The ever-growing body of literature on productivity overwhelmingly agrees with what we all know by experience: interruptions reduce our productivity. So naturally, most of the literature focuses on ways we can reduce our interruptions because they distract us from productive work.
And for good reason: many of our interruptions are distractions. But not all interruptions are distractions. Some interruptions are more important than our current productivity. The problem, however, is that we often struggle to recognize these important interruptions in the moment.
As Christians, the stakes rise when we consider that what may appear at first as a simple interruption is actually an unplanned assignment from our Lord. So, how can we discern the difference?
First, I should define what I mean by interruption, distraction, and unplanned assignment.
Interruption: An unplanned occurrence that urges you to shift your attention away from one of your responsibilities to something else.
Distraction: An unplanned occurrence that tempts you to shift your attention away from something of greater importance to something of lesser importance.
Unplanned assignment: An unplanned occurrence that calls you to shift your attention away from something you think is a good use of time as a servant of Christ to something Christ may consider a better use of the time.
Of course, God has not given us a formula we can apply to all situations. In fact, an interruption that’s an unplanned assignment on one day might be a distraction on another day. In other words, this is an issue of discernment. And discernment is learned by constant practice (Hebrews 5:14) as we are transformed in Christ by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2).
But the Bible does provide principles we can use in honing our discernment. Two stories provide needed help.
In Acts 6, a potentially explosive situation was developing in the new, rapidly growing church. “A complaint by the Hellenists [Jewish Christians from Greek-speaking nations] arose against the Hebrews [Jewish Christians native to Palestine] because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1).
We’re not told why these vulnerable women were being neglected. But it’s clear the problem wasn’t being addressed, and frustration was spreading. The complaints carried strains of ethnic tension. As the past few years have reminded us all, such issues can quickly sour relationships, break trust, and sow suspicion. So, the situation was growing serious, and an appeal was made to the apostles to get involved.
This situation came as a potential interruption to the apostles’ work. Was it a distraction or an unplanned assignment?
After the apostles prayed and discussed this issue together, here’s what they discerned:
It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:2–4)
The apostles discerned this was a distraction.
This example illustrates how much we need discernment. An interruption may initially appear (to us or others) as God’s unplanned assignment for us because the issue is important, and we might even bear responsibility to make sure it’s addressed. But it is still a distraction if our direct involvement is not more important than remaining focused on our primary callings. Christ has given this assignment to someone else.
In Luke 10, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, who, while traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, came upon a severely injured man lying in the road, a victim of robbers. This situation interrupted the Samaritan’s journey. Was it a distraction or an unplanned assignment?
Jesus’s story works as an example because all of his listeners knew it was based on real events. Jericho Road was notoriously dangerous because of robbers; real travelers came upon real injured people.
Here’s what the Samaritan man discerned:
He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” (Luke 10:34–35)
The Samaritan man discerned this was an unplanned assignment.
This example also illustrates how much we need discernment. An interruption may initially appear to us (or others) as a distraction. The issue may be important, but it doesn’t appear to be our responsibility. And it’s going to consume precious time, and perhaps other resources, and derail or delay our plans. But it’s an unplanned assignment since our direct (and costly) involvement is more important than remaining focused on our planned work.
What principles can we distill from these two scriptural examples to help us discern what might be a distraction or an unplanned assignment? Consider three.
1. Clarify your calling.
What has God objectively called you to focus on in this season of life? It’s important to recognize what season we’re in because our callings change over time. In a different season, it was right for the twelve disciples to serve tables (remember the feeding of the five thousand). But once Jesus ascended, he left his men as specially appointed apostles, as witnesses to his life and resurrection and as his mouthpiece as teachers. Clarifying your clear (not just aspirational) calling in any given season of life can help you discern what God wants you to prioritize.
2. Seek counsel.
When you struggle to discern whether you should resist or receive an interruption that doesn’t require immediate action, seek the advice of wise, spiritually discerning counselors. The apostles had each other. Who are your trusted counselors?
3. Ask yourself, “What does love compel?”
When the Samaritan man saw the wounded man in the road, I’m sure he would have had numerous reasons to just keep going. But for the sake of love, he took up this unplanned assignment. On the other hand, it was for the sake of love that the apostles resisted the distraction of getting personally involved in making sure the widows were fed. They discerned others could address this need, but others couldn’t give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word like they could.
Martial Art of Discernment
Most martial arts teach students how to respond in self-defense when attacked. No attack situation is ever the same, so students learn techniques that can be adapted for whatever a situation requires. And they grow in their skill by continually practicing in increasingly difficult situations.
Learning to distinguish unplanned assignments from distractions is like a martial art. No interruption situation is ever the same, so we must learn techniques we can adapt for whatever a situation requires. And our “powers of discernment [are] trained by constant practice” (Hebrews 5:14).
Rarely is it clear at first if an interruption is a distraction or an assignment. This ambiguity pushes us to pray, “What should I do, Lord?” It pushes us to embrace humility in seeking counsel from others. And it pushes us to test our hearts. Are we being governed by our love for God and neighbor or by our selfish desires? Do we see time, money, reputation, and productivity as stewardships we’ve received from our Lord to be used as seems best to him, or do we see these resources as “ours”?
Cultivate faith-filled responsiveness to God’s leading. Be willing to say no to a distraction that feels urgent to faithfully focus on your clear God-given task at hand. And be willing to say yes to an inconvenient, costly interruption to your plans to faithfully respond to a God-given, unplanned assignment.
And when in doubt, err on the choice that you discern requires you to extend the greatest love to another and exercise the greatest faith in God.