Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Leighton Ford's new book, The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things, (InterVarsity Press, 2008).
God is always with you, yet in this busy world it’s easy to become so distracted that you aren’t aware of it. You can count on God’s presence at all times and in all situations, since He pays close attention to you. However, God doesn’t force His attentions upon you. He waits patiently, reaching out to you with love, eager for you to discover Him. To find Him, you must learn how to pay attention.
Here’s how you can discover God’s presence in deeper ways by learning how to pay attention:
Focus on what God is doing instead of what you’re doing for Him. Become aware of what God is up to in your life and seek to cooperate with that work, rather than making your own plans and asking Him to bless them. Pattern your life on Jesus rather than your inner compulsions or outer expectations. Every day, invite God to transform you to become more like Jesus. Pursue what God wants for your life by basing your decisions on His guidance, and you’ll discover much more about Him in the process.
Develop the qualities of attentiveness. Ask God to help you: be fully present in each moment, study something long enough to learn something new about it, look at something familiar with a fresh perspective, be available, be aware, wait with expectancy, be mindful, and be wakeful. Make it your goal to see God in all things, and all things in God.
Learn from your spiritual steppingstones. Make some time in a quiet place to recall any major events or relationships that had a deep spiritual influence on you. Try to recall not just the outward circumstances, but the inner meaning it had for you. Use a piece of paper to draw a circle for each one, and write a few words in each circle to describe what you recall. Thank God for each of the steppingstones. Study them to learn in which areas you need more insight and growth.
Get enough sleep. It’s hard to pay attention when you’re sleep deprived. But when you’re well rested, you’re able to concentrate well and are likely to notice much more of what God is doing in your life. Change your schedule to make getting enough sleep each night a high priority. Keep in mind that sleep is also a spiritual exercise, because it’s an expression of trust – resting in the knowledge that you don’t need to try to control your life, and that God will care for you at all times, including while you’re completely unconscious.
Devote your first thoughts of each day to God. When you first wake up each day, turn your thoughts immediately toward God and pray simply that during the day to come, God would open your eyes to His presence in new and deeper ways. Then – even if you just have a brief amount of time – spend some time listening to what the Holy Spirit may have to say to you for each new day.
Seek a fresh perspective. Ask God to help you look at life from His perspective – at any time (not just special times), anywhere (not just in certain places) and toward anyone (not just particular people). Pray whenever you need help looking beyond your own limited view.
Abide in Christ. Decide every day that you will listen for Jesus’ guidance and respond to it with obedience motivated by love. Make a habit of listening first to Jesus’ words rather than your own needs and desires, then responding in the ways that best show your love for Him.
Notice those in need around you. Strike a healthy balance between paying attention to God and paying attention to the people in need who He wants you to serve. Be prepared to love God by answering His call to help others whenever He leads you to do so. Pray to be able to see whoever you meet with Jesus’ eyes and do whatever work you do as if you had Jesus’ hands. Expect that, as you serve, you’ll become aware of the realities in which you’re immersed but were previously unaware.
Stop hurrying. The pressure of being in a hurry prevents you from being able to pay attention to anything well. Make whatever changes you need to make to your schedule so you can slow your life down to a healthy pace. Sort out what’s truly important from what’s urgent, and focus on important tasks as much as possible to cut down on unnecessary busyness. Do more than just reduce your activities, though – refocus your heart. Notice what God is doing through you, and rest assured at the end of each day that if you’ve done your best for God, that’s more than enough.
Read Scripture for transformation, not just information. When you read the Bible, invite God to use what you read to change your life. Pay close attention to what you read and carefully consider how you should respond to it. Try the ancient practice of Lectio Divina (“divine reading”) when you read the Bible. First, read a passage aloud several times, asking “What does it say?”. Then reflect on the text (or even just a word or phrase from it) to ask “What does it say to me?”. Pray your response back to God. Then rest in the presence of God, who stands behind the text.
Learn from interruptions. Realize that interruptions are more than mere annoyances; they’re often opportunities to learn something valuable. The next time your plans are interrupted, ask God to show you how He wants to use that interruption to change your thinking, and even the direction of your life.
Overcome barriers to attentiveness. Fatigue, apathy, worry, and fears can all prevent you from paying attention. Overcome them by admitting your humanness and brokenness, embracing the grace God offers you, and trusting Him in deeper ways. For example, if you’re too tired, it’s usually because you’ve tried to do too much yourself and need to rely on God’s strength more. And if you’re afraid, it’s usually because you haven’t trusted God’s love enough.
Be still. Regularly reflect on Psalm 46:10, in which God says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Let this Scripture bring peace to your soul. In a peaceful state, you can do more than just “know” many things partially, as you do when you simply gather information in a busy world. Relying on God’s peace to pay attention well, you can know one thing at time – deeply. Don’t mistake the flow of adrenaline for the moving of the Holy Spirit. Remember that what counts isn’t what you’re doing for God, but what God is doing in and through you. While you’re still, you can be moving into the fullness of what God has in mind for you.
Let the darkness help you see the light. Don’t try to avoid the suffering and challenges that come your way. Instead, venture into the darkness of the unknown, trusting God to help you every step of the way. Let the mysteries you experience motivate you to pursue God more. Grieve your losses and learn from your mistakes. Remember that hard times can usher in transformation and new life. Write a list of some of the dark times in your life. Then, beside each one you’ve listed, write something about how God revealed more about Himself and what gifts He gave you through that time. Guard your heart from being weighed down by negative emotions like anger and doubt. When you experience a negative emotion, ask yourself what prompted it. See if you can identify the particular need or longing behind it. Then remind yourself that only God can truly meet that need or longing, and give that emotion over to God, trusting Him to care for you. Then just turn your attention to what He leads you to do next.
Rest to find freedom. Rest can be much more than just time for leisure or sleeping. Ask God to help you use your times of rest to experience more of the freedom He wants you to enjoy – the freedom to trust, work, create, play, let go, and move on into the dreams God has for you. While you rest, invite God to unburden you of regrets about the past and anxious thoughts about the future. Enjoy resting with God right now. Practice centering prayer to direct your attention toward God with you in the present. Set aside one or two times a day (such as right after waking up and right before going to sleep) to wait quietly in God’s presence, listening for however He may direct you.
Examine your soul. At the end of each day, think about more than just what you did or didn’t get done; consider what values you’ve pursued. Think about what the way you’ve used your time shows about your relationship with God and the type of person you’re becoming. Ask yourself questions like these: “What I am most and least grateful about today?”, “Where did I sense God most today?”, “Where did I miss Him?”, “Where was I most fulfilled?” “Where was I most drained?”, “Where was I the happiest?” and “Where was I the saddest?”. As you examine your soul, pay close attention to what God teaches you.
Adapted from The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things, copyright 2008 by Leighton Ford. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., www.ivpress.com.
Leighton Ford heads Leighton Ford Ministries, which seeks to help young leaders worldwide to lead more like Jesus and more to Jesus. For many years, Ford communicated Christ around the globe through speaking, writing and media outreach. He describes his current mission to be “an artist of the soul and a friend on the journey.” He is the author of Transforming Leadership.