How to deal with distractions

When you pray or have devotions or listen to a sermon, do you get distracted? Do thoughts come into your mind that carry you away from concentrating on God? See what John Kleinig says, by way of Hermann Sasse (the great conservative Lutheran theologian who opposed the Nazis and the Nazified church in Germany). From that book I have been pushing Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today:

“Distraction upset me so much that I eventually gained enough courage to seek help form one of my teachers, Dr. Hermann Sasse. He listened attentively and patiently, as I explained some length how the devil always seemed to distract me at inappropriate times. When I had finished, he stopped, turned to face me, and said, ‘Who says that it is the devil? Perhaps it is the Holy Spirit.’ With that he went on his way, leaving me shocked by what he had said.”

“That bit of advice has proved to be the best spiritual counsel I have ever received. It make such good sense theologically. When else could we expect to receive the guidance of the Holy Spirit than when we are engaged in listening to His Word or in praying are inspired by His Word? Since then, I have learned to regard distractions that I experience in public worship and in my devotions as the summons of the Holy Spirit, who uses these distractions to connect my life with God’s Word and to apply God’s Word to my life. Whenever I remember, I note the distractions that interrupt my worship and devotions and take each of them, if possible, as an instruction from the Holy Spirit—an instruction about something that I need to repent of or to pray for; an instruction about who to pray for and how; an instruction about what to enjoy as a good gift from God or to receive with thanksgiving…” (pp. 84- 85)

Thus, the very distractions are co-opted and turn the attention back to God as occasions for prayer. Not only that, it actually causes us to pray about what is really on our minds. This is brilliant advice, as I can testify from personal experience. Try it.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://uest fws

    this is truly otherworldly born from above advice.

    we all try to be spiritual by rising above the distractions of the world or turning our focus away from the world.

    the holy spirit drives us to seek our spirituality by humbling our egos and becoming mundane and profane by following our vocations and giving attention to things outside of us. “interruptions”.

  • http://uest fws

    this is truly otherworldly born from above advice.

    we all try to be spiritual by rising above the distractions of the world or turning our focus away from the world.

    the holy spirit drives us to seek our spirituality by humbling our egos and becoming mundane and profane by following our vocations and giving attention to things outside of us. “interruptions”.

  • http://uest fws

    if this is not “mortification of the flesh” I dont know what is!

  • http://uest fws

    if this is not “mortification of the flesh” I dont know what is!

  • http://uest fws

    dr veith, without meaning to, you, in the larger sense are really talking about vocation are you not? where a mother is “distracted ” by the needs of her children? where christians are “distracted” from being “spiritual” by the claim made upon us by seeing the needs of others by seeing the results of sin in the lives of others?

  • http://uest fws

    dr veith, without meaning to, you, in the larger sense are really talking about vocation are you not? where a mother is “distracted ” by the needs of her children? where christians are “distracted” from being “spiritual” by the claim made upon us by seeing the needs of others by seeing the results of sin in the lives of others?

  • http://www.ifyoucouldreadmymind.wordpress.com Lisa R.

    These were encouraging words. I can’t number the times I’ve been listening to a sermon or a lesson, or in other situations where I was supposed to be “concentrating” on someone’s words only to be distracted by other thoughts. It never occurred to me that it might be the prompting of the Holy Spirit, even when the distraction was a burden to pray for someone on my heart! I just figured I was a tad ADD!

    It occurs to me that, even (especially?) if the distraction is seemingly unrelated and even frivolous, it’s an opportunity at that point to recognize the need to submit everything, including my thought life, to Christ. Somehow, I think that making that connection with God at that very moment may be more pleasing to Him than being a good listener!

  • http://www.ifyoucouldreadmymind.wordpress.com Lisa R.

    These were encouraging words. I can’t number the times I’ve been listening to a sermon or a lesson, or in other situations where I was supposed to be “concentrating” on someone’s words only to be distracted by other thoughts. It never occurred to me that it might be the prompting of the Holy Spirit, even when the distraction was a burden to pray for someone on my heart! I just figured I was a tad ADD!

