I found out today that the habit I’ve picked up in the past couple of months is called doomscrolling. Even if the term is new to you, as it was to me, you can probably guess the meaning. And perhaps you, too, have picked up this habit, as the events of each day — along with people’s astonishing reactions to them — fill up your news feed and capture your attention, even as every new item you scroll through heaps disbelief and dread on your already anguished heart.
It’s hard to see as coincidence, then, that the verse for this week’s reflecting has to do with our attention. At the end of one of his most treasured encouragements in the midst of suffering, Paul says, “So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen” (2 Cor 4:18). Looking at the troubles: doomscrolling?
At face value, Paul’s admonishment could seem to say that we should be the kind of head-in-the-clouds Christians who ignore what’s going on in front of us in favor of some otherworldly focus — too heavenly minded to be any earthly good, you could say. But of course, when we look to Jesus to find out what faithfulness looks like, we know that this can’t be right. Jesus was keenly attentive to the people around him and their particular burdens and pains — so attentive that when in the midst of a crushing crowd, a woman desperate for healing touched his cloak, he noticed.
Attentiveness may not seem to be, at first, a weakness of cross-cultural workers. Our vision widens when we go overseas: we hold in our minds’ eye—and in our aching hearts—the grief and joy of two places. We work to give our loving attention to the people and communities we have come to serve, and we are pulled back home again and again by news of family, friends, nation. The more places we have called home, the more our attention expands. Yet, this attentiveness is not always healthy. It is easy to fixate on problems that we cannot solve and circumstances over which we can exert no influence. Attention can quickly become anxiety.
I can’t help but think that Paul knew this struggle all too well. As a planter of at least fourteen churches, he speaks often of his burden for those he has left all over the Roman world. He tells the Corinthians, “I wrote that letter in great anguish, with a troubled heart and many tears. I didn’t want to grieve you, but I wanted to let you know how much love I have for you” (2 Cor 2:4). Again and again he expresses his longing to be with those he has left, and his grief or joy — sometimes both! — at the news he has received from or of them.
Paul’s words, then, are about the focus of our attention, particularly in suffering. How do we keep attention from becoming anxiety? Paul tells the Corithians, and us, that we should not “look at the troubles we can see now.” What does he mean, if not to become oblivious to what’s in front of us?
Paul’s command to “fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen” reminds us that there is a reality that we cannot see. Though invisible to our natural eyes, the world is full of the glory, presence, and activity of God — “charged with the grandeur of God” as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it. That’s what we must fix our attention on. That’s what we must train our eyes to see, not because what is seen by our natural eyes is less real or less important, but because what is unseen illuminates what is seen. Just as when God pulled back the curtain for Daniel or John, and they saw the cosmic battle taking place — not in a different world, but unseen in their very own world. That unveiling, or revelation, of things unseen allowed Daniel and John and their audiences to make sense of the world that they could see.
My inclination — perhaps yours as well? — is to try to make sense of the world I can see by consuming more and more information. My struggle is to seek the information and wisdom I need to pray and act rightly, without letting it overwhelm me. Without doomscrolling, feeding indiscriminately on the news and social media to my own harm.
But that’s what Paul reminds us that we must resist. Not because we ought to neglect the news or our neighbor, but because only when our eyes are fixed on what is unseen and eternal can we truly see what is in front of us. Then, we won’t miss the suffering and the beauty of the people that we are called to serve, because we will see them as they really are — image bearers of our glorious God. We may not receive visions as Daniel and John did, but through faith we are nevertheless enabled to train our eyes to see what is unseen.
Has your attentiveness turned into anxiety recently? How are you resisting anxiety and training your eyes to see by faith?