The story behind this beautiful hymn is a personal favorite of mine, probably because it is a collaborative story about two women, one a songwriter and the other a missionary who was also a writer. These two women are Lilias Trotter and Helen Lemmel. Each of them is remarkable and worth reading about more. They never met or knew one another, but they were both born in England about a decade apart and both were uniquely gifted in the arts, and from their two hearts came this song of the saints that might even be sung unto His Return. I am not a songwriter, but I am a writer in the world of missions, and the idea that any of the words I’ve penned might become a song sung for almost a century in the Body of Christ around the world is beyond one’s imagination.
Lilias Trotter was a brilliant artist and was told by a one of England’s most famous art critics that if she devoted herself, “she would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be immortal.” Although she was very drawn to art, she ultimately felt that she could not give herself to her art completely and still “seek first the Kingdom of God.” Thus, through a series of events in her life and despite a chronic and debilitating illness, she used all of her own inheritance to serve overseas in North Africa as a missionary. She was also a prolific writer. She kept a journal every day for forty years as a missionary along with sketches and watercolors of the world she knew. Even when bedridden later in life, she continued to devote herself to prayer, writing, and sketching. These writings from her journals along with other correspondence have been turned into several published books, including a leaflet called Focused
upon which this particular hymn was based. Here is some of what she wrote in that leaflet:
“It was just a dandelion, and half withered – but it was full face to the sun, and had caught into its heart all the glory it could hold, and was shining so radiantly that the dew that lay on it still made a perfect aureole round its head. And it seemed to talk, standing there – to talk about the possibility of making the very best of these lives of ours. For if the Sun of Righteousness has risen upon our hearts, there is an ocean of grace and love and power lying all around us, an ocean to which all earthly light is but a drop, and it is ready to transfigure us, as the sunshine transfigured the dandelion, and on the same condition – that we stand full face to God. Gathered up, focused lives, intent on one aim – Christ – these are the lives on which God can concentrate blessedness...
Are we ready for a cleavage to be wrought through the whole range of our lives...? All aims, all ambitions, all desires, all pursuits – shall we dare to drop them if they cannot be gathered sharply and clearly into the focus of "this one thing I do"? How do we bring things to a focus in the world of optics? Not by looking at the things to be dropped, but by looking at the one point that is to be brought out. Turn full your soul's vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him, and the Divine appeal by which God's saints are made, even in this 20th century, will lay hold of you. For "He is worthy" to have all there is to be had in the heart that He has died to win.”
This little leaflet was only modestly circulated, but somehow it ended up in the hands of Helen Lemmel almost two decades later. Lemmel was born in England ten years after Trotter, but at twelve years old her family immigrated to the United States and settled in Wisconsin. Her father was a Wesleyan Methodist pastor and Helen, like Lilias, was artistically gifted even from a young age. Helen had a reputation as a brilliant singer and music was her passion. She studied music in Germany as an adult, became a popular performer throughout the US, and was a vocal and music instructor at Moody Bible Institute. Though she was passionate about music, Jesus was always her first love. She wrote hymns throughout her life, as well as Christian stories and poems for children. Many people believe that later in her life, she experienced a great tragedy that changed her life completely. She was diagnosed with an illness that led to total blindness, and her husband, unable to cope with her illness, abandoned their marriage and left her to deal with it all on her own. According to the story, this led her to delve even deeper into her songs to the Lord. Lemmel authored around 500 hymns, many of which are still in circulation to this day.
But it was earlier in the 20th century that she stumbled upon the little Focused
pamphlet written by Trotter, which led to this famous hymn. The phrase that stood out to her with resounding clarity was: “Turn full your soul's vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him.”
These words reverberated in her heart and mind and became the inspiration for "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus". In her memoirs, she wrote about the experience of writing this hymn: “Suddenly, as if commanded to stop and listen, I stood still, and singing in my soul and spirit was the chorus, with not one conscious moment of putting word to word to make rhyme, or note to note to make melody. The verses were written the same week, after the usual manner of composition, but nonetheless dictated by the Holy Spirit.”
The takeaway from the devotion in Lilias Trotter’s journal that was turned into a pamphlet and then a song applies to all of us in the Kingdom of Christ. We must all choose where to focus our attention and our gaze. We all know what it is like to live distracted, whether our distractions are the pleasures of the world or the pains and losses of this life. We know what it is like to stumble through the dark and grasp at anything that might make us feel better, if even for a moment. The fullness of our lives in Christ is found in our gaze. It’s all about our focus. Who or what has our attention? Are we giving our time, our energy, our thoughts, and our emotions to the “one necessary thing” (Lk 10:38-42) or to all the lesser things this life and the world has to offer?
Whatever or whoever has our attention will inevitably have our affections as well. Jesus talked about this in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.”
(Jesus, Matt 6:19-23 ESV)
Personally, I have been walking through a particularly brutal season. It’s one of those ‘groping in the dark’ type seasons that you just try to survive, and oftentimes, our ‘trying to survive’ looks like leaning into all the wrong things. For me, that distraction most often looks like a glowing screen. It might not be ‘bad’ or unholy things that I’m giving my attention to, but they’re still lesser, distracting things that do nothing for me but pass the time. They simply do not compare to Jesus. He’s the “one necessary thing” that will help me make it through these so-called ‘dark nights.’ I’m weary and in my weakness, I am looking for anything that will make me feel less weary, even if it’s a temporary fix. But it’s when I take my gaze off of my troubles and off of all of the lesser and momentary distractions, and instead turn to Jesus, that my soul finally finds the rest, sufficient grace, and restoration I am desperately longing for. Why do we forget that? We are so dishearteningly dull sometimes. We have to be reminded over and over again that Jesus is the only One who can satisfy us. So let me be the one to remind you again today that Jesus is the only source of contentment to be found, in every season of the soul, whether we are stumbling through the darkest of valleys or ascending the high and holy mountaintop. Sing this hymn to your soul, and turn to Him. Jesus is more than enough to satisfy that cavernous ache within each one of us, and all of the lesser, distracting things will seem like fleeting shadows in the light of His glory and grace.
Paul said it like this: “… for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
(Phil 4:11-13) Paul had already explained the secret of his contentment in the previous paragraphs of his epistle when he said: “…whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him… that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings… I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of ityet; but one thing I do: forgetting what liesbehind and reaching forward to what liesahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
We must turn our eyes to Jesus and look full at His wonderful face, wherein we find the glory of God (2 Cor 4:6). That is the one necessary thing Jesus pointed Martha and the disciples to in Luke 10 and that is the one thing that Paul did to learn to be content, satisfied, and overflowing in every season and circumstance he faced.
Are you weary? Are you troubled? Is there no light in the darkness you can see? Turn your eyes to Jesus. There is light in the face of our Savior, and life more abundant and free. The Way, the Life, the Light of the World Himself is right there outshining the distractions and lesser things if you simply turn your eyes upon Jesus and set your gaze upon Him instead. For Christ alone is worthy of your attention and He is worthy of all of the affections from the heart He died to win.
"'For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies… So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."' (2 Cor 4:6-10, 16-18 ESV)