When I was younger, academic excellence was high on my list of priorities. I reasoned it this way – by nature that school took up the bulk of my time, the least I could do was to excel in it, the best I could.
I was studying to the glory of God, I reasoned.
In hindsight, I think it is more accurate to say the pursuit of good grades became more of a distraction from following Christ. Not that we shouldn’t do all things in excellence, as working unto God. But I now recognise that it would’ve been even more God-honouring had I stayed close to Him and depended on Him constantly – not just two weeks before exam season.
It would also have pleased God were I to have served my friends through encouragement and prayer – which I did occasionally, but not of my own initiative. Instead, whenever I did, it was a courtesy reciprocal measure when someone prayed for me first.
Even today, I think it is easy to fall prey to the belief that by doing things for Christ, it is tantamount to following Him. In reality, the constant “doing” may pose as a distraction from being in His presence.
For a short season last year, I was helping with a project in church. In the midst of the many tight timelines to meet, on top of the grind of work, it was easy to be distracted from fixing my eyes on Jesus.
It didn’t help that because I busied myself with “ministry work”, I didn’t realise it was a distraction until several months later. Perhaps it is easier to be distracted from following Christ in today’s modern age where many things compete for my attention and affection.
However, perusing the Bible led me to realise this sentiment is not new. In fact, the Bible records examples of God’s people being distracted from doing His work, both in the Old Testament and New Testament.
RELUCTANT REBUILDERS, FRUITLESS PROSPERITY
At times, it is our own priorities that distract us from following Christ.
In the Old Testament, God’s people had been exiled into Babylon because of their idolatry and disobedience towards God (Jeremiah 25:7-11).
At the end of the exile, through a decree issued by King Cyrus (Ezra 1:2-3), God instructed the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple (2 Chronicles 36:23) that had been destroyed by the Babylonians (2 Kings 25:9).
The returning exiles had attempted to rebuild the temple (Ezra 3:8), but the king had ordered work on the temple to cease (Ezra 4:21).
Self-focused efforts lead to frustration, as God has not blessed the labour.
This caused them to become idle, neglecting to put the rebuilding of God’s house as their priority (Haggai 1:3, 4, 9). Instead of viewing it as an essential duty God desired of them, they abandoned progress on it in favour of pursuing their own priorities.
In addition, they made excuses for their behaviour, claiming the time had not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord (Haggai 1:2).
Amidst this, God called on His distracted people to consider their ways (Haggai 1:5), warning them that their personal pursuits were futile.
Their self-focused efforts led to frustration, as God had not blessed the people’s labour – as a result of their preference for personal priorities over temple rebuilding, which God had called them to.
MISPLACED PRIORITIES: DISTRACTIONS FROM DISCIPLESHIP
While we may not realise it, the pursuit of service can also distract us from following Christ.
While Jesus was in Bethany, He entered the house of Martha and her sister, Mary.
As a conscientious hostess, Martha busied herself with serving her guest – which she felt was the right thing to do for the time. On the other hand, her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him teach.
Despite this, it is Mary whom Jesus defended, and Martha whom Jesus gently rebuked.
Jesus rebuked Martha to be “anxious and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41), in contrast to Mary, who had chosen “the good portion”, which will not be taken away from her (Luke 10:42).
Good things can become false gods when they become more important to us than God.
In this narrative, Martha had misplaced priorities and was “troubled by many things”. However, it was not her heartfelt desire to serve that Jesus sought to correct – He wanted to correct her from being distracted from the Lord and His word.
In being immersed in the preparations, Martha became anxious and judgmental toward her sister (Luke 10:40), because the demands of service had left her overwhelmed.
In the same way, good things can become false gods when they become more important to us than God – like the way my pursuit for good grades once was, or more recently, by being caught up in constant doing things and serving, even in ministry.
SET YOUR MINDS ON THINGS ABOVE
Knowing this, how does one respond?
According to Colossians 3, as Christians, we are to set our hearts on “things above”, because we “have been raised with Christ” (Colossians 3:1-2).
This means we are not to be preoccupied with our own priorities – such as work or school – which will not be of eternal significance in our lives. Instead, we must first focus on a life spent in close fellowship with God and in obedience to Him. Everything we do flows from that place, and no doubt will they too be done well and right.
Having said that, “setting our minds on things above” does not mean we’re not allowed to think of anything else. It does, however, mean that as we engage in our earthly pursuits – whether at work or in school – we are not consumed by them.
l wish I could say I’ve figured things out and am no longer fazed by distractions – in truth, this is a process, an ongoing journey of discerning the things which distract me from following Christ.
I know these distractions will take different forms in different seasons of life, and I will not be perfected on this side of eternity.
Nonetheless, I will persevere in keeping my eyes on Christ – bearing in mind that it is Him who works in me, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
With His help, I desire to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him (Colossians 1:10a).