A vast majority of the American people believe there is a God. God is all powerful. He holds all the cards. You are here because he put you here. If he so chooses, God can decide how long you will stay here; and, if there is to be anything else for you after your life here ends, it will be up to God to provide that something else. One would think, therefore, that nobody should have to be told that they need to pay attention to God. One would think that fragile, frail, temporary human beings would most certainly want to pay attention to God. Your life can be ended any time by a something so small as a germ or so ordinary as a bad driver on the highway– and then what? Then all will be up to God, who makes it very clear in the Bible that we should be paying attention to him while we have the chance. The Bible, after all, says much about God’s love and grace and the wonderful plans he has for us now, and after our deaths. It would only seem natural that we would want to be paying some attention to God, not to mention also honoring, loving, serving, and obeying God. That all should be a part of it. Even if only out of mere self-interest, one would think everyone would pay attention to God and to whatever God has to say.
However, it is a messy world, and God has been presented to people in many false and negative ways. Also, the vast differences among those who share the same Christian faith can be confusing and even discouraging. Therefore, it is no wonder that not everyone is in church on a Sunday morning even though most people do believe in God.
Life itself presents many challenges to faith and worship. There are those who have suffered greatly and are filled with doubts about God’s goodness. There are others who were raised without morals or discipline, have led immoral lives, and still have a hard time resisting the many temptations around them; thus, they consider themselves unacceptable to God. Here is one lives and tries to do her best in a most ambiguous situation, always being forced to choose the lesser of two evils, and then always feeling guilty and unworthy. Another would like to know God better, but has many questions, and not anyone he knows has any answers. Still another is angry at God for not lifting a finger to help when her husband was dying of cancer. As a pastor I have been humbled time and again as I hear the stories of those that I never see in church. We cannot be judgmental of another’s relationship with God. It is impossible for us to evaluate, compare, or judge the faith and obedience of another.
But whatever the circumstances, you can always ask yourself if you are paying attention to God in any way at all. Just as there are a variety of lives and experiences, there are a variety of ways to pay attention to God. You may be angry with God, as were many folks in the Bible. Are you expressing that anger to God in prayer? You may be filled with temptation and fail miserably in your attempts to do what you know is right. Do you keep turning to God in repentance and in prayer for forgiveness, guidance, and help? Your place of worship may be a disappointment to you and you may long for deeper Christian fellowship. Do you still go to church to worship God despite your disappointment, praying that he may sustain your faith without the fellowship and worship you would like to have? You may be eager to serve God in more meaningful ways, but are stuck with unsatisfying and limited opportunities. Do you still seek to serve God in the best way you can wherever you are? You may, like the hymn writer William Cowper, struggle with severe mental illness your entire life. But like Cowper, you can still hang to faith on by whatever thread you can find. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever faith background you come from, you have within your reach some way that you can pay attention to God. There is a world of difference between the strict, monastic life of Thomas a Kempis, and the careless, indulgent life of Fyodor Dostoyevsky; between the intellectual giant Martin Luther who enjoyed a glass of beer, and the simple preacher Billy Sunday who railed against the evils of even a sip of alcohol; between the godly and loyal churchman Thomas More and the godly and radical reformer William Tyndale who was persecuted by Thomas More. But all paid attention to God in their different ways.
This ‘paying attention to God’ is not what saves you, but it is a minimum response to so great a God who offers so great a salvation; and God has promised to bless this ‘paying attention.’ We might struggle with sin, doubt, disappointment, and despair, but if we turn our attention to God, he will be there for us. ‘Lord, I believe,’ said the father to Jesus as he was seeking a miracle for his son, ‘Help thou my unbelief.’
Simone Weil was a French intellectual whose faith journey was not at all simple or normal, but in various ways she did keep in touch with God. In Gateway to God (p. 119), she described her ‘spirituality’ as simply ‘paying attention.’ She said that belief was not always possible for her. There are many like her who find it impossible to overcome their unbelief. But we can, Weil said, choose to pay attention in prayer and in worship and in reading. “Attention is voluntary,” she said, and we can leave the rest up to God.
We cannot ‘create’ faith, just as the farmer cannot ‘create’ ears of corn. He can only prepare the fields, plant the seeds, and then wait for God’s creative work. Even the work that the farmer does is done with the strength gained from previous crops that he has eaten, which were previous gifts from God. This is as it is in paying attention to God. The mind which we turn to God is the mind which God gave us in the first place. It is all from God. We can only resist, and sad to say, that is what we all too often do. But we must resist that resistance, and pay attention. As St. Peter wrote, “You will do well to pay attention to this.”
Holy and merciful God, in your presence we confess our sinfulness, our shortcomings, and our offenses against you. You alone know how often we have sinned in wandering from your ways, in wasting your gifts, in forgetting your love. Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we are ashamed and sorry for all we have done to displease you. Forgive our sins, and help us to live in your light and walk in your ways, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.
–Henry van Dyke, Book of Common Worship, 1906, Presbyterian.