’s first refusal, his enemies sent four more invitations and the last was an open letter given to Nehemiah from the hand of a servant. The letter included false reports and rumors against Nehemiah and his workers. (Nehemiah 6:5-7) The open letter afforded everyone opportunity to read the accusations directed at Nehemiah and to spread them, but Nehemiah would not be distracted by criticism.

Criticism is a constant irritant — like a rock in your shoe — that can cause you to get sidelined in life and work. The world is full of “trolls” who circulate criticism and can create turmoil in your heart. 

Nehemiah dismissed his critics. “No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind.” Then He gave it to God. “But now, O God, strengthen my hands” (Nehemiah 6:9-8).

People with wrong motives often question the motives of others. Nehemiah chose focus over fighting. This is especially wise in a world where social media creates drain and distraction for us all.  

• Care

The cares of life can easily overwhelm us. Jesus spoke of all the “things” that prompt anxiety and worry in Matthew 6. Nehemiah could have easily diverted all of his energies to self-care and preservation, but he refused. He feared and trusted God rather than men. 

Nehemiah was challenged to go to the temple and seek refuge, but entering the temple was a violation of the law and would undermine Nehemiah’s character and moral authority as a leader. He refused to let fear rule his life.

We cannot live as if we do not care, but we must in all things “...casting all your care on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7 ESV)

Focus is a Decision

The danger of distraction is captured in these words: “A gladiator’s first distraction is his last.” —Oenomaus

The solution, the action that changes everything in life is focus. Focus is the key to living well and finishing well. Want to examine and evaluate your life focus? 

• Consider Your Convictions

What matters to you? Convictions drive actions. Whether it’s the purity of an elderly husband’s love articulated on a sign outside his wife’s convalescent center during days of quarantine or the pursuit of some cheap pleasure at the risk of destroying your family, what you believe — the convictions you hold — will determine your life direction.

What’s driving you? Nehemiah was driven by zeal for God’s plan and God’s glory. “This is a great work — it matters!” (Nehemiah 6:3, paraphrase)   

• Concentrate on Your Character

“What will your life have been, in the end, but the sum total of everything you spent it focusing on?” —Oliver Burkeman

Character is the sum total of values, choices, and actions. What you think about, focus on, shapes your character. God cares about character. It’s His focus for us.  Romans 8:28-29 affirms God’s use of all facets of a believer’s life in a way that ultimate produces the character of Christ in us. Chuck Swindoll once wrote, “Throughout our days — year after year — the lifelong quest for character development goes on. While we wait, God works. So let’s not grow weary. The more He hammers and files, shapes and chisels, the more we are being conformed in the image of His Son.” 

We do not get to choose the circumstances of our lives or leadership, but we can focus on our character in life and leadership.

• Confess your Confidence

Daily reading of the Psalms fills us with confident confessions of who God is and what He can do. Nehemiah knew this project, and its swift progression was not the result of his resolve or simply their effort. But God allowed and provided for such a work. Nehemiah wasn’t alone in this. “For they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (Nehemiah 6:16 ESV).

God’s confidence must overrule both insecurity and self-confidence in us. So many are distracted because of blurred focus that magnifies all the matters of life on this planet and minimizes the Creator and His control. Is Your God too small?

Hence, the decision to focus. And no greater instruction or action can be offered than this: “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1-3 ESV).

David H. McKinley is pastor-teacher of Warren Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia.  

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