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Fix Your Gaze

By Geoff and Sherry Surratt | Posted In Ministry Tools

Do you remember how excited everyone was for 2020? It was not only a new year, but also a new decade.

Our family was certainly looking forward to the new year. We knew 2020 had to be better than the previous two years.

In 2018, a hurricane forced our daughter to alter her dream wedding plans from a lovely outdoor venue in South Carolina to a more intimate storefront wedding space in Atlanta.

During October 2019, our youngest grandson was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck multiple times, and doctors were unable to get a heartbeat for seven minutes. We spent nearly every day for a month in the neonatal ICU, desperate for a miracle. When the baby finally came home at Thanksgiving, we were sure the worst was behind us, and a better decade was about to begin.

And then 2020 arrived. Each of us has a list of challenges we navigated this past year. Among other things, we faced fear, loss, and shutdowns in the midst of a pandemic; a summer of riots and racial tension; and a divisive election season.

As pastors, we encountered a unique set of difficulties. We dealt with a steady flow of complaints about the things we did, or didn’t do, amid the pandemic — all while helping kids with online school, taking care of parents, and keeping a church alive that couldn’t even meet on Sundays.

Just thinking about it is exhausting. No wonder we’re tired. That’s the word we hear more than any other as we talk with pastoral couples across the country. We are all just so tired.

In every challenging conversation, disappointing circumstance, and frustrated goal, God is at work, molding us into His image.

We’re tired of trying to come up with answers where there are none. We’re tired of balancing ministry and marriage when both demand and deserve more of our time. We’re tired of tending sheep who always seem to be biting us or running away.

If you don’t feel all this turmoil pulling at the seams of your marriage, you may not be paying attention. For many of us, communication and intimacy have become challenging. We don’t know how to answer the fear and discouragement we hear in our spouse’s voice, and we struggle to quiet our own soul in a sea of uncertainty.

Yet we can take comfort in the apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:8–9:

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed (NLT).

Although Paul was single, this is an apt description of the life of a pastoral couple this past year: pressed, perplexed, and hunted down. That would look great on one of those big wooden signs we have hanging in our kitchen.

Later in the same chapter, Paul says this:

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! (verses 16–17, NLT).

Paul didn’t give up, and neither will we. Things are crazy. Our relationships are challenging. We don’t know what the future will be. But we are not giving up.

We are not giving up on our marriage, no matter how much we may struggle. We are not giving up on our people, no matter how exasperating they may be. We are not giving up on our churches, no matter how unrecognizable they may have become. And we are not giving up on ministry, no matter how appealing the idea of swapping it for a green apron at Starbucks may seem at times.

So, how do we stay in the game? Paul provides the perspective we need in the final verse of 2 Corinthians 4:

So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever (verse 18, NLT).

Paul challenges us to stop staring at circumstances and focus instead on what is life giving. We need to “fix our gaze” — to move our eyes from the temporary to the eternal, from visible to the invisible, from the circumstances to the possibilities.

Here are four ways we fix our gaze to keep God’s priorities in focus:

1. Look In

The first questions we like to ask when we are going through challenging times are, “What is God working on in us? What does He want to accomplish in our lives through this storm?”

In every challenging conversation, disappointing circumstance, and frustrated goal, God is at work, molding us into His image. When we can find His purpose in the mess, it helps change our perspective.

I (Sherry) have a friend who helps me pay attention to what God is up to. She often uses the word “notice,” prompting me to take note of my thoughts and emotions, especially when I’m dealing with a difficult person.

My friend points out that emotions are just one of the ways God speaks to us, and that if we’ll slow down and listen, we can learn something about what God is doing in our hearts.

I need to ask, Why did that person or situation make me angry or fearful? What could God want me to notice about my heart or my motives? How might He want to change me? While such introspection is often hard, it helps reveal God’s love for me. My friend reminds me that God’s purpose is not to condemn me, but to help me become my best self in Him.

For me (Geoff), it is helpful to list the areas of my life that feel overwhelming and discouraging, and then spend time asking God to show me what He is doing in each place.

This is not an easy process. It normally begins with my list of grievances, a dedicated time of feeling sorry for myself, and finally a quiet period of listening as God speaks to my soul. I have to return to this exercise again and again to know God is at work. Eventually, gratitude for God’s mercy begins to break through.

What is God up to in your life right now? Is there a trusted friend who can help you process this season? Are you spending extended time with God, straining to hear His voice through the storm?

God is up to something. He has a plan for your marriage and ministry. Consider this question: What is God doing?

2. Look Around

One of the biggest challenges of 2020 was isolation from many of the people who bring us life. We love hanging out with couples who are in ministry, who aren’t overly impressed with themselves, and who love to laugh.