    It occurs to me that, even (especially?) if the distraction is seemingly unrelated and even frivolous, it’s an opportunity at that point to recognize the need to submit everything, including my thought life, to Christ. Somehow, I think that making that connection with God at that very moment may be more pleasing to Him than being a good listener!

  • Jonathan

    Can the same be said when the distraction comes in the form of five- and seven year old brothers tusseling with eachother over their crayons in the pew during the sermon? Hard to believe that could be a distraction of the HS.

  • Jonathan

    Can the same be said when the distraction comes in the form of five- and seven year old brothers tusseling with eachother over their crayons in the pew during the sermon? Hard to believe that could be a distraction of the HS.

  • Dan Kempin

    Perhaps this draws us closer to the old concept of a contemplative life. Life itself is a devotion and a prayer. The things that frazzle and frustrate can be (are) in themselves an occasion to raise our eyes to heaven and ask the Father what he is teaching.

    It may be that the most effective witness in this culture is a more monastic lifestyle–monastic not in the sense of withdrawn from, but rather distinct from the world and the culture. A pious and contemplative lifestyle, which assumes humility, is bound to make an impression in this culture.

    Lord, open our eyes to see your hand at work in all things.

  • Dan Kempin

    Perhaps this draws us closer to the old concept of a contemplative life. Life itself is a devotion and a prayer. The things that frazzle and frustrate can be (are) in themselves an occasion to raise our eyes to heaven and ask the Father what he is teaching.

    It may be that the most effective witness in this culture is a more monastic lifestyle–monastic not in the sense of withdrawn from, but rather distinct from the world and the culture. A pious and contemplative lifestyle, which assumes humility, is bound to make an impression in this culture.

    Lord, open our eyes to see your hand at work in all things.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Jonathan, I remember getting P.edO. at my own little brothers during the Divine Service, though my parents did their best to keep us focused. Now it seems to me that all along the Spirit may have been beckoning me to regard them in a different way that I remember my parents also trying to reinforce, but which I have only learned to appreciate fully much later. Worship is communal after all. And so it is not a time to ignore brothers and sisters but to regard and appreciate each one in the light of Christ and His Word.

    Now I know (and struggle to appreciate it myself all the time as a father of 5, but) noisy children in the pews are wonderful!

    In fact, the funny little distractions, that happen in Worship at times, – what wonderful humor and life our Lord interjects!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Jonathan, I remember getting P.edO. at my own little brothers during the Divine Service, though my parents did their best to keep us focused. Now it seems to me that all along the Spirit may have been beckoning me to regard them in a different way that I remember my parents also trying to reinforce, but which I have only learned to appreciate fully much later. Worship is communal after all. And so it is not a time to ignore brothers and sisters but to regard and appreciate each one in the light of Christ and His Word.

    Now I know (and struggle to appreciate it myself all the time as a father of 5, but) noisy children in the pews are wonderful!

    In fact, the funny little distractions, that happen in Worship at times, – what wonderful humor and life our Lord interjects!

  • http://www.geneveith.com geneveith

    Good point, FWS! It surely applies to everyday life and to vocation as well. And, Jonathan, as a veteran of what you are describing, the distraction of your children in church (which bothers you more than it does your fellow worshippers) is surely a call to prayer!

  • http://www.geneveith.com geneveith

    Good point, FWS! It surely applies to everyday life and to vocation as well. And, Jonathan, as a veteran of what you are describing, the distraction of your children in church (which bothers you more than it does your fellow worshippers) is surely a call to prayer!

  • http://katiesbeer.piperblogs.org/ Theresa K.

    I spend my early adult Christian years beating myself up for being distracted in prayer and worship. it didn’t help that we chose churches that taught that perfection as a Christian is to be expected as a sign of love and devotion to God. In more recent years, I learned to simply jot down distracting thoughts. I am able to quickly refocus after putting the thought to paper. Some of my best to-do lists have come during church! I always thought this habit was just an efficient way of handling a personal quirk (my brain!). I never thought of it as a prompting from the Holy Spirit. Makes sense to consider that as a possibility.

