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Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Heb. 13:3)
This greeting is in my own hand—Paul. Remember my imprisonment. Grace be with you. (Col. 4:18)
This sounds right on, doesn’t it? We’re supposed to make an effort to dwell on the hardships that our brothers and sisters in the Lord are currently going through. Well, no, this is actually terrible advice, and if you follow it, you’re going to end up drained, depressed and burdened by other people’s problems. Today Christians are getting tortured and gunned down and buried alive by sadistic terrorists. What would it really look like if you tried to mentally transport yourself into the life of one of these people? Do you think you’d be able to digest your breakfast? Do you think you’d be able to concentrate at work? Do you think you’d be able to perform any of the functions that God wants you to do today if you were busy obsessing over someone else’s trials?
Demons know that if they can keep you up all night crying over the fact that your best friend just lost her baby, you’re going to wake up the next day irritable, short-tempered, and impatient towards everyone around you. When we just blindly accept every bit of instruction we’re given by the human authors of the Bible, we quickly get ourselves into trouble.
Why did Paul ask people to remember his imprisonment? Because Paul was as selfish as the rest of us. He had personal experience with getting beaten and imprisoned. He knew how depressing it was to be trapped in some miserable cell feeling forgotten and lonely. And just as you want everyone to stop and care when you ram your toe into a piece of furniture, Paul wanted everyone to stop and focus on his personal troubles. He wanted to be able to sit in that cell and believe that he wasn’t forgotten—that he had friends out there whose lives were at a standstill because they were so distressed over his circumstances. Maybe he had friends like this, and maybe he didn’t. But for him to try and suggest it is our Christlike duty to dwell on the problems of others is totally out of line.
The author of Hebrews tells us to get ourselves in such a lather that we feel mentally transported to that prison cell or scourging session. Trying to inflict such mental torment on yourself is only going to get you totally sidetracked from progressing in your own walk with God. He isn’t going to give you the resources to deal with other people’s trials. He’s only going to give you resources for your own trials. To avoid overextending yourself, you need to not blur the lines between you and other people.
Jesus is God Almighty. But when He was on earth, He didn’t act like God. We didn’t see Him doing the things that God does—holding the atoms together, coordinating billions of lives, directing the activities of demons and angels. All three of our glorious Creators are omnipresent—meaning that They are everywhere at once. When Jesus showed up in a physical form on earth, that wasn’t the only place that He was. At the same time that He walked among us, He was still doing all of His God stuff. But He didn’t let us see these things. To us, He just seemed like a regular Man with special powers from Yahweh. It was never Jesus’ goal to give us a close up view of God Almighty. Instead, He walked among us in human form to teach us how our three Creators want us to relate to Them. Jesus role-played for us. He put on a grand charade as a human being right in front of us, and when He left, He told us to follow His example.
So what was His example? What kind of focus did Jesus model for us on earth? He modeled an UPWARD focus, and an INWARD focus. What kind of focus are you taught to have in the Church today? An OUTWARD focus. See the problem? These are not the same thing.
Both Paul and the author of Hebrews urge Christians to focus on the trials other Christians are going through. This is not correct. Focusing on others is going to drain the life out of you. God has not equipped you to do anyone’s life but your own. Now wait a minute, this is starting to sound rather selfish, isn’t it? Yes, but it’s a good kind of selfishness. It’s selfish to put one’s own relationship with God first in life, yet this is what our Creators teach us to do.
The Jews who interfaced with Jesus didn’t think He was another Almighty God who was equal to the magnificent Yahweh in every way. Instead, they viewed Jesus as just a regular human being who had been called by Yahweh to do some special ministry. Jesus capitalized on this misunderstanding by talking at times as if He was just another human taking orders from God. He then modeled what pleasing God looks like by saying that He only ever did what Yahweh told Him to do. When Yahweh said it was time to teach, Jesus taught. When Yahweh said it was time to stop, Jesus stopped. It didn’t matter how many people were still standing in line waiting to get healed or exorcised. When Jesus was done, He left. When He wanted to be alone with Yahweh to refresh His own soul, He gave His boys the slip. This is how Jesus appeared to behave to others. In real life, He is God Almighty, and not just a servant of Yahweh. But He role played being a servant for our benefit so we could understand that honoring God does include having boundaries and staying tunnel focused on what God wants instead of getting sidetracked by what people want. Paul wanted other people to think about him and contemplate how miserable he probably was. Well, in real life, that probably wasn’t God’s will for most Christians. So should people put the will of Paul over the will of God? Certainly not.
