Focus

Updated: Jul 31, 2019

How to get what you really, really want in life

In writing this article, I am making the following assumptions: Firstly, that what you really want, more than anything else, is to do the will of God.


And secondly, when your will and God’s will clash, you will deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him. Like Jesus, you will say, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Mat 26.39). If that describes you, then read on!


For our text we will consider the story of Elijah and Elisha in First Kings chapter nineteen, and Second Kings chapter two. The scene opens with the prophet Elijah fleeing from Jezebel — the vengeful wife of Ahab and the real power behind the throne — and taking refuge in a cave on Mount Sinai. The Lord visits his discouraged and fearful servant, but instead of pandering to his self-pity, tells him to get on with the job and complete his life mission:


Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place” (1 Kings 19.15-16).


So Elijah departed from Mount Sinai and found Elisha ploughing a field with twelve yoke of oxen. The scripture tells us very little about Elisha’s background, apart from the fact that he was the son of a man named Shaphat, and that he was a relatively wealthy and successful farmer, evidenced by the number of oxen that he owned. Elisha had undoubtedly heard about Elijah’s ministry and his victory over the false prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mount Carmel.


As Elijah passed by he threw his mantle on Elisha, signifying that he was electing Elisha to receive the authority and power of his prophetic office. We do not know if Elisha harboured any aspirations for prophetic ministry, or indeed, had any premonition of his divine calling. However, Elisha may well have been expecting the call when it came, given that the role of the prophetic word is to fertilise the seed that has been planted in one’s heart.


Expectation and preparation notwithstanding, Elisha still had a choice to make: to leave that which was known and secure, and follow the prophet into an exciting but uncertain future, or to stay in the comfort zone of order and predictability. As Wayne Dyer observed in Your Erroneous Zones, “Security means knowing what is going to happen. Security means no excitement, no risks, no challenge. Security means no growth and no growth means death.”


Elisha, to his eternal credit, decided to forsake all and become Elijah’s adjutant and heir-apparent. He literally burned his bridges behind him by taking the yoke of oxen (his main stream of income), slaughtering them and boiling their flesh, using the oxen’s equipment as firewood. In other words, there was no turning back, no safety net, no plan ‘B’.


Jesus may well have been alluding to this example when he urged those who were interested in his ministry to forsake all and follow him. “No one, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9.62). But the tendency, both then and now, is to procrastinate; to allow other things to distract one from the goal, to allow other priorities to divert one from the path.


“Lord, I really want to follow you, but first let me bury my father … but first let me say goodbye to my friends and family … but first let me inspect the property that I have bought … but first let me road test the oxen I have purchased … but first let me attend to my wife …” (Luke 9.19-61; 14.18-20). Mindful of this deadly trait of human nature, the writer of Proverbs adjures:


“Let your eyes look straight ahead, and your eyelids look right before you. Ponder the path of your feet, and let all your ways be established. Do not turn to the right or the left; remove your foot from evil.”

(Prov 4.25-27)


To put it another way, “Make up your mind, commit yourself, and stay focused.” The letter to the Hebrews, which is essentially an admonition to maintain one’s faith in the face of adversity, states that if the Old Testament pioneers had been mindful of the particular country they had left behind, they would have found constant opportunity to return to it (Heb 11.15).


A case in point is the generation of Israelites that Moses led out of slavery in Egypt. Rather than focusing on the land of plenty that awaited them, and the ability of God to sustain them, the people allowed their minds to stray back to ‘the good old days’ in Egypt, which incidentally, weren’t very good at all.


“We remember the fish which we freely ate in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” they cried, conveniently forgetting the cruelty and oppression and marginalisation (Num 11.5). “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full” they said, omitting to mention the slave labour and segregation (Ex 16.3). “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt” they chanted, ignoring the hostile forces that plotted revenge on the other side of the Red Sea (Num 14.4). The human mind has a marvelous way of sanitising the past and rewriting history!


For this reason, the apostle Paul exhorted the believers in Philippi to forget the past and to reach for the future, to press toward the goal (Phil 3.13-14), or as Hebrews 12.2 puts it, “to look away from every distraction and to gaze steadily at Jesus, the Source and Perfecter of faith.”


Sharpening the focus

After this dynamic encounter, Elisha spent the next ten years attending to the prophet’s needs, or as the scripture euphemistically puts it, “pouring water on the hands of Elijah” (2 Kings 3.11). During this time he would have had ample opportunity to sharpen his focus, or lose it altogether. Make no mistake: this was no romantic walk in the park (or the desert). Elijah was a sometimes ill-tempered, oftentimes unpredictable old man who displayed extraordinary spiritual powers and a very limited set of social skills. Not the easiest master under which to serve an apprenticeship!