  • http://katiesbeer.piperblogs.org/ Theresa K.

    I spend my early adult Christian years beating myself up for being distracted in prayer and worship. it didn’t help that we chose churches that taught that perfection as a Christian is to be expected as a sign of love and devotion to God. In more recent years, I learned to simply jot down distracting thoughts. I am able to quickly refocus after putting the thought to paper. Some of my best to-do lists have come during church! I always thought this habit was just an efficient way of handling a personal quirk (my brain!). I never thought of it as a prompting from the Holy Spirit. Makes sense to consider that as a possibility.

  • Arfies

    I decided long ago that I would do my best to preach intelligent, faithful, meaningful sermons, but the whole purpose of any sermon was simply to stimulate faith and thinking about faith. If anything I say, therefore, causes someone to start thinking or reflecting, I am happy; I have done what I intended. There is nothing more satisfying than to think that God used my poor words to enrich someone’s faith or devotion–even if that person doesn’t hear every thought I prepared. The same principle applies to prayer; the distractions may well turn out to be matters I need to bring before the Lord.

  • Arfies

    I decided long ago that I would do my best to preach intelligent, faithful, meaningful sermons, but the whole purpose of any sermon was simply to stimulate faith and thinking about faith. If anything I say, therefore, causes someone to start thinking or reflecting, I am happy; I have done what I intended. There is nothing more satisfying than to think that God used my poor words to enrich someone’s faith or devotion–even if that person doesn’t hear every thought I prepared. The same principle applies to prayer; the distractions may well turn out to be matters I need to bring before the Lord.

  • forty-two

    With regard to unruly children in church (or anywhere, really) – if you are distracted by children that aren’t yours, maybe it is a prompting from the H.S. to offer help. Certainly there have been many times, as I am trying to keep hold of both my 3yo and 1yo, plus juggle a hymnal and bulletin, that I would welcome some help.

    On a Christian moms board I’m on, there was a recent discussion on ways to help make churches more friendly to moms/families of young children. One thing that came up frequently was how nice it was for people beyond that stage of life to be willing to help current parents of young children, with several people very appreciative of people who offer to help during the service (instead of just pointing the way to the cry room/nursery, with an implicit – or sometimes even explicit – message that children just don’t belong in church services).

  • forty-two

    With regard to unruly children in church (or anywhere, really) – if you are distracted by children that aren’t yours, maybe it is a prompting from the H.S. to offer help. Certainly there have been many times, as I am trying to keep hold of both my 3yo and 1yo, plus juggle a hymnal and bulletin, that I would welcome some help.

    On a Christian moms board I’m on, there was a recent discussion on ways to help make churches more friendly to moms/families of young children. One thing that came up frequently was how nice it was for people beyond that stage of life to be willing to help current parents of young children, with several people very appreciative of people who offer to help during the service (instead of just pointing the way to the cry room/nursery, with an implicit – or sometimes even explicit – message that children just don’t belong in church services).

  • Bruce Gee

    Arfies #10: Yes, I’ve been explaining to my pastor that I only expect from him enough material to send me off thinking. If I get that from him, he’s done his job. I can get a copy of his sermon afterward if I need more.

    This also happens when I’m doing my morning devotions. The Treasury of Daily Prayer gives you a LOT of material for a morning devotion. I’m happy if something catches my fancy and I can muse on it for the day. So sometimes I don’t get past the Psalm reading.
    Although I always cheat and see what the Writing is by and about. Does that make me a baaaad Christian? :)

    I think one can carry Sasse’s advice a bit far, or place its intent out of context. He was speaking, after all, to someone not unlike Luther agonizing to his confessor: Kleinig may have been taking this so seriously that it was tying him in knots. Another may use this advice as an excuse to not try to listen during the preaching of the Word. Not good. I have a few students in my junior high Sunday School class that fit that description. I would NEVER give them the advice Sasse gave Kleinig.

