Live Against the Drift: Refocusing the Distracted Soul

The danger of drifting, spiritual or otherwise, is in just how subtle and comfortable drifting can feel. Often we don’t even notice it’s happening at all.

I grew up outside Cincinnati, Ohio, a far drive from any ocean. I can’t even remember a lake near our house. The largest body of water might have been the man-made pond next to the local golf course. So when I finally met the ocean, I would never forget it. I had never seen anything so large and alive and frightening — and yet my little brother and I could splash and wrestle in its wake.

I distinctly remember, on one of those early beach days, mustering up the courage to swim out a little farther, and then a little farther, floating over wave after wave, learning how they obediently march in rows and yet dance in their own way. And then, as happens to so many first-timers, I realized (with great fear) just how far I was from safety. Suddenly the waves were coming higher and faster, pulling me farther than I wanted to go. My feet searched frantically for the bottom. My arms and legs suddenly felt like logs, like they were somehow taking on water. I looked and looked along the beach, but couldn’t see my brother, my dad, my mom, anyone. Another wave crashed over my head.

In a panic, I swam frantically, and soon found my feet back on land, but I had learned just how easy and dangerous it is to drift away from shore. How much more dangerous, then, to drift away from Jesus — to realize, after weeks or months or years, that the waves of life have carried us farther away than we ever expected.

Focus or Drift

One mark of Christian maturity is learning that none of us passively drifts toward Christ, not even after we’ve followed him for years or even decades. The currents of the still-sinful soul, weathered by constant waves of temptation, still pull us out to sea. We can’t sluggishly float in place. We’re either swimming toward God or drifting somewhere else.

“None of us passively drifts toward Christ, not even after we’ve followed him for years or even decades.”

The writer of Hebrews had felt the undertow of sin battling our love for Jesus. After lifting up the supremacy of the Son in creation, in redemption, in authority, in glory, he writes, “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1). In other words, if we take our eyes off of this Christ, we’ll soon find ourselves further from him. In the life of faith, we either focus or drift.

For his immediate hearers, the tide threatened to pull them back into the Christ-less rituals of old-covenant Israel. Jewish persecution made following Jesus painful and costly, leaving some in prison (Hebrews 13:3). Many considered retreating from Christ to being mistreated with him. Our souls may drift along similar lines. We might drift because people we love hate the God we love, making belittling comments about our convictions or distancing themselves from us because of them. Or we might drift in other, very different directions.

We might drift after unrepentant sin, allowing some lust or bitterness or craving or envy to take hold and slowly drag our souls from safety. We might, like Demas, drift away into worldliness, slowly allowing our affections and imaginations to be absorbed with some distraction — deadlines and promotions, headline news, sports triumphs or losses, shopping trends and deals, social media controversies. We might even drift away because of a fixation on friends or family. Each of these loved ones is a gift of God meant to lead us to God, and yet how often do they instead become gods?

We might drift any number of ways to any number of places. The warning is that if we’re not currently swimming closer to Jesus, we cannot stay where we are. Paddling in place is not an option. And the tide will choose where we go — if we let it. The human soul is designed to wax or wane, to drive or drift. So do you know, in the moments of greater preoccupation and weaker resolve, where your soul tends to drift?

Greater Than Angels

Whatever ways our souls tend to drift, how do we counter the pull? By paying all the more attention to what we’ve heard about Jesus. The claim of the first chapter of Hebrews, that he’s greater than angels, may fall strangely flat on modern ears (like mine). We’re not awestruck by angels anymore. And so the argument’s largely lost on us — not at all because it’s a weak argument, but because we have weaker eyes, because we’ve grown ignorant to reality. Angels haven’t changed; we have.

We yawn when we should marvel (and often marvel when we should yawn). We scroll by when we should fall on our faces. We treat angels like puppies or kittens — adorable, desirable, cuddly, surely not wonderful and terrifying. That’s not how first-century Jews would have imagined angels. They might not have been comfortable printing them on children’s clothing.

If we could see angels, we would shudder and hide our faces. And Jesus, Hebrews tells us, is more frightening than a hurricane, more spectacular than a towering pillar of fire, more glorious even than the angels of heaven.

Because of Who He Is

Wholly apart from our tendency to drift, Jesus really is worthy of our whole attention. He really is endlessly fascinating. When my family visited Yellowstone, we came across two grizzly bears playfully wrestling in a field. We were far enough away to be completely safe, but close enough to see it all. I can still picture those enormous, furry brawlers running and tackling and rolling. No one had to convince us to pay attention or keep watching. Someone could have easily made off with our car, which we had left running.

“If we could catch a glimpse of who Jesus really is, we wouldn’t struggle to focus on him.”

Similarly, if we could catch a glimpse of who Jesus really is, we wouldn’t struggle to focus on him. In fact, we’d probably have a hard time noticing all the things that capture and consume so much of our attention now. When we read our Bibles and feel little, it’s like we’re scanning the field but can’t see the bears. Or we can, but they’re too far away and fuzzy. When we stop reading our Bibles, we’ve stopped even looking in the fields. We’re driving right by while we stream some series on our phones.

Hebrews 1 is a trailer to the glory we’re missing when our eyes drift away from the field. The boy born in Bethlehem is the heir of all things — in part because he made all things (Hebrews 1:2). This Jesus is the beauty of the universe — “the radiance of the glory of God” — and he upholds that universe with his all-powerful breath (Hebrews 1:3). And though he is the pure, spotless image of God, he stepped between the wrath of God and the enemies of God, to make his enemies his brothers. After dying on the cross, he proved even death was under his feet, rising from the grave and then ascending in even greater glory than he came.

And if you could see him as he now is, even mouth-stopping, sword-wielding armies of angels would grow dull by comparison. He’s always worthy of more attention, and he rewards whatever focus we give him.

Because of Who You Are

We pay exceedingly close attention to Jesus because he’s worthy of such attention, and because we know how easily we drift away from him. “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” We keep our eyes fixed on him because of who he is, and because of who we are — tempted, distracted, sometimes wandering.

Staying close to Jesus means steadily moving toward Jesus. Scripture’s language of “walking by faith” is a great encouragement here. There are times to run (or swim) hard, but most of the Christian life will be walking with Jesus against the drift, like the disciples who walked with Jesus during his ministry. In an age of driving, riding, flying, and hurrying, many of us have lost the art of walking. Resisting the tide often means just taking the next few steps — reading the next chapter, praying the next prayer, preparing for the next Sunday gathering. As we do, we’ll find, on some days and in some seasons, that the waves actually turn to serve us, to lift us higher and farther in the right direction. With the Spirit’s help, like surfers, we can actually tame and enjoy the currents we once feared.

As we fight the drift within us, we don’t have to try to finish our race today. We just need to go as far as we can in these few hours with our eyes on Jesus.

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