From a Reader: Lately I feel overwhelmed by events in the world, events in my family, and general brain busy-ness. I try to read God’s Word, but I don’t know where to start. Whenever I start a reading plan, I usually feel I should’ve read something else. I don’t feel like it’s sinking in, like God is speaking to me, like I’m listening correctly, like I’m hearing Him. I am having trouble focusing. Any advice?
There are several parts to what you shared, but first I want to say that you’re normal. What you’re experiencing is a part of being human. I, too, have experienced all of what you shared.
I think it’s important that we first acknowledge that our physical bodies can affect our minds. Our hormones and our physical health can actually hinder or help our ability to focus, and it’s unhelpful for us to ignore this reality.
So, on a very practical level…
- Are you getting enough quality sleep?
- Are you consuming too much caffeine or foods that negatively affect your body?
- Are you getting regular exercise?
- Could you possibly be experiencing menopause or adrenal fatigue?
These things can all contribute to your mind’s ability to focus.
I bring this up as a friend and from experience. I’m not an expert, but because of my own health struggles, I’ve experienced first-hand a complete inability to focus when my body isn’t healthy. Sometimes I can recover on my own by paying more attention to sleep, diet, and exercise. But other times, it requires a trip to my doctor and adjusting the treatments we use to manage my hormonal health.
How to Improve Your Focus
Our world is overflowing with distractions – perhaps more now than ever before. Staying focused requires intentional effort and self-discipline.
There’s much to be said on this topic, but with the goal of being as practical and helpful as possible, I’ll share a few practical suggestions that have helped me personally.
Lay it all on the Table
I take 1 Peter 5:7 literally.
“Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
When I’m overwhelmed or struggling with brain busy-ness, I set aside some time, find as much privacy as possible, and type out a raw and real prayer to God. One might call it a spiritual brain dump. I pray about everything – my worries, my loved ones, my to-do list, and anything else that’s taking up mental energy.
When I bring these things to Him in prayer, I’m often reminded of the truth of God’s Word that counteracts the confusion or the worry. I remember who God is, and “the things of Earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”
Even though the distractions of the world are still there, prayer changes my spirit and I feel more capable of facing the world from a position of victory in Jesus.
Be Intentional About Your Mental Diet
Studies have shown that the internet is changing our brains. It’s affecting how we think. An excellent and balanced book on this topic is by Christian author Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You. I highly recommend reading it.
To prevent unhealthy brain changes and to preserve optimal brain function, memory, and focus, we must be intentional about how we use technology and what we feed our minds.
It’s time for an honest personal assessment of your mental diet. What are you consuming mentally? And how much are you consuming? Is it providing you with healthy mental and spiritual nutrition? Is it necessary for the life God has called you to live right now?
It’s possible to consume too much, even if it’s totally healthy. Especially in times of overwhelm and brain busyness, consider a temporary fast from social media and other unnecessary media.
Retrain Your Spiritual Appetite
Have you ever gone on a diet? You want to be healthier, so you cut out certain foods. At first, you crave the foods you shouldn’t have, but after a successful period of self-discipline, you find that your body craves the healthier food instead. You may even “cheat” one day and try one of your old favorites, only to discover it no longer satisfies like it once did.
This same process happens with spiritual appetites.
You begin to retrain your physical appetite by eliminating the less nutritious foods from your diet. In the same way, you begin to retrain your spiritual appetite by eliminating the less spiritually nutritious stuff from your mental diet.
The next step is to develop the desire for the good stuff. We crave what we feast on. So feed yourself what you want to have an appetite for. If you want your spirit to crave the truth of God’s Word, binge on it. If you want your spirit to hunger and thirst for righteousness, consume as much as you can about the only One who truly is righteous.
This process might look different for everyone. You might eliminate Netflix and replace it with Christian podcasts. You might turn off the radio and listen to worship music instead.
Get the Nourishment You Need from God’s Word
We’ve all experienced this. We diligently set aside time to read God’s Word, but we walk away feeling like it was wasted. Did I learn anything? What was the purpose of what I just read? Did it even matter?
No time in God’s Word is ever wasted. You can read more about this truth at What If I Don’t Feel Like Reading the Bible?
Cultivate Good Soil
Stop right now to open your Bible and read the parable in Matthew 13:1-23.
The soil of our hearts needs to be soft to receive the truth of God’s Word and bear fruit. Our hearts can have different types of soil:
- Hardened soil
- Rocky soil
- Weedy soil
- Good soil
The only soil that actually produces fruit and yields a plentiful harvest is good soil.
I encourage you to use your devotional time over the next few days to meditate on this passage and learn about the different types of soil. Ask God to reveal to you what kind of soil represents your own heart. If there’s any hardness, rockiness, or weeds, pray about it and ask the Lord to help you cultivate good soil.
Beyond that, here are a few practical suggestions for getting the nourishment you need from God’s Word.
Spiritual truth is spiritually discerned. Without God’s help, we’ll remain blind to the message He has for us. So pray before you open your Bible. Ask God to open your eyes to what He has for you in His Word today.
Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law (Psalm 119:18, ESV).
Bible reading plans can be helpful, but if you’re just plowing through the daily reading so you don’t fall behind, you might be missing out. (Also, not all reading plans are equally beneficial.)
Slow down. Pick a single book of the Bible – Philippians or 1 Peter seem appropriate for the current season we’re in – and read through it slowly. Meditate on each verse. Don’t give yourself a deadline. Whenever you sit down to focus on it, read just enough to give you something to mull over, pray about, or study further. Take your time.
To find out about knowing your Bible “both deep and wide”, read Bible Reading vs Bible Study: Which one is more important? And if you’re new to Bible study, A Simple Guide to Inductive Bible Study might be helpful to you.
Change it up
Consider reading a different translation. Whenever I have less mental capacity than usual, I like to switch to the New Living Translation. It’s still true to the original text in meaning, but uses everyday language we’re more used to than the more literal translations.
Or try listening to an audio Bible. Some people are auditory learners and have an easier time focusing on sound than on visual words on a page.
Remember that the Bible is for more than information. Ultimately, God gave us His Word for our transformation. It affects us and should solicit a response (i.e. praise, thanksgiving, confession, repentance, etc.). He called us to be doers of the word, not hearers only.
After you spend time in God’s Word, pray again. If the passage highlights the character of God, praise Him. If you learned something new, ask Him to help you live it out. If you’re not sure how to apply what you read, pray about it and ask the Holy Spirit to teach you.
God’s Grace Covers Your Weaknesses
You mentioned feeling like you’re not listening correctly, that you’re not hearing God, or that you’re reading the wrong thing in the Bible.
My friend, God never intended that our time with Him be a source of stress or striving. The purpose of spending time in His Word is to know Him more. It’s not about you; it’s all about Him.
Any time you spend in God’s Word is valuable – no matter what it feels like. Your responsibility is faithfulness; His responsibility is the fruit.
Our God is a God of grace. He understands that we are human. He knows that we’re easily distracted. It’s not a surprise to Him that we wear many hats and have a lot on our plates and struggle to “have a Mary heart in a Martha world”. He’s not looking down on you from Heaven and saying, “She didn’t do enough today.”
God loves you – not because of anything you do, but because of who He is.
God is faithful, even when we are not.
I’m praying for you!