Continued from here.
You will notice that none of the three focuses comes naturally to me. I am naturally self-focused, so an upward and outward focus are not on my radar without intentionality. My inward focus is naturally unhealthy, focused on how I want the world to be rather than on what I need to focus on inwardly to glorify God. I only have this one body to house my spirit during my time on this earth, and I need to maintain it so I can do all that God has called me to do.
Over the last several years, God has led me to a more balanced focus, although I did not view my life in those terms before taking this class on small group ministry and applying the principles to my personal walk with God. The more holistic my life becomes, the more joy, peace, and fulfillment I experience in my walk with God. Not one ounce of this has come naturally – It’s all based on choice.
Why do I choose to make such “unnatural” decisions in my life? Because I love God. Loving God is the key to this transformation. No other motivation would have been enough to get my thoughts off myself and my self-absorbed way of viewing the world and intentionally aligning them with God’s ways as revealed in His Word.
I used to read commands such as love your enemies and forgive those who hurt you and ignore them because I did not believe they were actually possible to do. I am still painfully aware that living the Christian life is impossible for me to do in my own power, but all things are possible with God. I did not forgive my child abusers because it felt natural or came easily to me. I forgave them because I love God more than I hated them. I also did not do it overnight – I prayed for my child abusers day after day, week after week, month after month for over a year until God did the heavy lifting and made it happen. What was impossible for me was possible with God because He is bigger.
[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace thinking about multiple math equations. Courtesy Bitmoji.]
Continued from here.
Maintaining an outward focus is, hands down, the hardest component of the Christian life for me. Humbling myself by deferring my preference as I value others above myself feels as natural as lighting a fire in August or turning on the air conditioning during a snowstorm. And yet, how can I be a disciple of Jesus without an outward focus?
One analogy that keeps coming up in divinity school and elsewhere is about the Dead Sea. The reason the Dead Sea is so salty is that there’s no outlet. The Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea, but then there’s nowhere for that water to go, so it becomes extremely salty, making it difficult to sustain life. This is what happens when we fill with God but don’t maintain an outward focus that provides somewhere for God’s energy to flow.
I used to have a strong upward focus but a weak outward focus, which caused my spirit to become a Dead Sea. I filled up with all of this knowledge about God, but I didn’t apply it. I knew I was supposed to love my enemy, but I did not express any love to my enemy. I knew I should be generous but did not give my money (believing it was my money rather than God’s). I received God’s forgiveness but refused to forgive those who wronged me. I hoarded all that God gave me, and it made me salty.
Let’s use another example … this one from the Bible. God sent manna to the Israelites in the wilderness to feed them daily. He told them not to hoard the manna but to trust that He would provide for them daily. What happened to the manna that the Israelites hoarded in the desert? It became full of maggots and stank. What else fills with maggots and stinks? Dead bodies. Hoarding leads to death, so let’s not hoard all of the knowledge that we amass through our upward focus. Instead, incorporate an outward focus so all you learn about God has somewhere to go – to the people Jesus loved enough to die for.
To be continued…
[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace smiling under the words, “Got you on my mind.” Courtesy Bitmoji.]
I have shared before that I am currently earning a Master of Arts in Christian Education with a focus on discipleship. I am taking a class on small group ministry that I am really enjoying. One of the concepts we have discussed is the importance of small groups having a holistic focus that includes upward, inward, and outward aspects. An upward focus is on God – worshiping Him for who He is and praising Him for what He has done. An inward focus has to do with group care, such as praying for one another, bringing group members meals after surgery, and other tangible ways to invest in the lives of the other group members. An outward focus gets the group members invested in people outside of the group, such as through missions or evangelism.
Sadly, many small groups do not maintain a healthy balance among the three, and this affects the sense of community among the group. Some groups neglect the upward focus, which turns them into more of a social club than a community of believers. Because they neglect praising and worshiping God and studying His Word, they are functionally no different than a Rotary club, doing good deeds that are not motivated by a love for God. Other groups neglect an inward focus, which interferes with the group members feeling an emotional connection with one another. They gather together to study God’s Word or complete a service project, but deep relationships never develop because they are not invested emotionally in one another’s lives.
According to my textbook, an outward focus is the most commonly neglected aspect of small groups, and this causes the groups to become self-centered. They become focused on their own needs and are apathetic to the hurting world outside. This interferes with their ability to grow as disciples of Christ because Jesus came for those who were separated from God. Rather than growing as disciples, the group members can develop a consumer mentality, always looking at what’s in it for them rather than asking how they can put into practice all they are learning about their faith.
As I have pondered these dynamics as applied to small groups, I have realized that these risks are not limited to small groups of people – they also apply to me individually, to the congregation at my local church, and to the Church Universal. I’d like to explore how maintaining a healthy personal balance of an upward, inward, and outward focus can affect me in my own walk with God and help grow me as Jesus’ disciple.
To be continued…
[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace checking items off a clipboard and saying, “Will do!” Courtesy Bitmoji.]