  • Bruce Gee

    Arfies #10: Yes, I’ve been explaining to my pastor that I only expect from him enough material to send me off thinking. If I get that from him, he’s done his job. I can get a copy of his sermon afterward if I need more.

    This also happens when I’m doing my morning devotions. The Treasury of Daily Prayer gives you a LOT of material for a morning devotion. I’m happy if something catches my fancy and I can muse on it for the day. So sometimes I don’t get past the Psalm reading.
    Although I always cheat and see what the Writing is by and about. Does that make me a baaaad Christian? :)

    I think one can carry Sasse’s advice a bit far, or place its intent out of context. He was speaking, after all, to someone not unlike Luther agonizing to his confessor: Kleinig may have been taking this so seriously that it was tying him in knots. Another may use this advice as an excuse to not try to listen during the preaching of the Word. Not good. I have a few students in my junior high Sunday School class that fit that description. I would NEVER give them the advice Sasse gave Kleinig.

  • http://www.geneveith.com geneveith

    Well, Bruce, are the junior high kids using their distractions to direct their prayers? That’s what Sasse would get them to do. In effect, this is a way of corralling distractions and giving them a spiritual focus.

  • http://www.geneveith.com geneveith

    Well, Bruce, are the junior high kids using their distractions to direct their prayers? That’s what Sasse would get them to do. In effect, this is a way of corralling distractions and giving them a spiritual focus.

  • Bruce Gee

    Oh, Lord, I wish! No, I’m afraid I am trying to teach stones. I stand on my head, juggle five toilets at a time, breathe fire, and can get no response. My latest approach is for them to read scripture themselves, aloud, for the whole time. Lest anyone’s mind wander, we keep each person’s reading short and sweet. And every now and then the annoying teacher asks a content question.

    I try to content myself with thinking that I’m planting seeds, and someday they’ll realize that they HEARD that story of Joseph in Egypt, sold into captivity by his brothers, from somewhere in the Bible sometime in their past.

    Dr. Veith, you’re teaching at one of the elite colleges in America. But I’m certain you can recall teaching stones. They don’t move. They don’t react. They don’t make eye contact. They don’t show appreciation. They RUN when class is over. What?? Do I have a bad odor? Their parents just shrug their shoulders and sigh.

    Ok. Ok. I’ll try to get them to use their distractions to direct their prayers. Good advice.

  • Bruce Gee

    Oh, Lord, I wish! No, I’m afraid I am trying to teach stones. I stand on my head, juggle five toilets at a time, breathe fire, and can get no response. My latest approach is for them to read scripture themselves, aloud, for the whole time. Lest anyone’s mind wander, we keep each person’s reading short and sweet. And every now and then the annoying teacher asks a content question.

    I try to content myself with thinking that I’m planting seeds, and someday they’ll realize that they HEARD that story of Joseph in Egypt, sold into captivity by his brothers, from somewhere in the Bible sometime in their past.

    Dr. Veith, you’re teaching at one of the elite colleges in America. But I’m certain you can recall teaching stones. They don’t move. They don’t react. They don’t make eye contact. They don’t show appreciation. They RUN when class is over. What?? Do I have a bad odor? Their parents just shrug their shoulders and sigh.

    Ok. Ok. I’ll try to get them to use their distractions to direct their prayers. Good advice.

  • Brenda Bomberger

    As a grandmother, I am fortunate to revisit those years of my own children’s trials in the pews…I spent those yearly years committing as much of the Liturgy as I could to memory and it all comes flooding back as I need it while wrastling with a mega 20 m.o. grandson while mommy plays the organ and grandpa is not available. The bits I get from the sermons are like gold and silver.
    That said… I willbe glad to go back someday to actually listening to the whole thing!

  • Brenda Bomberger

    As a grandmother, I am fortunate to revisit those years of my own children’s trials in the pews…I spent those yearly years committing as much of the Liturgy as I could to memory and it all comes flooding back as I need it while wrastling with a mega 20 m.o. grandson while mommy plays the organ and grandpa is not available. The bits I get from the sermons are like gold and silver.
    That said… I willbe glad to go back someday to actually listening to the whole thing!


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