How to Avoid Spiritual Automatic Pilot

IMG_2125?ver2I made two mistakes one day that could have been serious.

The first thing I do after I stumble out of my bedroom in the morning is take a pill that needs to be taken on an empty stomach. Then I use my exercise bike, have a quiet time with my Bible and the Lord, shower, have breakfast. After that, I take other medications that I am supposed to take with food.

One Saturday after breakfast, I opened my medication container sorted by day and took the first pill. Then I realized I had actually opened the p.m. side rather than the a.m. No problem: that medication was one I took twice a day. So I opened the a.m. side to take the rest, only to discover that same medication was already gone from that side, and the one I usually take first thing in the morning was still there. I must have taken the wrong medication first thing in the morning—but now I had taken both the morning and evening doses within three hours of each other instead of twelve.

I called the pharmacist immediately to see if I was going to face any dire consequences due to my carelessness. Thankfully, she assured me that some people do take twice the dosage I usually do and told me just not to take any more til the next day.

While immensely relieved, I was also chagrined because this was not the first time I had a medication mix-up. I had purchased my pill sorter to help me keep better track of my medications. But I still have to remind myself not to be distracted or go on automatic pilot while taking them. I need to stop, think, and pay attention.

Automatic pilot isn’t always a bad thing. If you ask me on any given day if I washed my armpits or knees in the shower, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But I trust the routine process covers all the bases without my thinking about it much. A friend said that operating on automatic pilot got him through the first months after his wife’s death.

Automatic pilot in other areas can cause a range of problems, though. If I am not paying attention while driving, I might miss my turn, drift into the next lane, or miss the person speeding through the red light. I recently turned on the most-used stove burner rather than the one I needed and caught a nearby piece of waxed paper on fire (which thankfully burned itself out in seconds).

It’s all too easy to operate on automatic pilot in my spiritual life as well. I can check off my daily Bible and devotional reading and not remember an hour later what I read. I can pray, lapsing unwittingly into all the same phrases. I can go through the day without seeking God’s guidance and help, unless a major problem arises.

There are a number of ways I can combat automatic pilot living.

Be alert

When I take medicine or drive, I need to be alert. Multitasking is fine with some activities but deadly for others. The same is true spiritually.

Ephesians 8:16 says, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.” The Greek word for alert means “to watch; give strict attention to, be cautious, active; to take heed lest through remission and indolence some destructive calamity suddenly overtake one.” It’s often translated “watch,” but is also translated “wake” and “vigilant.” It’s used in connection with:

  • prayer (Ephesians 6:18, Colossians 4:2)
  • watching for the Lord’s return (Matthew 24:42-43; 25:13; Mark 13:34-35; Luke 12:37-39; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-7)
  • watching out for false teachers (Acts 20:29-32)
  • guarding against Satanic attack (1 Peter 5:8)
  • In Revelation 3:1-3, the ESV uses “wake up” while the KJV uses “watch”: “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”

I shouldn’t walk around half-asleep and inattentive, physically or spiritually.

Be careful

When I operate on automatic pilot, I’m not cautious, not aware of danger, not engaged. Ephesians 5:15 says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.” I like the word the KJV uses: circumspectly. I need to pay attention to my thoughts and actions rather than just drifting through the day.

I need to watch out not only for negative thoughts and attitudes, but I need to look for active ways to minister to others. I’m too often caught up in my own head and miss ways to bless others.

Be purposeful

Any relationship can grow stale when one person stops appreciating the other and starts taking the other for granted. It’s possible to go through daily routines side by side without connecting.

When I read the Bible, pray, attend church, I need to remember that the Christian life is not just a series of duties. It’s a relationship.

Routines can help us maintain good habits. One key to having a regular devotional time is setting a regular time, place, and plan to follow. But if routine creeps into our thinking, we find ourselves just going through the motions.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemoth said in A Place of Quiet Rest, “But if your study of the Word does not lead you to know God, you have missed the whole purpose” (p. 56). When I pray, I need to remember Who I am talking to and why. When I go to church, I need to remember this is not just what we do on Sunday morning: we’re going to hear God’s Word and fellowship with His people.

Be focused

We always have distractions. They may not be bad in themselves, and they don’t mean there’s anything wrong with us. But we do have to deal with them. One near medication mix-up occurred when I was talking to my son. I needed to either wait til we were finished or ask him to give me a second to attend to what I was doing before resuming the conversation.

We can be distracted by entertaining things, mind-numbing things, or hard things. The current crisis can draw us into a closer dependency on and hope in God, or it can distract us from Him. No matter what else is going on in our lives, we need to remember God’s Word is our truth, food, hope, guidance, and so much more. We may have to adjust our usual course of reading, but we need to keep time with God the priority of the day.

Be engaged

God told Israel in Amos 5 that He hated their sacrifices, offerings, and feasts (see also Isaiah 1:11-20). Hated them? Didn’t He ordain them, require them? Yes. But the offererers weren’t seeking Him (verses 5-6) and their lifestyles were full of injustice and oppression (10-13) and worship of idols and false gods (26). In Hosea 6:6, God said, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” He wants our obedience, yes, but He wants our hearts most of all.

Though we don’t observe the OT sacrificial system today (see Hebrews), it’s still all too easy to lapse into the forms of worship without engaging our hearts

I remind myself to stop and think before taking medication. I often pray before I drive that God will help me be watchful and careful. And I pray that God will help me stay spiritually focused, alert, intentional, and engaged.

What ways have you found to avoid automatic piloting?

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