I have noticed what appears to be a shift in the outlook of the American church. Granted, this is not a scientific observation; I will provide little or no statistical analysis, and I am glad footnotes are not required. But it seems that we have begun to focus increasingly inward and increasingly outward.
We have written books and given seminars on deeply experiencing God in a personal way. Our churches abound with ministries for the poor, for the hurting and for the lost. We are building community groups designed to bring us closer together and hosting events that bring in unchurched masses.
At this point, many may be wondering what could possibly be wrong with more introspection, especially when it is combined with an increased awareness of those around us and a willingness to serve. Absolutely nothing.
But what concerns me is that which has shriveled as these areas have blossomed … our view upward. I know this is a silly notion, or certainly appears that way at first glance. After all, how could all these wonderful things be happening in the church if they were not driven by a profound love for Christ? Unfortunately, I can find examples of this in my own life, much too easily. There are times I have wanted to lead worship for my glory, days I have been much more concerned with “bettering myself” than losing myself and being found in Christ.
I recently read The Heavenly Man, the story of Brother Yun, a leader in China’s house church movement. He gives us a firm warning after experiencing burnout in ministry: "If you are a servant of the Lord, let me encourage you to please, please humbly watch that you don’t slip into the same error I did. The Lord God jealously desires us for Himself. He is the lover of your souls. If we ever put anything before our relationship with Jesus—even our work for Jesus—then we will be ensnared" [emphasis mine].
The growth of “outward and inward” gives us much reason to rejoice. The Church must indeed be a light in an increasingly dark world. But we must never forget that our efforts do not even provide a glimmer, while God’s work through us produces a vibrant light, so that those who see might praise our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).
In Philippians 3:8-12, we learn that when we look up at Jesus, we become more acquainted with the character of our great God, and all other things become rubbish in comparison. The passage describes a righteousness derived through faith, and we know that faith comes by hearing the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). In other words, in order to lift our eyes toward heaven, we must have our noses in His book. A.W. Tozer said, “We can hold a correct view of the truth only by daring to believe everything that God has said about Himself.” To know what God has said about Himself, we must know His living and active word (Hebrews 4:12).
As the body of Christ, let us continue to earnestly seek God, to lift up our eyes to the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-3). As we follow Christ, we will learn to walk more like Him, one step at a time. And even as He is continually changing the very beating of our hearts, He will lead us into the world and display His love—through us—to all we encounter.
We must look outward and inward—but we must look first to Christ, and allow Him to direct our eyes.
A bishop of the early Church, who was a remarkable example of the virtue of contentment, was asked his secret. The venerable old man replied: “It consists in nothing more than making a right use of my eyes. In whatever state I am, I first of all look up to heaven and remember that my principal business here is to get there. Then I look down upon the earth, and call to mind how small a place I shall occupy in it when I die and am buried. I then look around in the world, and observe what multitudes there are who are in many respects more unhappy than myself. Thus I learn where true happiness is placed, where all our cares must end and what little reason I have to complain.”