Some of it may be modern life. Some of it may just be human life. Confusion. Complexity. Uncertainty. More data than we can get our minds around. More options than we know what to do with. More happening that we can really process or learn from.
We are human, and not God. And the complications and worries of our world and everyday lives make for constant reminders. Yet even in the sea of uncertainties and complexities that humble us — if we will receive God’s humbling hand in them — God doesn’t mean for us to remain ever-disoriented. Some disorientation is good. But God also wants us to reorient. To live in this present age is to learn rhythms of confusion and clarity, complexity and simplicity, being disoriented and then wonderfully, preciously reoriented.
“Choose the good portion, who will not be taken away from you.”
In lives teeming with many things, God reminds us at times of the one thing. The Scriptures strengthen us with one thing that deserves our focus and reorients our souls when they begin to wander. Maybe you could use that reminder right now. I need it often.
So, what is this one thing that stands ready to steady us? We hear it in the Psalms, and in Paul’s letters, and in the voice of Christ in the Gospels — one essential answer in three-part harmony.
David Says the Lord
First, hear the singing voice of the great King David, the greatest of the many kings of God’s first-covenant people. He sings in Psalm 27:4,
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple.
So, David’s “one thing” is this: to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” Which may strike you as odd at first. That’s the one thing he seeks after? Is that worthy of such singular focus? And what does he mean by it?
David tells us in his next line why he wants to “dwell in the house of the Lord”: he longs to “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.” In other words, this is no obscure desire. This indeed is a longing worthy of a “one thing” focus. He wants to see God in all his glory. The house of the Lord is where the Lord is. And David not only wants to visit but to dwell there. And not just for a season but for all the days of his life.
David cares little for brick and mortar. He wants to be near to God himself. He wants to know God and enjoy God, without end. He aches to catch a glimpse of God himself, as he is, in his splendor and majesty; to know truly the God who is, and marvel at him, and know him; to hear this God speak and respond back in relationship — and to remain there, with God.
So, for David, the one thing, in the end, is not a thing but a who. It is God himself. Amid the threats of enemies plotting against him, the complexities of governing a nation, and the worries about his own family and friends, David reorients himself with this one thing: he wants to see God and know God and enjoy God and worship God. He reorients around God. The pursuit of God as the great overarching pursuit of his life gives the king clarity and stability and wisdom as he enters into and fulfills his calling in the everyday complexities and uncertainties of life.
Paul Says Christ
Now take up the apostle Paul’s first-century letter to the church in Philippi and read what he scratched into parchment. Here Paul writes, as David sang, with such wonderfully clarifying singularity of purpose and calling, even in the midst of complicated tensions within and outside the church.
“David reorients himself with this one thing: he wants to see God and know God and enjoy God and worship God.”
Early in the letter, he writes of his “eager expectation and hope . . . that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). That is bracing clarity. He explains, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Christ will be honored by Paul’s death, when Paul compares all the losses that death brings with the one gain of being in the immediate presence of Christ, and he turns to Christ and says, “Gain!” And that singularity of desire and focus, if Paul is to remain for now in the flesh, will mean “to live is Christ” — which he explains in greater detail at the climax of his letter.
As with David long before him, Paul points to knowing God — now expressed as knowing him in his Son, Jesus Christ — as the pursuit that surpasses all others: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Paul longs to “gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:8–9). And again, in verse 10, he says he wants to “know him” — and adds, “and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). Paul longs “by any means possible” to “attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:11) that he, like David, may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of his life, to be in the immediate presence of God himself in Christ.
Paul then clarifies, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12). First, Jesus took hold of Paul; now Paul, energized in Jesus, presses on to take hold of him. Then comes his “one thing”:
Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13–14)
In a world where sirens call from every side, Paul drowns them all out to hear one great voice, and only one, call above them all: the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. This one call, this one focus, this one longing — to set his compass on the person of Christ, to know and enjoy God in Christ — this one thing gives him clarity and stability and a measure of certainty to steady his soul and keep his feet moving even in otherwise crippling conflicts and afflictions.
Jesus Says Me
Finally, come to the long, winding road from Galilee to Jerusalem and hear the voice of Jesus. David sings about God himself. Paul writes about God himself in Christ. But what about Christ himself? What would be his “one thing” to which he would direct us?
“To live in this present age is to learn rhythms of confusion and clarity, complexity and simplicity.”
On his way to Jerusalem to die, he came to the village of Mary and Martha. Mary, of course, “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (Luke 10:39), while Martha was “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40). Martha thought she was doing the noble thing, but in the many things she was juggling, she was missing the all-important one thing — Christ himself. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42).
Jesus boldly, and yet humbly, identifies himself with “the good portion” — and not only to Martha. As he continued his journey to Jerusalem, he would tell a rich, young ruler, who seemed to have it all, of the one thing he lacked — the one thing that was most important of all. No matter how well the man had kept God’s commandments,
One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. (Luke 18:22)
What is the “one thing”? It’s “me.” “Follow me.” What’s blocking the way from the “one thing” is the many things in your possession: your trust in your commandment keeping, and your trust in your riches. So, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and come, Jesus says, follow me.
Jesus himself is the one thing this rich, young man lacks. And here he stands, right before this man’s eyes, offering himself to him, if he will only relinquish his grasp on the many things he possesses, open his hands, and embrace Jesus.
One in the Midst of Many
So, listen to David sing. Read Paul’s written words. And hear the straight-shooting, gentle, and confident voice of Christ himself saying “one thing.” Don’t forget the one thing. Don’t neglect the one thing.
In our lives so full, so bombarded, so distracted with so many things, remember the singular focus of David, Paul, and Jesus himself. Choose the good portion, who will not be taken away from you.