Suppose you get into a tiff with your friend. What is the fastest way to resolve this situation? An OUTWARD focus will only keep you fixated on how much she’s annoying you by the way she’s acting. An INWARD focus will cause you to ask, “What’s my problem? Why am I being so touchy?” An UPWARD focus will cause you to look to God for guidance and help in getting over yourself. Maybe He’ll tell you to apologize. Maybe He’ll show you some fear that your friend triggered which you need to work on with Him. Either way, the solution lies within, not without.
In the Church, we’ve turned selfishness into such a bad word that we’ve lost sight of what our spiritual priorities should be. What is God going to judge you by in eternity? He will judge you by how well your soul responded to Him—not by what other people thought of you or by how perfectly you behaved on the outside. God cares about the heart. All through the Bible, both Yahweh and Jesus teach us that with God, what matters is INWARD and UPWARD. It’s your insides that count, not your outsides. It’s your internal motivations that matter, not your external deeds. If God cares more about INWARD things than He does about OUTWARD things, then it’s pretty clear where our focus needs to be.
“Why is God blessing that other Christian more than He’s blessing me? How come her ministry is growing faster than mine? The government is becoming so corrupt—soon they’ll take all of our freedoms away. My friend is suffering so horribly with her cancer. There are so many homeless people in my community. The kid next door is getting abused by his father. My coworker is so smug—he thinks he’s better than everyone else.”
These are the kinds of thoughts we think when we are focused OUTWARD. Are these thoughts going to help you grow closer to God? No, they’re going to help you grow in envy, fear, and anxiety. When we focus OUTWARD, we always end up drained.
When Jesus received word that His dear friend Lazarus was dying, He didn’t start moping around. He didn’t try to share in Lazarus’ fatal illness. Instead, He modeled keeping His focus UPWARD and INWARD. His UPWARD focus resulted in clear direction: He knew Yahweh wanted Him to stall around until Lazarus had been dead for three days. His INWARD focus resulted in calm obedience as He focused on staying aligned with Yahweh in His own heart. Now all of this was part of His charade of course, because in real life Jesus and Yahweh are Peer equals who are always in unity with Each Other. Jesus stalled around with Lazarus because He wanted to stall around, not because Yahweh was bossing Him. But the charade Jesus puts on is very beneficial to us.
It wasn’t until Jesus finally arrived at His friend’s house that He expressed compassion for the dead man’s sisters. Mary and Martha were terribly distraught. Jesus loved them, and when He was with them, He wept with them. God wants us to show compassion for others—but only when He says the moment is right. He doesn’t want us getting stuck in an eternal session of weeping or grieving. He doesn’t want us to be controlled by our circumstances. The widow who never stops grieving is focused too much on her OUTWARD circumstances. She loses sight of the fact that God is the One who defines her, and she stops trying to develop her relationship with Him. Instead, she fixates on an EXTERNAL element that is no longer available to her. If she turned her focus INWARD and UPWARD, she could acknowledge the depth of her grief and ask God to help her let go of what He has taken away from her. When we drop the INWARD and UPWARD focus in life, we get stalled.
Now INWARD and UPWARD must happen first and they must happen together. We can’t just be UPWARD, and we can’t just be INWARD. When we try to live life with only an UPWARD focus, we start denying our struggles with God. We act like pleasing Him is all that matters to us and we refuse to acknowledge the effect God has on us. Sometimes God breaks our hearts. Sometimes He bitterly disappoints us. Sometimes He scares us. If we refuse to focus INWARD, then our relationship with God becomes shallow and filled with hypocrisy. We must engage with Him without trying to pretend that we are no longer a separate being. Christianity isn’t about trying to lose ourselves and become one with the universe. Other religions chase after such foolishness, and they teach that the ultimate goal in life is to become nothing and to lose yourself in the cosmos. But God designed us as creatures who are quite different than Himself and He has no intention of causing us to slowly fade away into some meaningless mass of matter. We are important to God, and we need to engage with Him as the complex creatures that He made us to be. This is a dynamic relationship of two independent wills, not a Master and His drone.
