Posted in theology

Is it true that if I lived in Ancient Times I’d be able to focus better…?

By Elizabeth Prata

I mentioned a week ago that the claims of “these days” being especially busy, or stressful and clamorous may be true, but are not particular to only our day. Sure, our landscapes are littered with billboards, telephone poles, wind turbines; our ears are stuffed with podcasts, movies, music, video games, and TikToks. Sure, our laptops crawl with multiple screens, tabs, and images. It may be nice to dream of former days when what we saw was only bucolic, serene, and everything looked like a Constable landscape.

John Constable: The Vale of Dedham

But it never really WAS that way. Yes, many areas were landscape perfect before the Industrial Revolution. The farmer’s day was still busy and filled with temptations and distractions, just different ones than we are used to. In ancient days as well, there were huge cities, pollution, ghettoes, population stress, and noise. There were distractions. Since satan has been in the world there have always been distractions to keep us from wasting our time and being productive for the Lord.

Productivity for the Christian is important, because we only have so many days and so much time to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12) before we depart for glory. But it’s important to realize that we are human, the generations prior to ours were human, and we have always lived among days of toil, thorns, and many clever satan-inspired ways to keep us off-balance, off-track, and off our walk.

We have new ways to distract us from Bible reading. These days surely have presented us with enticing diversions. But so it has always been. We are no different. Why? because we have always been sinners. Our flesh has always wanted something different than Jesus. Even as Christians we have to work to pursue Him by subduing the flesh. Yet satan always puts in front of our nose ways to keep us from it. How many scenes in TV and movies have you watched with a robber enticing the guard dogs with a piece of tasty meat (laced with doggie sleeping potion)? Many. The dogs are sidetracked, they eat the treat, and soon become somnolent and docile. That’s us.

Would it pique your interest to know that in Paul’s day when he wrote to the Romans, Rome was a crowded, thriving city of a million inhabitants? Pliny the Younger lived from 61 to ~113 AD, or during Paul and John’s time when the church was in nascent growth. He lived and worked in Rome as a lawyer, author, and magistrate. He complained of the many distractions that prevented him from accomplishing all he needed to do. He wasn’t complaining as a Christian, just observing he was a busy man unable to withstand the many temptations to do anything else but what one is supposed to be doing. He writes, ‘sure, I’ll go here, I’ll do this, I’ll indulge…until I realize I’ve wasted time on trivialities’.

Sheehan Quirke is The Cultural Tutor who sends out a newsletter each Friday. In this week’s letter, Quirke informed his readers of Pliny’s complaint:

Wasted Days by Sheehan Quirke, the Cultural Tutor

Quirke said: Do you ever feel like you don’t have enough time to write? Do you end up getting distracted (by emails, gossip, social media, unimportant business) and feeling like you’ve wasted a day instead of doing something much more meaningful?

If you understand this feeling then it may be some comfort to know that it isn’t new. Here is a remarkably relatable letter written by Pliny the Younger, a Roman lawyer, to his friend in about 100 AD. It turns out that the problems of modern life aren’t always so modern as we think.

(Pliny’s letter) To Minicius Fundanus,​

It is extraordinary how, if one takes a single day spent in Rome, one can give a more or less accurate account of it, but scarcely any account at all of several days put together. If you ask anyone what he did that day, the answer would be: ‘I was present at a coming-of-age ceremony, a betrothal, or a wedding. I was called on to witness a will, to support someone in court or to act as an assessor.’ All this seems important on the actual day, but quite pointless if you consider that you have done the same sort of thing every day, and still more pointless if you think about it when you are out of town. It is then that you realise how many days you have wasted in trivialities.

I always realise this when I am at Laurentum, reading and writing and finding time to take the exercise which keeps my mind fit for work. There is nothing there for me to say or hear which I would afterwards regret, no one disturbs me with malicious gossip, and I have no one to blame – except myself – when writing doesn’t come easily. Hopes and fears do not worry me, and my time is not wasted in idle talk; I share my thoughts with no one but my books. It is a good life and a genuine one, a seclusion which is happy and honourable, more rewarding than any “business” can ever be. The sea and shore are my private Helicon, an endless source of inspiration. You should take the first opportunity yourself to leave the din, the futile bustle and useless occupations of the city and devote yourself to literature or leisure. For it was wise as well as witty of our friend Atilius to say that it is better to have no occupation than be occupied with nothing. –end Pliny’s letter

Quirke said, “Although the legacy of the ancient world is largely one of great poetry and literature, art and statuary and philosophy, none of them can quite bring Antiquity to life like their letters. Those of Pliny the Younger are a treasure of deeply personal reflections on life in Ancient Rome. And, reading them, we find that our ancestors weren’t so different to us.”

Yes, it might be nice as Pliny said to retreat to your castle by the sea and write, and granted there are fewer distractions there. But there will be distractions. Watching birds, or finding a sudden need to re-brick the east wall, or to consult with the cook about the menu or to build that fountain you’ve been meaning to…distractions to pull the believer off the path always existed and satan is crafty and subtle about it.

As Pliny wrote, “All this seems important on the actual day” but when you look back over 15 days or 30 days or 6 months and realize you still haven’t finished the Bible reading or haven’t prayed as much as you’ve wanted or haven’t reached out to struggling friend…you then realize all the other stuff added up to something quite pointless.

Christian Productivity expert Reagan Rose said succinctly: “I don’t have enough time!” That’s a lie. You have precisely enough time to do what God has called you to do. The problem is all the other stuff you’re doing instead.”

Whether we live in 2023, 33, or 3003BC, there were and are always distractions in which the believer to indulge. The former times were not any better or different than they are now. The difference in our lives (if you’re a true believer) is Christ, and His Spirit in us. Rely on Him, subdue the flesh, focus, and get to work!

We THINK we’re so busy, we are never too busy to do the things that count- working for Christ’s glory.
Photo by Karen Lau on Unsplash


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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