Focusing on Ourselves

Every now and then, I run into a passage in the Bible – like this one in Mark 9:38-40 –  where Jesus’ carefree attitude makes me do a double take:

‘Teacher,’ said John, we saw someone driving out demons in your name.  We told him to stop, because he was not one of us.’

‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said. ‘For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.  Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.’

It’s true that the disciples’ motives in raising this issue were probably less than pure and had a great deal to do with ego. I can imagine that, as the card-carrying Official Disciples of Christ, they didn’t take kindly to others horning in on what they perceived to be their turf.  Nor do I think it’s coincidence that this passage is couched between a few other instances of the disciples behaving badly (or at least in ignorance). Mark 9 is a chapter where the disciples don’t understand Jesus’ predictions of his own death (verse 32), can’t figure out why they’re unable to drive out a demon (verse 28), where a bewildered Peter offers to build shelters for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus (verses 5 and 6), and where the disciples argue over who is going to be the greatest among them (verse 34).

And yet, for all that, I suspect that jealousy and self-preservation aren’t the disciples’ only motives here.  I sense that they’re genuinely concerned, or they wouldn’t have raised the issue to Jesus.  Perhaps they considered themselves gatekeepers.  They knew Jesus, after all, and spent as much time with Him as anyone did; they knew He had a plan and a ministry, even if they didn’t fully understand it.  Maybe they were – in their own clumsy, fumbling way – trying to protect it from interlopers.  Uncertain of who might be acting in Jesus’ name, and unable to control them or keep them under close watch, the disciples might have feared that a few stray believers off doing their own thing might hinder whatever it was that Christ wanted to do.

But Jesus’ response is simple, and telling: Don’t hold them back.  If they’re working for me, let them work.  Don’t micro-manage.  Don’t criticize.  We’re all in this together.  They’re a part of this, too.  And it fits in with one of Christ’s larger messages, one that repeats throughout His life on earth: stop worrying so much about what other people are doing, and focus on yourself.  Deal with the plank in your own eye instead of focusing on the sawdust in someone else’s (Matt. 7:3).  Don’t worry about what Jesus has planned for other believers (John 21:22).

That message is antithetical to the current cultural moment.  Right now in America, we live in a culture of outrage that’s based on watching what everyone else is doing all the time. We’re outraged by politicians and celebrities, by scandals, by rising gas prices, by rising rent, by ingredients in processed food, by how long we have to wait at the doctor’s office.  As believers, we are alternatively outraged by the godless world around us, by other believers, by other denominations, by other churches, and by believers in our own churches.

But rarely, if ever, are we outraged by ourselves.

Jesus’ refrain, however, is that “ourselves” is exactly where our attention ought to be.  What Jesus demonstrates here to the disciples is that it isn’t our job to police the world in His name.  If others are glorifying Christ – if others are doing good works in His name – Jesus’ response is “Don’t stop them.”  Don’t hold people back.  Don’t intervene.  Even if you think you can do it better.  Even if you don’t get it.  Even if it’s irritating.  “Whoever is not against us,” remember, “is for us.”

And it can be so hard.  I sympathize with the disciples here.  I really do.  Because as egotistical and as selfish as they can sometimes be, I have the sense they also want to do things right.  And they worry that others are doing it wrong.  And they want to control everything, to have their hands on everything, to supervise, to make sure everyone is doing what they would do or not doing it at all.  As a Type-A perfectionist, this attitude hits home with me.  I am terrible at delegating, primarily because I worry no one will do things quite the way I want them to be done.  “No, no,” I say, “don’t do that.  I’ll do it.  I’ve got it!”

But Jesus wants us to let it go.  Certainly, there are times to ask questions of other believers, especially when we feel they might be straying away or causing harm to others.  But if other Christians are doing God’s work, if they are doing good in God’s name, it’s best to smile, to simply let them be…

…and turn our attention back to ourselves.  If we gave our own actions half the scrutiny we gave others, a good many of us wouldn’t have the time to look up for a while.


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