No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. (2 Timothy 2:4)
If we’re going to successfully run the race of faith with endurance (Hebrews 12:1) and finish our course and the ministry we receive from the Lord Jesus (Acts 20:24), we must learn the martial art of doing less.
I call it a “martial art” because of Paul’s military metaphor in 2 Timothy 2:4. By “doing less” I don’t mean (necessarily) working less hours or doing less intense work. I mean doing fewer things more effectively. Mark Forster is right when he says,
We tend to think unsuccessful people are unsuccessful because they sit around doing nothing. But it’s often for quite the opposite reason: they take on far too much—all sorts of wonderful projects at the same time—and never bring any of them to fruition. (Do It Tomorrow, 18)
A fragmented focus results in our carrying the debilitating weight of doing too much.
Time Is Not the Problem
Doing too much is not a time problem. It’s a distraction problem. When Martha was frazzled with tasks, Jesus said that her “many things” were making her “anxious and troubled.” Only “one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:41–42).
Our days are as long as God designed them to be and we have as many days as God allots to us (Psalm 139:16). Each of us have God-given “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Romans 12:6), as well as weaknesses that God has assigned to us so that Christ’s power may be uniquely shown through us (2 Corinthians 12:9).
“We must give focused time to what we want to be transformed into.”
That means each of us have God’s supply of time and God’s supply of capacity for God’s call on our lives. What we need is to remain clear on that calling and exercise a faith-empowered ruthlessness to say no to distractions.
So how do we progress in this martial art of laying aside a fragmented focus? I think Romans 12:2 can help us:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
We Are Conformed to What We Admire
First, remember what conforms us. God designed us to be conformed to whatever it is that we admire — our passions (1 Peter 1:14). When it comes to time, we invest it in things we believe will help us become what we want to be.
Doing too many things can be an indicator that worldly passions are growing and beginning to choke out our passion for God and his kingdom. Any time investment that isn’t helping to conform us to the image of Jesus is conforming us to some kind of worldly image. And it means we have some laying aside to do.
Transformation Occurs Through Concentration
Second, remember that transformation occurs through concentration. We must give focused time to what we want to be transformed into. All our experience bears this out. Concentrated exercise transforms flab into firm muscle. Concentrated practice transforms an untrained skill to a proficient skill.
When it comes to being transformed to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29) — sharing his loves and longings—there is no shortcut. Transformation occurs through concentration. We often call it meditation. Our mind is renewed through frequent lingering on, looking at, and listening to Jesus in his Word.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18)
We pursue Spirit-empowered transformation through prayerful, concentrated contemplation on the person, promises, and mission of Jesus Christ.
Test By Asking “Why?”
Third, test every demand for your attention by asking “why” and other exposing questions. Questions are mental machetes God gives us to slash through the overgrowth of the world’s demands on us. We are not to uncritically take a new obligation on. We must test it against what we want to become. So we must ask obligations questions like Why should I do this? Why now? What is it promising me? What kingdom end will it accomplish? Will it fragment my focus on my primary callings? Why does it feel so emotionally compelling to me?
The goal is becoming adept at this through “constant practice” (Hebrews 5:14) so that most entanglements can be discerned and resisted almost immediately.
When I Don’t Desire Focus
Do fewer things and do them more effectively. Ruthlessly say no to distractions. This sounds wonderful when we feel fragmented.
But the problem is that we are generally more distracted by things we desire than things we don’t. The battle is saying no to distractions when we want to be distracted.
“We are generally more distracted by things we desire than things we don’t.”
So be prepared. When you resolve to resist “civilian pursuits” your spiritual enemy will lob civilian desire grenades at you. He wants to keep you distracted. He does not want you thinking about deep realities that produce deep desires that result in focused soul-transforming, kingdom-advancing work. So he will encourage you to chase one attractive impulse after another in the hopes of minimizing your impact for good. We must “not [be] ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 2:11). We must expect distractions to glow with deceptive attraction and not be seduced. Ultimately only “one thing is necessary.”
Linger with Jesus
Doing too many things is a debilitating weight that God doesn’t want you to carry in the race of faith. He wants you to lay it aside so you can run with focused faith. His promise to “supply all your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19) includes supplying the time you need to fulfill his call on you.
Lingering with and listening to Jesus will renew our minds, transforming us more into his image and enabling us to discern the focus-fragmenting pressures of the world by testing them with exposing questions. This is the martial art of resisting “civilian pursuits.”