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Opportunity or Distraction: How to Tell the Difference

Opportunity or Distraction: How to Tell the Difference

By David Jeremiah

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The relatively recent release of smartphones has provided new opportunities for us to be distracted, but the problem existed long before that. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they lost sight of God’s provision and began to crave the foods they had enjoyed in Egypt (Numbers 11:4-6). Later in the nation’s history, God gave their king unprecedented wisdom and wealth, but as he got older, Solomon’s love of foreign women and their gods permanently tarnished his legacy (1 Kings 11:4). Hundreds of years later, Israel’s religious leaders rejected their long-awaited Messiah because they were distracted by their own traditions (Mark 7:8).

One of the best-known examples can be found in the story of Mary and Martha—two sisters who invited Jesus into their home for a visit. When Jesus arrived, Mary sat down at His feet to hear Him teach. Her sister had a different response. The Bible tells us, “Martha was distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40, emphasis added). Martha did not neglect her Guest nor did she refuse to hear what He had to say. She simply chose a good thing that wasn’t the best thing during the time she had with Jesus.

What threatens to distract you from God’s purpose for your life? No matter who we are or what our vocation may be, we are overrun by conflicting priorities. Taking on more responsibility at work, leading a small group at church, or serving on the PTA may prepare you for future growth and fulfill God’s plan for you, or it may keep you from it. In order to say “Yes” to the things that are most important in life, you have to be willing to say “No” to the things that aren’t.

How do we know when to say “No”? Answers are rarely clear-cut and require prayer. But as we pray, we can search the counsel of God’s Word for answers. Here are six warning signs that something presenting itself as an opportunity is a distraction.  

Here are six warning signs that something presenting itself as an opportunity is a distraction

1.       Compromise

Well-meaning individuals sometimes cloud our judgment by pointing out the “benefits” that could come from doing things our own way. They say it’s okay to cheat on our taxes if we’re using the money to fulfill our dream of owning a small business or supporting overseas missions. Yet God’s Word instructs us to pay the government its due (Mark 12:17). Friends might encourage a college student to attend a party their parents wouldn’t approve of—after all, it’s not wrong to have a little fun. Yet God would have them honor their parents by staying home (Ephesians 6:2).

Our perspective is limited by our humanity and tainted by our desires. God has no such limitation. He sees the end from the beginning. Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Trusting God with our dreams and priorities is like playing chess with a grandmaster guiding our moves. While we may not understand His reasoning or His timing, He can outmaneuver any adversary, and we have His promise that He works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).

2.       Burnout

God knows how much time we have, and He knows our physical limitations. In the words of Psalm 103:14, “He remembers that we are dust.” As a pastor and an author, I’m often asked to endorse a variety of books and events. I used to consider it my duty to say “Yes” as often as possible. If I knew the author, I’d flip through the book and write a good word for it. But one time that proved to be a poor choice when I endorsed a book that contained information I did not agree with. That experience reminded me that making an informed decision takes time and that sometimes we have to say “No” to avoid burnout.

Burnout is not part of God’s plan; it is a warning that something on our to-do list is not from Him. The Lord does not offer a lifetime of leisure, but He promises to refresh and rejuvenate us as we serve Him.

3.       Broken relationships

It’s regrettable that God’s people are more often known by what they are against than what they are for. Jesus came to this earth “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), and the Father “has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). Our words and actions should reflect God’s passion to bring others into His kingdom. If our opinions or methods interfere with our ability to proclaim the Gospel, it’s a signal to rethink our strategy.

If our opinions or methods interfere with our ability to proclaim the Gospel, it’s a signal to rethink our strategy.

The Bible also has a lot to say about how we interact with other believers. We are to “have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8, ESV). It should be our goal to promote unity among the brethren and with others.

4.       Pride

Proverbs 29:23 warns, “A man’s pride will bring him low.” And we don’t need to look far to find proof. So often we set out in our pursuits with a humble heart and the best of intentions, but something changes along the way. As our efforts begin to produce results and recognition, we may find our focus shifting. Instead of trusting God’s provision, the danger is to rely on our own resourcefulness. Instead of aiming to serve others, we risk seeking only their approval.

