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Training Ourselves to Pay Attention

By Gail Johnsen

Gail is an ordained Assemblies of God minister, mother of four, author, mentor, life coach, and speaker. Holding a master's degree in spiritual formation and leadership from Spring Arbor University, she currently serves as the pastor of spiritual formation and women at Faith Assembly in Pasco, Washington.

"Spiritual growth requires discernment. We must learn to respond to the fresh wind of the Spirit. Moses didn't ask or arrange for the burning bush. But once it was there, he had to make a choice: whether to turn aside and pay attention to the work of God." - John Ortberg [1]

Have you ever wondered how someone can be a Christian, read the Bible, and go to church for 40 years, and never really change, never really be transformed? How can someone do all these "good" things, yet struggle with the same problems, harbor the same doubts, and indulge in the same vices as unchurched people do? Why do many of us, if we are honest, experience something more like the "hollow life" than the abundant life?

God is always at work in our lives, calling us, challenging us, convicting us, and teaching us. But if we're not careful, it is easy to "go through the motions" of Christian living. When we do, we miss what God is up to. This lack of focus shows itself over time, and we find ourselves asking, "So, does God's presence in me really make a difference?" Often, it does not feel like God is up to anything at all.

I work out at a gym, and often during my weight-training class, the instructor reminds us to isolate or focus on the specific muscle group we are working on. Whether it is a bicep to hamstring, the idea is to concentrate on the specific muscles, thereby making the workout more effective. It is all too common for a person to mindlessly lift weights without thinking about the movement he or she is executing, and miss out on the benefits. One of my fitness instructors puts it this way: "Absolute concentration is necessary to make desired gains." It's easy to "go through the motions" of strength training and not achieve optimum benefits because we failed to "be all there."

Jesus' Invitation for Transformation

Look at Matthew 11:28-30: "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly" (The Message).

"Tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion?" Whoa! Now we're talking my language! "Recover" my life? "Learn to live freely and lightly?" Is that really possible? This isn't a cruel joke, is it? It just sounds too good to be true.

I love Jesus' invitation for transformation. "Come to me," Jesus says. "Get away with me. Walk with me. Work with me. Keep company with me." It has little to do with trying harder. Striving and pushing alone cannot fix our souls. Recovery of our soul is possible, and it has a lot to do with paying attention.

Romans 12:2 says, "Fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out" (The Message).
Spiritual transformation begins by paying attention to and embracing what God is up to the in the dailyness of our lives.

Author John Eldridge writes, "True holiness comes, not out of doing, but out of staying at home (abiding) …. Recognizing and responding to His presence in us. Out of this abiding, Jesus transforms us. Our identity begins to coalesce, not out of doing, but out of living with a good friend for a number of years and simply finding we have become more like him." [2]

Now making our home in God is not automatic. In reality, it is easy to find other homes — other places that are temporarily more comfortable. Unfortunately, like our false works, they don't last and they can't satisfy. So to settle into our new home will take some intentionally. And time. And focus.

Half the Battle is Just Showing Up

I love the joke, "I joined one of those health clubs. I haven't lost a pound. Apparently, you have to show up." Not only do you have to show up, you have to be "all there." Often in the gym, I get distracted by those working out around me, or others standing around watching, or because I'm tired or injured, I don't get all out of the workout that I should. I show up, but nothing has changed. I leave the same as I came.

Progress of our soul will only take place when we are intentional. We do have responsibility for our spiritual health. We need to cooperate with what He's up to in our lives. Sometimes we miss God's presence because we get distracted with a challenge that has scared us, or a success that has captivated us, or a pain that has disabled us. So much of spiritual transformation has to do with showing up all the way with God. It is no wonder we feel disconnected from God when we rarely give Him our full attention.

Spiritual transformation, "recovering your life," is a partnership with God. God initiates the process. Our responsibility is to cooperate with the work He wants to do in our lives by listening and responding to Him. How do we do that? Jesus tells us — by walking with Him, working with Him, and by watching what He does. All these require we pay attention. Isolate. It's in the context of the spiritual disciplines that this takes place.

