Jim Elliot (1927-1956) was a missionary to the Quichua and Auca Indians in Ecuador. His missionary work ended violently as he and his gospel companions were attacked and killed by a group of Huaorani warriors during a visit to their village. Sometime after his death, Jim’s wife, Elizabeth, began to compile Jim’s personal notes and diary in order to eventually pen a biography of the man who gave his life to bring the gospel to the unreached peoples of the world. Jim’s diary is now well-known for being full of rich spiritual insight that he drew from his regular meditations on Scripture. One phrase that has stood out to many readers is Jim’s expression, “Wherever you’re at, be all there.”
While this phrase, wrested from the context of Jim’s Christ-centered life, can appear as a mere piece of motivational cliché, it actually reflects an important biblical principle. Rather than dreaming about different circumstances, we are called to aim our energy and attention on what God has placed before us right now (see Prov 17:24; Matt 6:33-34). In a day of unparalleled opportunity for distraction and diversion, there are few reminders more relevant to our lives than those that exhort us to remain spiritually focused.
Consider the countless ways we need to apply this wisdom to our lives.
In Our Bible Reading/Listening
Jesus admonished his disciples to take care of how they listened (Luke 8:18). This admonition came immediately after Jesus’ parable of the soils in which he speaks of a kind of listening that fails to receive the seed of the Word deep into the soil of the heart. The third heart, having become distracted by the “cares and riches and pleasures of life” fails to bring the seed to maturity. Mark’s version of this parable adds the comprehensive phrase, “desires for other things,” indicating that our hearts can be drawn away from Christ by anything in life that interests us more than the Word of God (Mark 4:19).
Yet despite these warnings, how easy is it, when we are engaged in reading or listening to Scripture, to be distracted by email, YouTube, social media, a text message, the news, our to-do list, some random Google curiosity, and the apps on our phones? Rather than riveting our attention on Scripture for a sustained several minutes, our time in God’s Word is fragmented into a hundred toggles between Scripture and some “harmless” diversion. The wisdom to be “all there” when we are reading Scripture is vital for our spiritual health and growth.
In Our Prayer
Similar comments could be made about our time in prayer. Prayer is a delight, but it often requires serious effort to remain focused on God during times of intercession and supplication. This effort is especially important when we do not “feel” like praying or when we come to prayer with a load of troubles. But remaining focused in prayer is simply an application of Jesus’ words to “watch and pray” (Matt 26:41). When the disciples were falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus exhorted them to remain focused because “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41). Just like our time in God’s Word, we can be carried away from prayer by a myriad of hovering distractions. To “be all there” in prayer is essential for remaining in close fellowship with God and being spiritually alert.
In Our Worship
Although it is the high-point of the week for Christians, Sunday morning worship can be rife with potential distraction. Our minds are troubled by the past week’s failures and the coming week’s problems. As we sing, we are halfway fixed on God, halfway focused on that recent car repair bill. As we listen to preaching, we make notes, not about the message, but about this month’s scheduling conflicts. Food and football fill our minds, and we drift to a place other than where we currently are. But the more we drift, the more we are in danger of offering lip-service worship without engaging the heart (Matt 15:8) and of covering the soil of our hearts with the seed-choking nettles of distraction (Matt 13:22). “To be all there” during worship is essential to honoring God and benefiting from the corporate gathering of his saints.
In Our Conversations
It’s commonplace now to find people in restaurants staring into their phones during meals. Even if some folks aren’t fully immersed in their screen, they may still have it face-up on the table in order to catch the latest score or text. Either way, it’s simply expected that we will now engage with others in a semi-distracted state. Getting one’s full attention is a relational luxury of the last decade that we can no longer require or expect of others.
For Christians, however, it should be different. We know that we were created by God for relationship (Gen 2:18), and relationships can only grow in depth and health to the degree that each person is investing into that relationship. Furthermore, to interact with another person in a perpetual state of distractedness is a failure to love our neighbor. When we stare at our phones or persistently look past the other person while in conversation with them, we are communicating that something other than that person is more important to us at the present moment. It’s hard to see how our conversation partner is going to sense genuine love from us in a setting like this.
But these kinds of distracted conversations can also happen when we aren’t face-to-face with another person. How many phone call conversations have you had in the last month where you are simultaneously talking to a friend and surfing the internet, watching TV, or thumbing through a magazine? I’m not trying to set limits on the ways you may be able to legitimately multitask (although studies have demonstrated that there are very few tasks that we can fully accomplish when conducted concurrently), but I am suggesting that we need to consider how often we engage with other people without some kind of self-chosen distraction.
Again, the concerns here are deeply spiritual. By remaining focused in our conversations, we are not only expressing love and concern toward the other person, we are also creating an environment where we are able to get to know them well enough to spur them on to love and good works (Heb 10:24-25). If we only catch half of what our friend is saying, our counsel and encouragement to them will be that much weaker and less effective.
In Our Homes
As a father of three, I know how challenging it is to remain fully engaged with what is happening at home. When life gets busy and kids are in need of playtime or correction, and the decibel level is nearing overload, there is a temptation to look for a way of escape through TV, our phones, our computers, or some other form of distraction. But as I noted in the previous section: strong, healthy relationships are not cultivated when we are in a semi-attentive state. Whether I am talking to my wife or playing with my children, being “all there” is a discipline I will never regret (Eph 5:25; 6:4).
In Our Work
Our work also suffers when we fail to harness our attention. Those of us who work on computers for a good portion of the day are especially susceptible to the productivity-eroding effects of “harmless diversions.” But whatever our job, we will find that the quality of our work rises and falls with our ability to maintain the discipline of consistent concentration. Being “all there” in our work is a matter of honoring Christ, blessing our employer, and serving our fellow employees (Prov 18:9; Eph 6:5-9).
Fight Distractions by Trusting our Good God
In order to be “all there” during Bible reading, prayer, worship, our conversations, in our homes and at work, we must learn to trust God. We look to entertainment for relief when our minds are fixed on our troubles. We are easily drawn to different company when we are not content with our present circumstances. In other words, we succumb to diversions when we fail to trust God’s providence in our lives. God has promised to provide us with what we need (Matt 6:25-33); our gracious Father has put specific people in our lives for his glory, their blessing, and our joy (Phil 2:1-5; Acts 20:35). When we, by grace, learn to trust God’s good providence in our lives, we are more easily able to rivet our attention on kingdom priorities and “be all there” in whatever situation we find ourselves (Matt 6:33).