As soon as restrictions began to lift, we reached out to one of those couples and asked them to come over for dinner as soon as they felt comfortable. They responded, “How about tomorrow night?”

One of the most life-giving times over the past year was sitting for hours with our friends, swapping stories of doing ministry during a shutdown, comparing notes on parenting adult children, and laughing until we cried. It breathed life into the soul of our marriage.

Jesus had His disciples, but they were usually arguing among themselves, demanding something from Him, or completely missing the point. (They sound a lot like the people we lead, don’t they?) That may be why Jesus also sought out friends like Mary, Martha and Lazarus. There was something life giving for Jesus in hanging out in their home.

Every ministry couple needs the kind of friends they can be themselves around — ideally, people who don’t attend our church, who don’t rely on us for a paycheck, and who don’t have authority over us.

We need friends who can relate to the pressure and pain of ministry, and who know how to laugh and have fun. Such friends are like the release valve on a pressure cooker; they help regulate the pressure so things don’t erupt.

But why do we sometimes resist this? I (Sherry) have often noticed this tendency in myself. When I’m feeling the most discouraged, isolated and lonely, I think, I really shouldn’t infect others with my sad-sack mood. I should wait until I am better company.

If you find yourself isolated on a ministry island, separated from those with whom you can laugh and cry, Satan is setting you up. God warns us we have a very real enemy who would love to shipwreck us. Ephesians 6:12 tells us this:

For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places (NLT).

Don’t buy into Satan’s schemes. If you don’t have life-giving couples to spend time with, put finding one at the top of your to-do list.

Reach out to other ministry couples in your area, regardless of their tribe, and see if they’d be willing to have a meal together.

You won’t necessarily click with the first couple you reach out to, but don’t give up. Friendship is too important.

Consider this question: Who is life giving?

3. Look Out

Between Mark’s accounts of the sending of the Twelve and the feeding of the five thousand, the Gospel writer records this easily overlooked moment in Jesus’ ministry:

Jesus said, “Let’s go o by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat. So they left by boat for a quiet place, where they could be alone (Mark 6:31–32, NLT).

Jesus recognized the need to withdraw from the crowds and take a break from the demands of ministry. In the middle of the most important mission the world has ever seen, Jesus took time to just hang out. Apparently, Jesus felt getting away from ministry to relax was important.

We try to get away every year for our anniversary, but last year it looked like it just wasn’t going to happen. Traveling was prohibited in many locations, and the restrictions were so tight in others it seemed impossible.

However, we are so convinced of the importance of getting away, we found a safe way to make it happen. Some people might not understand, but those few days refilled our tanks at just the right time. Months later, we still reminisce about how that time together rekindled our love and renewed our spirits.

Our hearts crave the unscheduled moments, the time to hang out and talk, and the time and space to reconnect and feel like ourselves again.

What refills your tanks? Is it time in the mountains? A trip to the beach? A house on the lake? If you are worried that everything will collapse while you are gone, get over yourself. Even God takes a day off.

Consider this question: What fills you up?

4. Look Ahead

Although 2020 was difficult for everyone, we should also recognize the opportunities in front of us. As pastors, we get to rewrite what the church will look like now, and see what God might be doing next.

What new online ministry ideas have you been considering? What technology have you learned to use that inspires you to envision fresh possibilities? We are all artists sitting before a big, blank canvas, holding every color imaginable on our palette.

We love to schedule “dream dates” where we each spend time alone with God and then bring our honest, heartfelt dreams to each other. We like to frame it like this: If nothing were impossible, and God showed up, what could the next five years look like?

We love this question because, of course, nothing is impossible with God, and He always shows up when we invite Him. We have experienced firsthand how these dream dates refresh our souls, reminding us of what God has done in the past when we felt pressed from all sides.

In addition, we are reminded that we don’t serve a puny God who barely has enough for us to get by. In Ephesians 3:20, Paul describes Him as One who is “able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think” (NLT).

Infinitely more than we could even dream. This is the God we serve. Whatever audacious dream we have for our ministry or our marriage, God is already way ahead of us. He is not tied up in knots over the budget or agonizing over how many people will return to the pews, or what decision my adult child will make next. God is calling us — and you — to dream big.

Consider this question: What could be next?

Fixing Our Gaze

Paul tells us to “fix our gaze.” Where do you need to fix your gaze? Where are you focused on the wrong things, the wrong circumstances, the wrong people? The reality is, churches grow and shrink, challenges come and go, members get happy and get mad, but your relationships with God and with your spouse are forever.

Let’s agree together that our hope is in God’s promises, not in the crazy circumstances we see before us. It’s time to fix our eyes on Jesus and the dreams He has for our ministry and for our families.

This article appears in the January–March 2021 edition of Influence magazine.