When we keep our main focus UPWARD and INWARD, then we’ll find that the OUTWARD takes care of itself. When God wants us to love on someone, He will tap us to do so, and we will hear Him because we are focused UPWARD and always listening for His Voice. When God wants us to give to the poor or join some ministry effort, He’ll tell us. We don’t need to go through life trying to search for ways to earn God’s approval. We don’t need to go around trying to fix people or overcome world problems that God wants to exist. There is supposed to be poverty, hunger, sickness, suffering, and violence in this world. “World peace” is a slogan that Satan came up with in order to get us distracted from God’s priorities.
In the Church, we’re taught that an OUTWARD focus is the most important thing. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Have you ever noticed that you hear the second command quoted far more often than the first? Jesus said that the first and greatest command was to love God with all that we are. This requires an UPWARD and INWARD focus. The UPWARD part is that we focus on God, the object of our devotion. The INWARD part is that we focus on our heart attitudes—constantly choosing to keep them in alignment with the Holy Spirit. When we live according to God’s priorities, we never have to worry about not loving or helping people enough. God will take care of these things. When we’re focused UPWARD and INWARD, we’re going to be swift to recognize and respond to God’s convictions. But when we’re focused OUTWARD—which is what the Church teaches us to do—then we get all tangled up in guilt trips, impressing others, striving, and statistics.
“How many visitors came to church last Sunday? How many people have we baptized this year? Are our small groups growing or shrinking?” Do you hear the OUTWARD focus in these questions? Do you ever wonder why our churches have become such cesspools of carnality? Because they are focused on all the wrong things. They’re trying to impress people when they should be focused on pleasing God. A pastor should be thinking, “God, what do You want me to say this week?” This is an UPWARD focus. And when God answers him with some timely message, the man must turn his focus on keeping his heart aligned with the Holy Spirit until the task is done—this is the INWARD part. But this is not what we do. Instead, too many of our pastors look around and say, “What would the people enjoy hearing about this week? How can I entertain them with my delivery style? Who’s popular in the Church right now? Who’s got a new bestselling book? How about I just imitate him?” All of this is OUTWARD focused, and it results in shallow, carnal slop being dished out from the pulpit week after week. In the Church, it’s all about stats and making people feel good. Our leaders are focused OUTWARD and they’re encouraging us to do the same. But listen to how Jesus talks:
“For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak.” (John 12:49)
“…therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me.” (John 12:50)
“…but so that the world may know that I love the Father, I do exactly as the Father commanded Me.” (Jn 14:31)
Jesus modeled living life hyper-focused on His personal relationship with Yahweh. Over and over again, He made it clear to us that pleasing Yahweh was His top priority. We can’t do what Jesus did unless we focus on what He focused on: knowing and pleasing God. Jesus spoke of only one God to the Jews, because Yahweh was the only God they knew about. Today we know we have three Gods: Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. We can’t please our Gods unless we know what They want. We can’t know what They want unless we listen to Them, and that means focusing on Them.
Life is about you and God. Sure, there are other people in this world, but they cannot become your top priority or you will end up in a mess. You have to do things in God’s order, and His first order of business is that you focus on loving Him with all that you are. If that’s the only thing you think about for the rest of your life, all the rest of it—including loving others and doing good works—will happen naturally. We can’t do anything on our own, and the approval of other people is utterly meaningless. It is only God’s approval that matters. No matter what is happening around you, focus on God. Ask Him to make you all that He wants you to be. Focus on your own walk, not someone else’s. It doesn’t matter who is being persecuted and who is being blessed—what God cares about is how you are responding to Him in the privacy of your own soul. Keeping your focus UPWARD and INWARD—this is what it means to imitate Christ.
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