Training Ourselves to Pay Attention

Now, please understand that by spiritual disciplines I'm not referring to a list of things you must do to earn God's favor, and if you don't do them, you'll feel guilty. The spiritual disciplines are necessary and of great value. They are indispensible to a life of faith, but only to the degree that they allow us to "keep company" with God. Often, it is through a spiritual discipline that we make space for Him to work in our lives when we open ourselves (focus, isolate) to Him. Unless we learn to do this, we will miss His voice altogether.

Typically, we view the spiritual disciplines like just another thing to check off our "If you were really a good Christian" checklist. Most often, they were associated with guilt because so many of us are so bad at doing them. Just the mention of the word discipline sends chills down some of our spines. It has so often been associated with doing something you don't want to do — like save money or exercise — even when it leads to a desired outcome like a nest egg or weight loss. I like to refer to them as spiritual "practices." They are the ways God invites us to work and walk with Him. They are practices that can transform us.

Richard Foster wrote, "To stand before the Holy One of eternity is to change." [3] But if we don't isolate, if we don't focus or show up "all the way," we will miss those divine encounters of grace — those moments God speaks to our hearts and we're never the same. For example, there are worship songs we sing at church that nearly stop me dead in my tracks every time I sing them. One of them says, "You're all I want; You're all I've ever needed." Every time I sing that chorus, if I allow those words to sink in instead of half-mindedly mouthing them, the Holy Spirit reminds me that in all my running to others things to bring me life, Jesus has been, all along, what I have truly needed. This happens repeatedly as I come to worship in song. Words like, "This song within me Lord, will bless your holy name," reminds me there is a song within me — one I have long forgotten exists. More than a feel-good experience, worship becomes an opportunity for a life-changing encounter with Christ.

The same is true of our personal devotion time in God's Word. Now I know that a "personal devotion time" can sometimes feel more like "doing time." There is so much guilt associated with it. The spiritual discipline of studying God's Word is essential, but how often have we been determined to just get it done that we have missed God's presence? For many years, I followed a printed Bible-reading schedule that often covered the entire Bible in a year. This kind of generic format was helpful, but often I felt guilt-ridden if I missed a day. I had to make up the days missed before I could catch up to the current day's reading. The motivation simply became staying on track. In my efforts, I missed the opportunity to listen, to linger on what God wanted to say to my heart. Those "unforced rhythms of grace" which Jesus offered instead became anxious moments of frustration. I like it when Matthew 11:30 says, "I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you." "Ill-fitting" is a good description of a discipline that is not connected with what God is doing in your life. This could explain why so many people can read God's Word and remain relatively unchanged by it. It has been reduced to something that is studied, memorized, and debated, but not personally digested.

Now, while I am listening to a Sunday morning sermon or reading the Bible during the week, I jot down a verse or a thought that comes to me. (This is my indication that the Holy Spirit wants to speak to me.) This could mean spending hours or days reflecting on the implication to my life. Sometimes, my time is spent meditating on a verse I have known for years and now has come back to me. I'm learning to allow the Holy Spirit to direct His Word in my life, giving time and room for it to saturate my heart.

My prayers have changed in the same way. Instead of designating Monday to pray for missionaries, Tuesdays to pray for our nation and leaders (another formula to follow), I am learning to listen more. My expectations for resolution (God, please fix, heal, provide….) have been replaced with whispered prayers for God's presence to be recognized in each situation and person's heart. Perhaps our real task in prayer is to attune ourselves to the conversation already going on deep in our hearts. Perhaps prayer is less about what we say and more about what we hear. It's not about trying to get God's attention, but about training ourselves to pay attention to Him.

Has God placed an ache in your heart (an invitation to walk and work with Him) — to make sense of things once again, and to make room to hear thoughts that come from Him. Through the spiritual practice of silence and solitude, you can open your heart to all these and more. Whether it's a structured weekend get-away or a stolen moment when the kids are asleep, our souls can't live without it. It's where we keep company with Jesus and we have an opportunity to be "all there." And you will once again recover your life.

Take heart! Recovery is possible! As we pay attention to and embrace what He is up to in our lives, we can say with the Psalmist, "But I'm in the very presence of God — Oh, how refreshing it is! I've made the Lord God my home" (Psalm 73:28, The Message).


[1] John Ortberg, The Life You've Always Wanted (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1997), p. 56.
[2] Brent Curtis and John Eldridge, The Sacred Romance (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, TN, 1997)
[3] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (New Your: HarperCollins, 1998) p. 77