A couple weeks ago, I commented on how important it is for Christians in an age of Internet and media distractions to learn to wean ourselves off the habits of a short-attention span culture and cultivate the practice of attention to and appreciation of sustained discourses in texts and sermons. And this holds true, not only for sermons and texts, but for all of public and private worship: Scripture readings, prayer, and even our attention to hymns. Our minds often roam without restraint, bouncing and bobbing without direction.
I affirm everything I said there, but I also think a “long view” is important for us. The short attention of spans of men, especially in attending to public worship, is not a new problem. Christian ministers have been admonishing men and women to attend to the Word for a long time. For instance, consider the admonishment of Thomas Boston concerning the inattentiveness of carnal minds in his Human Nature in Its Four-Fold State:
What a difficult task is it to detain the carnal mind before the Lord! How averse is it to the entertaining of good thoughts, and dwelling in the meditation of spiritual things! If one be driven, at any time, to think of the great concerns of his soul, it is no harder work to hold in an unruly hungry beast, than to hedge in the carnal mind, that it get not away to the vanities of the world again. When God is speaking to men by his word, or they are speaking to him in prayer, doth not the mind often leave them before the Lord, like so many “idols that have eyes, but see not, and ears, but hear not?” The carcase is laid down before God, but the world gets away the heart; though the eyes be closed, the man sees a thousand vanities. The mind, in the mean time, is like a bird got loose out of the cage, skipping from bush to bush; so that, in effect, the man never comes to himself, till he be “gone from the presence of the Lord.”
Say not, it is impossible to get the mind fixed. It is hard, indeed, but not impossible. Grace from the Lord can do it; agreeable objects will do it. A pleasant speculation will arrest the minds of the inquisitive. The worldly man’s mind is in little hazard of wandering, when he is contriving of business, casting up his accounts, or telling his money: if he answer you not at first, he tells you he did not hear you, he was busy, his mind was fixed. Were we admitted into the presence of a king to petition for our lives, we would be in no hazard of gazing through the chamber of presence: but here lies the case–the carnal mind, employed about any spiritual good, is out of its element, and therefore cannot fix. (Human Nature in Its Four-Fold State, 109-10)