How’s your perception?
More to the point, how much gets past you?
The human mind is capable of processing a tremendous amount of sensory information, but struggles with perceiving all of it. Because we are receiving constant input from the things we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel, our brains have to decide which stimuli are worth our attention and which isn’t. The alternative would be a flood of overwhelming (and often unessential) data.
Here’s a quick video to help illustrate the point. The test is pretty straightforward—two “teams,” one marked by white shirts and the other with black, will be passing basketballs back and forth. Your job is to count the number of passes made by the white-shirt team. It might sound simple, but keeping track of one team while successfully tuning out the other is a little more difficult than you might think. Here, give it a shot:
(After you’ve watched the video above, place your mouse over the black rectangle below to read the next paragraph.)
So, how’d you do? Did you manage to count all the passes? Oh, also, did you happen to notice the gorilla that casually strolled across the court? If you didn’t, don’t feel too bad—a whopping half of people who watch this video don’t see it the first time around. I sure didn’t. Our brains are so focused on what the white shirts are doing that our brain doesn’t even bother to let us know that a man in a furry primate costume is beating his chest in the middle of a basketball drill. It’s not that our eyes weren’t capable of perceiving the gorilla—it’s just that our brains, in sifting through sensory data, didn’t bother letting us know about the gorilla because it wasn’t what we were looking for.
Magic and misdirection
In fact, that’s how a lot of “magic” works. We can’t focus on everything all the time, and good magicians know that by keeping us distracted with red herrings—movements and actions that only seem important—they can complete their trick right under our noses. We might be busy watching the a shuffling deck while a playing card is slipping from a hand into a sleeve, or the flourish of a handkerchief while a quarter disappears into a pocket. A successful trick often depends on the audience not seeing what’s going on in plain sight.
But it’s not just magicians who take advantage of this quirk of human nature. Apollo Robbins, a world-renowned pickpocket, gave a TEDTalk last year entitled “The art of misdirection.” In it, Robbins takes a few minutes to both explain and demonstrate how it’s possible to pick someone’s pockets while evading notice. It lasts a little longer than the previous video, but it gives us valuable insight into how the phenomenon of selective attention works—and how it can be manipulated:
Even if you caught the gorilla earlier, chances are good that you probably weren’t able to keep up with all Robbins’s sleight-of-hand. He’s a master at his craft, and has a talent for misdirection—but it’s his question that really resonates with me: “If you could control somebody’s attention, what would you do with it?”
Pickpocketing your treasure
It is an interesting question on its own, especially since there are entire commercial industries whose primary goal is capturing your attention. But I want to take it a step farther. Let’s say you had an enemy—one who wanted something valuable in your possession. Let’s also say that the precious something you own can’t be taken by force; it can only be relinquished by you, by choice.
If that enemy had a way to control your attention, what do you think he would do with it?
Hopefully that sounds familiar. We do have something very precious, and we do have an enemy who wants to pry that precious possession from our grasp. He can’t, though—that gift, God’s calling and His Holy Spirit, is something no one can take from us. We can only let go of it by choice—and our enemy, Satan the devil, is perpetually striving to convince us to make that choice.
6000 years of practice
Satan can’t take away God’s gift by brute force. He can’t rip it out of our hands or take it in an ambush. The only way he can get us to let go of that gift is by shifting our attention onto red herrings—things that only seem important. And if a couple of researchers can sneak a gorilla on to a basketball court without half the world even noticing, what do you think the prince of darkness can do with more than six thousand years of practice in deceiving the human race? If one man can steal a watch and a wad of cash using just a poker chip as a distraction, what do you think Satan can steal from you when he can use the resources of the entire world to misdirect your focus?
If it seems a stretch to assume that our adversary would devote so much attention to extinguishing the spark of one solitary believer, then let’s reflect on what the Bible has to say about our ancient enemy. We know that “your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). We know that he “transforms himself into an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). And we also know that he is “the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10). Satan hates God. He hates God’s people. He hates God’s plan for them.
He hates you.
This isn’t a game for him. It isn’t a hobby or a diversion that he uses to amuse himself in his downtime. His burning desire is to do as much damage as possible to the family of God—and that means you. He will spare no expense, pull no punch in pursuing that goal. Every faithful Christian will find a place in the family of God, and nothing else fills him with such rage or such jealousy. Rest assured; if Satan could physically take away the promises you’ve been given by God, he would burn the whole universe just to stamp out your future.
The weapon of illusions
Not that he can, or that God would ever allow it. But we can’t allow ourselves to forget that, given the opportunity, Satan would seize it in a heartbeat. The book of Revelation reveals Satan as a being “having great wrath,” “enraged,” and seeking to make war with those “who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:12, 17). And he does make war with us, but not in the conventional sense.
Satan wants to distract us from the one thing that really matters. He wants us to focus on something, anything, else. Pleasure or pain, entertainment or worries—it doesn’t matter what, so long as it takes our focus off of the Kingdom of God. That distraction is all Satan needs to attempt his magic tricks. The lady in the box is never really sawn in half…but it sure looks like it. All Satan wants is the opportunity to make God’s plan for us look like something it isn’t—to convince us that something else is more important. In short, he wants us to miss what’s really going on and confuse his illusions and sleight-of-hand for reality.
Our adversary has invested an incredible amount of time and effort into keeping us distracted, so the question we need to be asking is: What is it that he doesn’t want us looking at?
Defending against deception
What he doesn’t want is for you to take your calling seriously. What he doesn’t want is for you to be developing a relationship with Creator. What he doesn’t want is for you to obtain eternal life as a child of God. He already has the world deceived, paying attention to everything but the one thing that matters—and the only ones outside of that deception are those “who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” It’s only those people, then—it’s us—that Satan has his attention fixed on.
But our focus doesn’t belong on what Satan wants us to look at. If we want to protect ourselves from being misdirected by Satan’s sleight-of-hand, then we need to keep our attention absolutely fixed on the very things he wants us to look away from. His distractions are just that—smokescreens designed to keep us looking at something much less important than what’s within our grasp. You’ve been given a treasure beyond compare…what things are you giving the most attention to? If we find the “cares of this life” (Luke 21:34) dominating our attention, then we must realize that Satan is using these very things to keep us distracted from becoming who God called us to be.
The author of Hebrews gives us this warning: “Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away” (Hebrews 2:1, emphasis added). If we find anything creeping in to take our focus away from the Kingdom of God; if we are starting to find anything or anyone more important than the calling we’ve been given; if we find ourselves placing any of life’s pains or pleasures above the one true God, then it’s time to remember what Satan is trying to rip our focus from and give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard.
If Satan can get our primary focus on something other than the coming Kingdom of God, he wins the battle. If he can get us to stop caring about that calling altogether, then he wins the war.
Here’s the solution:
Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you … Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
(James 4:7-8, 10)
Our enemy can’t take anything from us unless we let go of it first. If your calling matters to you, hold on to it. If you value your relationship with God, work on it. If you want to be in the Kingdom of God, keep your eyes on it. Everything else is secondary.
Until next time,