At the end of your life, if you could pick one thing that you would like to have accomplished, what would that one thing be? Generally people do not answer this question with the superficial. I do not recall anyone ever saying, "I want to have made a lot of money", or "become famous", or "have been the best athlete". Even though their behavior patterns may indicate otherwise, they usually have enough depth to say things like " I want to have been a loving husband", "have had a wonderful family", "have been a great friend", or for the more spiritually minded, to "have made it to heaven". This question is an important one and deserves our attention.
In Psalm 27:4, David says, "One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord". I used to believe that David was talking about being with God in heaven. However, the context shows that he is talking about something that occurs in this present life. This is clear as he mentions in Psalm 27:5-6 that he wants to be able to do this "in the day of trouble" and "above the enemies who surround me."
The one thing that David wants to accomplish in this life is to "gaze upon the beauty of the Lord." In his sermon entitled "Contemplation" and based on this Psalm, Tim Keller elaborates on what this could mean for us. Many of the following thoughts are derived from this sermon. He says that David has the wisdom to recognize that if he has this one thing, he would be able to rise above any circumstance or tragedy that this life would throw at him. Whether it be an "army besieging him" (vs. 3) or his "father and mother forsaking him" (vs.10), David knows that with this "one thing," his "head will be exalted" (vs. 6). In other words, he would be "above it all". Significantly, these tragedies illustrate the extreme cataclysmic circumstances that could befall us in our time on this earth, an army besieging us being the greatest physical threat and abandonment by our parents being the greatest emotional threat. David does not assume parents who love him, a good family life, financial and career success, or even safety and security. While these are important, they are not essential.
So, what does it mean to "gaze upon the beauty of the Lord?" This is a concept foreign to our culture and we therefore risk writing this off as a nice thought but not something that could be a reality for our lives. Beauty is an interesting and powerful concept to consider and its abuse leads us to very bad places. We are all aware of how an obsession with female beauty has led to eating disorders by women and pornography by men. The Nazis considered themselves connoisseurs of beauty which led them to an elitism that denigrated and oppressed other cultures. However, we also recognize that there is something in us that desires beauty. We can eat so much food or have so much sex that we become sick of it. However, beauty is different. We never become sick of beauty. It always captivates our imagination. A true experience of beauty is transformational. It creates community because when we are with a group of people all enthralled with the same beauty, we are drawn together. Church is a community of people enthralled with the beauty of God.
Significantly, we must recognize that we are all "gazing upon" the beauty of something. We were created so. The problem is, when we gaze upon the wrong thing, it becomes a tyrant. Gazing upon the beauty of God and His creation is different. As we gaze upon God's beauty, it has the power to enable us to rise above our current problems and gives us the emotional and spiritual strength necessary to serve others in spite of challenging circumstances.
However, the sad fact is, many Christians do not experience God as beautiful. They may know intellectually that He is good, but that does not necessarily translate to an emotional experience akin to listening to a symphony or seeing a beautiful person. Unfortunately, for some, God is a task master. For others, He is distant and apparently uninvolved in their daily lives. How different from the true God that David eventually experienced. Even this Psalm illustrates for us that for David, this was a journey that took some work. David was not there yet; however, it was his principal desire to "gaze upon the beauty of the Lord." Is this our principal desire? Is this our "one thing?"
For me, it has not been easy to get to a point where my one thing is to "gaze upon the beauty of the Lord." For much of my Christian life, Christianity was a frenzy of activity fueled largely by a desire for accomplishment. Although the activity was good, well-intentioned, and motivated by a desire to see others come to salvation, I did not have David's perspective in my personal relationship with God. I imagine few disciples I know would disagree that "gazing" is not something we usually associate with Christian activity or teach about in relation to God. Learning the spiritual disciplines or practices has been essential for me to begin to learn how to "gaze." Using another word, gazing can be thought of as contemplation. I have been practicing thinking about the goodness of God for the first 10 minutes after I wake up and the last 10 minutes before I fall asleep. On my daily drive to work I have been calling my wife and praising God in prayer. Historically, my prayers have been mostly consumed by needs, requests and repentance. It has been amazing to me what a difference an intentional focus on praising God can make. Even though I have led small and large churches for over 30 years, I confess that I would not characterize the majority of those Wednesday and Sunday times as "gazing upon the beauty of the Lord" as a congregation. Recently, our house church has decided to spend our church time "gazing upon the beauty of the Lord" together. During these times we have been focused on the goodness of God and his love for us in spite of our many sins and weaknesses. This focus has drawn us together and encouraged us tremendously.
Gazing upon the beauty of the Lord does not come naturally for most of us. After all, we live in a fallen world where much of our gazing is occupied by gratifying our sinful nature and feeding our need for accomplishment. Transitioning our gazing habits to a focus on the beauty of God takes time, sustained effort, and a willingness to feel awkward. However, for those who train themselves to do this, the rewards are substantial. As we gaze upon the Lord our lives become enthralled with His beauty. His love, grace, forgiveness and healing power become salient. Instead of just knowing facts and concepts about the Lord, we begin to emotionally connect with Him and sense His presence. I am now of the belief that the most important thing in life is to learn to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. Everything else flows from this. If I can say that I have accomplished this at the end of my life, then I will consider my life a success.