Wandering Thoughts in Worship

In the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing the Corinthian Christians concerning marriage; but because of a particular crisis situation that the church was going through (v. 26) he advises them that, all things being equal, it would be better for them to remain single. The situational context of Paul’s exhortation may not be directly applicable to us today, and therefore marriage should not be frowned upon. However, the general principle of single-minded attendance to the Lord that is applied by Paul and expressed in the words "that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction" (v. 35) is not only applicable but imperative to us. This principle is applicable to us in all situations in our Christian life. It is a principle which teaches us the importance of being steadfastly single-minded when it comes to our relationship or communion with God. Being so, it is a principle which we must especially bear in mind when we are engaged in the formal act of worship. This is because formal worship, while it lasts, requires our wholehearted attendance to God who is a Jealous God (Ex 34:14). Anything short of wholehearted attendance would become hypocritical, formal and legalistic, and a mockery to our God who is all-seeing, all-knowing and thrice-holy.

But experience teaches us that wholehearted attendance is often difficult to achieve on account of wandering thoughts. This is especially acute because we live in an age of distraction. Telephones, pagers, televisions and computers are but some of the more prominent embodiments of the problem. These are not necessarily bad though they do sometimes distract us from attending to the things of God. But they do benumb us to being distracted: so much so, that we are rendered much less concerned, when we are distracted by wandering thoughts during worship. Such thoughts appear in many forms, such as: "Will the share prices rise today?"; "What should I cook today?"; "How am I to finish my homework by tomorrow?"; "The preacher’s tie is too gaudy"; "The air-conditioning is too cold"; "That deacon is nodding, I wonder if he was watching the late show last night?"; "The sermon is too long"; "Why can’t the parents keep their children quiet?" and etc. For some, the mind may even drift completely to a scene in the movie watched the night before; or to the dinner date enjoyed sometime ago. Naturally many of these thoughts may not be sinful in themselves, but when they occur during worship, they become exceedingly sinful because they rob God of the glory and honour due Him, and render the actions of the worshipper hypocritical.

Sadly, this sinful problem is often not recognised or felt by the average believer so that many can attend to worship for months and years, having only a form of godliness but denying the power thereof (2 Tim 3:5). Sadder still, when the problem is recognised, many of us do not attempt to eradicate it; for after all, our hearts are not seen by any, and those little distractions are harmless, or so we imagine. Thus many will continue to be beset by wandering thoughts during worship, and that to the detriment of our own soul.

Causes

Richard Steele in his excellent classic treatise, A Remedy for Wandering Thought in Worship, has perceptively identified twelve causes of distractions in worship, namely: (1) Secret Atheism, comprising of atheism in the head, the heart and life; (2) Corruption of our nature which results in the dullness and deceitfulness of the heart; (3) Unpreparedness for worship, including failure to get sufficient rest the night before; (4) Lukewarmness in our attitude towards God and our exercise of devotion; (5) Wordly-mindedness which drags our heart earthwards when it should rather soar heavenwards; (6) Weakness of our love to Christ and His Ordinances; (7) Want of watchfulness in prayer; (8) A beloved sin that prevents our heart from coming nigh to God in sincerity and boldness; (9) Satan (and his subordinates) who may sometimes bring about distracting circumstances; (10) Vain thoughts at other times, which thoughts when entertained get imprinted in the heart and easily creep into consciousness in the quiet moments of worship; (11) A divided heart, as when worship is engaged with the understanding and conscience but not with the will or affections; or when the heart is unfixed, indeterminate, wavering and unsettled; and (12) An opinion that wandering thoughts are no great evil.

This list may not be exhaustive, but a moment’s introspection will surely affirm the accuracy of Steele’s observations. Recognising our own problem of wandering thoughts and identifying the causes of our distraction is a vital step in our attempt to ensure that our worship is wholehearted and pleasing to the Lord. Let us therefore examine our hearts honestly before the Lord, praying with the Psalmist, "Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps 139:23–4). And having done so let us ask the Lord for wisdom and strength to deal with the problem.

Remedies

The Scripture does prescribe remedies for each of the causes of distraction given above, and it would do well for us to be particularly careful to apply the scriptural remedies where we find ourselves most affected. Do you constantly find yourself having no victory over sin, and preferring to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh and in sinful thoughts rather than in prayer and worship? Could it be that you have never been born again?

Or, is your problem that of secret atheism? Then repent of your sin and your unbelief and cry to the Lord to grant you the faith you lack: "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mk 9:24). Do not delay nor desist until you know with certainty that Christ be formed in you (Gal 4:19) and dwell in your heart by faith (Eph 3:17). And take heed to your life. Allow no lingering sin to fester in you, and let not any unworthy thoughts fill your minds at any time, for such will return to torment you by an evil conscience that would prevent you from approaching God with boldness and confidence.

Or, are you beset by lukewarmness or a lack of love for Christ and worldly-mindedness? Then meditate on what Christ has done for you and consider how much He loves you in dying for you while you were yet in your sins (Rom 5:8). As a help, pick up a good book by the Puritan divines. These are men whose hearts have been set aflame by the Holy Spirit, whose writings will surely lend some warmth to our frigid hearts. Let these spur your heart to ascend heavenward that you may mortify your heart to the world (cf. 1 Jn 5:4) and attend to worship with passion befitting the Saviour’s love for you.

Or, are you hindered by unpreparedness? Then, neglect not to make sensible preparations as necessary such as having sufficient sleep before worship on the Sabbath; and also keeping yourself fit and alert by physical exercises during the week. So frequently, in our modern competitive society, our problems of spiritual tardiness is compounded by physical lethargy so that moments of quietness with eyes closed for prayer and worship often turn into unprofitable snatches of slumber. Such was the problem of the disciples which led to their want of watchfulness (Matt 26:40).

Or, is your predicament both of a want of watchfulness and that of a divided heart during worship so that you are easily tempted by the devil to turn away from the message being preached, the Scripture being read or the ordinance being administered? Then plead with the Lord for sincerity and seriousness and resolved, with His help, not to allow anything to distract you from your current duty of devotion. Be determined not to read anything but what is being read. Read not the words off the wall, read not the bulletin or anything else but the text being read and expounded. Resolve not to look anywhere but to the communion table when the bread is broken, and lift your heart in holy contemplation of how the body of Christ was broken for you.

Conclusion

Wandering thoughts in worship is a sin. It is not to be taken lightly. Drowsiness at sermons show much irreverence to God as the preacher stands in the stead of Christ to bring God’s Word. Wandering thoughts are no difference from slumbering except that the eyes are open,—which makes it worst, because it become hypocrisy. So, dearly beloved, let us carefully examine our hearts to purge our hearts from this wickedness, and truly worship the Lord with reverential fear and in spirit and in truth each time we come before Him in public and private worship.