There must have been times when Elisha thought to himself, “This is too hard… this guy is too demanding… I didn’t sign up just to do the dishes…” If Elijah had a nature just like ours (James 5.17), then Elisha also had a nature just like ours. Great though he may have been, he was not immune to the temptations of disappointment and discouragement. The only way he could persevere through ten long, hard, and unrewarding years was to keep his eyes on the goal that was set before him: the mantle of Elijah.


Eventually the time came for the Lord to take up Elijah into heaven and to open a new chapter in Israel’s history. Three times Elijah urged Elisha to stay behind and three times Elisha refused by swearing an oath: “As the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you!” (2 Kings 2.2,4,6). Having come this far, Elisha was not about to be deterred by peer pressure or appeased with consolation prizes.


A decade of preparation was reduced to one dramatic moment as “the two of them” stood by the Jordan River. Elijah took his mantle, rolled it up, and struck the water. Immediately the river was banked up on both sides, enabling the prophet and his apprentice to cross over on dry ground. Elijah turned to the young man who, through years of dedication and sacrifice, had earned the right to inherit the mantle: “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” (2 Kings 2.9).


Elisha knew exactly what he wanted, exactly what God had called him to be and do, exactly what his life mission was all about. Without hesitation he said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” It’s important to understand that Elisha was not asking for a greater degree of power or a richer endowment of the prophetic spirit than that which Elijah himself had enjoyed. Rather, he was alluding to a unique provision of the Mosaic Law that awarded the largest and choicest share of the family inheritance to the firstborn son (Deut 21.17). Known as ‘the double portion’, the lion’s share of the inheritance belonged to the firstborn son by virtue of his birthright, and in view of his incumbent responsibility as head of the household (Luke 15.31).

As Jamieson, Fausset & Brown’s commentary notes, Elisha was simply requesting “to be heir to the prophetic office and gifts of his master”. Elisha’s right to ask for the mantle was based on his spiritual birthright (the fact that he had been called to succeed Elijah), and also his record of faithful service in the master’s household. Like Paul he could say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, and because of this, there is laid up for me a crown …” (2 Tim 4.7-8).


The story of Elisha demonstrates the importance of maintaining one’s focus right until the end. Elijah said to his would-be successor: “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so” (2 Kings 2.10). Happily for Elisha, he kept his eyes fixed on Elijah and his mantle, and when a chariot of fire suddenly appeared and carried Elijah up into heaven by a whirlwind, he witnessed the whole dramatic event.


He took hold of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces, picked up the mantle of Elijah, and returned to the bank of the Jordan. Striking the water with the mantle, Elisha cried out, “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” Once again the water banked up on both sides, allowing him to cross over on dry ground. And when the sons of the prophets from Jericho saw him, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha!”


Focus means ignoring distractions

Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Mat 22.14), or to put it another way, “Many are given a chance in life, but few pay the price to succeed.” It’s not enough just to have a vision. It’s not enough just to receive a prophetic calling. It’s not enough just to be set apart by the laying on of hands. It’s not enough just to be equipped with spiritual gifts. Visions and callings are not self-fulfilling. It takes a bucket load of dedication, perseverance, and commitment to bring them to fruition.


Paul reminded his protégé Timothy that he had been raised in an environment of faith, and that he had been set apart unto the purposes of God and endowed with spiritual gifts through the laying on of the hands of the elders at Iconium and Lystra, and of Paul himself (1 Tim 4.14; 2 Tim 1.5-6). Prophecies and endowments notwithstanding, Timothy’s destiny was not a fait accompli. The realization of Timothy’s potential would be contingent on his dedication and commitment — in other words, his focus. For this reason Paul admonished Timothy to “meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all” (1 Tim 4.15), and to “be strong … endure hardship … be diligent … be watchful … fulfil your ministry” (2 Tim 2.1,3,15; 4.5).


Focus means ignoring the distractions that arise, and devoting one’s attention to and channelling one’s energy toward the one thing that really matters (Luke 10.40-42). Focus means deciding what is most important in life, and jettisoning superfluous cargo in order to achieve the goal (Acts 27.18-19). Focus means discovering what is most valuable, and relinquishing inferior objects to obtain the prize (Mat 13.44-46). Focus is concentrated power!


In conclusion, I would like to tell you a story about a friend of mine named John. I first met John about twenty years ago when he was pastoring a church on the east coast of Australia. John invited me to preach in his church on several occasions, and I got to know him very well. Before entering the ministry, John had been a highly successful businessman, with over 10,000 people working in his organization.


I once asked John to reveal the secret of his success. He replied, “For the first five years, my wife and I never watched television, never read a newspaper, and never listened to the radio. We spent every waking hour of the day and night developing our business.” That, my friends, is called focus!

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