Giving and Receiving Attention: Part 1

Hi all, Chris here. Katie and I just moved and bought our first home. (Hurray!) In the hubbub of the transition, I’ve not been penning new drafts at my usual rate. So, this week, we’ll launch a short series of adapted selections from my book, How to Be a Bad Christian. (If you’d prefer to get the whole thing at once, it’s available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.) Subscribe to get our next post in your inbox.

My brother and I used to play a game when he was about eight years old and I was about four: Dad would be getting ready to leave for work in the morning, on the verge of stepping outside, and we would each grab one of his legs and wrap ourselves around it, weighing him down to keep him from going out the door. My mother has a photograph of this morning drama unfolding: my face is bright with the laughter of un-self-conscious affection, while my brother wears a mischievous smirk. Dad is laughing, too. He wasn’t bothered by the demand that he give us a few seconds more of his attention before, finally, leaving for his work day.


Moments like that give us a picture of the human heart. We can’t help but look for someone to look at us, to attend to us. We are fashioned to receive loving attention, and we thrive when we get it. Our need for attention is so profound it reveals itself at the earliest ages in how our body develops. Children who suffer neglect are more prone to sickness and less physically resilient. Receiving the affectionate, unhurried gaze of a parent builds a foundation for emotional and physical thriving.


Even the most dedicated parents cannot provide perfect attention to their children. Our hunger goes too deep for even those closest to us to satisfy it, limited human beings that they are. I’m not a psychologist, but I imagine that each of us, as we get older, begins to develop a gap, a kind of “attention debt” that grows every time our valid need for attention goes unmet in some small way. The longing gradually shifts to an ache, which can throb in the background of our lives for years, perhaps for many of us so quietly we don’t notice it or have words for it.


God’s Attention to Us

How can we get the attention that we genuinely need? I’d like to suggest that our longing points to a need not just for human attention, but for divine attention. The Bible provides a dynamic vision of God’s attention to his children. In the book of 2 Chronicles, we find the words of the little-known prophet Hanani that “the eyes of the LORD range throughout the entire earth, to strengthen those whose heart is true to him” (2 Chronicles 16:9 NRSV). I love that image of God’s eyes. He is not passively waiting for people to impress him; he is actively looking for those who need his strength.


The same idea appears in Psalm 33:

Truly the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him,
on those who hope in his steadfast love,
to deliver their soul from death,
and to keep them alive in famine.

Psalm 33:18-19 NRSV

Here we see the eye of God resting on us even in the middle of our distress. Our soul may be in danger of death, but God sees and delivers us. We may find ourselves in a time of famine, but God feeds us. He is paying attention.


Sometimes we need a concrete experience of this dynamic in order for it to come home for us. It’s one thing to cognitively understand that God knows us and wants to speak into our lives; it’s another to actually hear his voice, to feel his loving gaze. For me, one of the most powerful moments of feeling God’s attention like that came during my confirmation when I was in seventh grade. Confirmation, a kind of liturgical coming-of-age ceremony practiced in certain Christian traditions, was a big deal at our church. It meant taking a ten-week class about the Christian faith and life, making a public declaration of commitment to Jesus, and then getting prayed for by the bishop in a special church service. The morning of that service, I was all excitement. Every detail filled the air with a sense of celebration, from the verses my youth pastor picked out and read for each student, to the red of the bishop’s robe, to the applause of the congregation at the end.


But there’s one moment that I’ll never forget. After the service, one of our pastors named Karen pulled me aside. She said, “When the bishop was praying for you, I received a word from the Lord for you, that you will be his teacher.” A teacher who belongs to the Lord—what a word! At such a young age, I admit it may have even gone to my head. But any gift of teaching I had at that time was undeveloped. It would only gradually emerge in the coming years how much I truly came alive when I had the chance to teach others, and specifically to teach them about Jesus. I leaned into those experiences with all the more confidence because of the word that Pastor Karen had shared with me. As I stepped into teaching, I felt that I was following a way that God had prepared for me. He saw me, and knew me, and told me who I was before I could know for myself.