The apostle John wrote his third epistle to a “beloved” friend named Gaius who quietly served the Lord by extending hospitality to traveling preachers. Rather than being consumed with his own needs or accomplishments, Gaius used his gifts for empowering and equipping others. For the sake of the Gospel, we need to do the same by humbly opening our hearts, hands, and homes to those God brings across our path.

5.       Shame

Feeling ashamed about something we’ve done or thoughts we’ve had is a good indication we need to search our heart for sin. Adam and Eve hid from God after they ate fruit from the forbidden tree (Genesis 3:8). Moses killed a man, hid the body, and then hid from Pharaoh when his anger got the best of him (Exodus 2:12, 15). And after the Israelites captured Jericho, Achan stole some of the plunder and hid it for his own gain (Joshua 7:21). Anything that causes us to avoid the Lord’s presence or accountability does not belong in our life.

The solution can be found in Romans 12:2. It says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” When we become a Christian, our sinful nature doesn’t disappear; it coexists with our new identity in Christ. That means we have a choice to make: We can feed our fallen nature, or we can cultivate habits that increasingly align our heart and mind with Christ. Choosing to renew our mind will draw us closer to God’s Word and His presence.

6.       Reluctance to change

Sometimes God’s plan for us involves letting go. In Hebrews 12, Paul encourages us to “lay aside every weight… and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (verse 1). The Greek word for weight can also be translated as “burden.” There are times when God gives us a burden or responsibility for a while, but then it becomes our responsibility to transfer that burden to someone else. If we’re not careful, what was once a “Yes” from God becomes a “No.”

This principle is evident throughout Scripture.

After leading his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness for forty years, God instructed Moses to step aside and let Joshua guide the Israelites into the Promised Land.

David dreamed of building the Lord’s temple, but he followed the Lord’s instructions and handed the project over to his son Solomon.

Elijah spent the last years of his life preparing Elisha to take over the ministry of prophecy in Israel.

When Jesus’ ministry began to overshadow his own, John the Baptist welcomed the transition, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

The Bible also describes people who resisted change at great personal cost. King Saul couldn’t accept God’s appointment of David as his successor, so he spent fifteen years trying to kill him. As Saul moved further away from God’s plan for his life, his disobedience affected everyone around him. He fractured his family, risked his soldiers’ lives, besieged his own people, and murdered the Lord’s prophets.

When God places the final period on a chapter in our life, it doesn’t mean He is finished with us; it indicates He has a new assignment for us. But in order to say “Yes” to what’s next, we have to be willing to reconsider our priorities and prepare for future growth.

When God places the final period on a chapter in our life, it doesn’t mean He is finished with us; it indicates He has a new assignment for us.

Putting It Into Practice

The Bible says, “Serve the Lord without distraction” (1 Corinthians 7:35), but separating the good things from the best things can be difficult. As you seek God’s counsel, ask Him to help you weigh the costs and benefits carefully. The following questions will help you get started.

1.       What does this cost in terms of my time or other resources? What would I have to forego?

2.       Who or what will benefit from my involvement? Will it glorify God or someone else?

3.       Where will this decision lead me six months from now? Five years from now? Will it bring me closer to or further from the life God wants for me?

The question isn’t whether we’re going to be Martha or Mary. That’s a false choice. Mary needed time with Jesus, and she learned how to do it. On the other hand, Martha served others with diligence. The key is finding the right balance between listening and laboring, always giving priority to our walk with God.

This world is filled with distractions and demands on our time, but these things should never keep us from determining in our minds to wholeheartedly pursue a closer walk with God each day. Like Martha, we have work to do, chores to perform, and responsibilities to bear. But like her sister Mary, we also need time to sit at the feet of Jesus, fellowshipping with Him in Bible study and prayer. If we want to break out of our rut and move forward, we need to find a balance by aligning our priorities with God’s purposes. 

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