Perhaps you can name similar moments, when God has looked on you with love, and you’ve known it. Or maybe you’ve never had an encounter like that, and you wonder if it’s possible. Regardless, it is so easy to forget about God’s attention. Despite experiences like my confirmation, when God’s attention feels so clear, I still find myself scrambling to pay off my attention debt. I look for others’ validation, counting how many cards I get on my birthday and how many likes I get on my Facebook posts. I habitually look for attention in many places. Some of this is good, and unavoidable: I need to receive attention from other human beings to live an emotionally healthy life. But I wonder if my habits are synced up to the truths of Scripture. What can I do to live as though God is eager to pay attention to me?


Our Attention to God

When someone enjoys paying attention to us, it makes it so easy for us to pay attention to them. I think of my friend Nephtali. Whenever I bump into him, he always has time to talk with me for a few minutes, even in the middle of a busy day. With Neph, it’s never just chit-chat, either, but a true and heartfelt conversation. He offers the rare gift of steady attention in the middle of a distracted world. It’s no surprise, then, that I gravitate toward Neph in social gatherings. I make time to hang out with him. Receiving such genuine attention makes me pay attention to him.


In my walk with God, too, remembering the Bible’s teaching that he is already paying attention to me can lead me to pay attention to him. God’s attention is always available, but it’s easy to miss it. In order to receive that loving, affectionate embrace, I have to turn toward it with open arms. I have to pay attention to God paying attention to me.


Really paying attention takes time. Giving and receiving attention is not something we can tack on to a long list of other activities. But that hasn’t stopped me from trying! My default approach to my calendar is to fill it until there is no margin left. But often that means my heart is inattentive to God’s action in my life.

In contrast, if I take time to listen for God’s voice in prayer, I am often surprised by what I discover. Rather than the unrelenting pressure to perform I usually impose on myself when I think about my various projects, I feel a spirit of freedom, and welcome. I do not get the sense that God will be disappointed if I do fewer things, but instead feel as though he is actually excited about what might happen if I have space in my life. It is as though he is looking forward to spending more time with me.


Paying Attention to Ourselves

It is this openness of God to us, even in response to our sin and weakness, that also teaches us how to pay the right kind of attention to ourselves. The loving gaze of God allows us to take a hard look at ourselves without fear or shame. We can consider ourselves “with sober judgment,” as the apostle Paul encouraged his readers, perhaps for the first time (Romans 12:3).


When Winston Churchill turned eighty years old, he was still a politically powerful figure, serving his second term as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Yet nearly a decade after his “never surrender” policy had paved the way for the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, Churchill had suffered two strokes and struggled to conceal from his political colleagues and the nation his weakening physical and mental stamina.


In honor of his eightieth birthday, Parliament commissioned artist Graham Sutherland to paint his portrait and presented the painting to Churchill in a televised ceremony. The portrait, unapologetic in its realism, showed the elder citizen seated, worn and aged. Churchill hated it. In a private conversation, he complained, “How do they paint one today? Sitting on a lavatory! Here sits an old man on his stool, pressing and pressing.” The painting lingered in the cellar of the Churchill’s country estate for some time, until a family secretary arranged for it to be burned.


Perhaps Churchill wished he could have been carved in marble, preserved with youthful vigor and strength as other military heroes have been. Sutherland saw something else in the aging lion. Critics who viewed the painting before it was destroyed wrote of it with admiration, one calling it, “a great artist’s vision of a great English warrior.” But Churchill himself could not see this greatness in the wrinkles and rolls that Sutherland painted. He could not receive this image of himself in his decline.


Looking at ourselves without illusions is no easy task. We feel the tug of many forces that drive us to develop a false image of ourselves and that distract us from noticing how far that image is from reality. I can sympathize with the good Prime Minister. My personality leads me to value competence, achievement, and correctness, so I find it excruciatingly difficult to admit when I am weak, unimpressive, or wrong. I develop an image of myself as someone who always follows the plan and always gets things done. I often hold onto that image in desperation, afraid that if I let go of it there will be nothing left of me. Or nothing left worth looking at.


Learning to receive God’s attention for me is the antidote to that fear. As I realize that he attends to me, regardless of how well or poorly I am doing, regardless of whether I’m impressive or not, I gain the courage to acknowledge my own frailty and limitations. Something begins to shift within my soul. The clamoring, desperate longing for stars quiets down, even if only a little at first. And in that growing quiet, space is created in which I can form new patterns of attention to God and others.



  • What do you make of the idea that God is lovingly paying attention to you?
  • What can you do to “make time for attention” to God and others this week?
  • What is hard for you to pay attention to about yourself?


Photo by Hennie Stander on Unsplash

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