I’ve had lower back issues from time to time over the last ten years. Every six months or so, I would move wrongly, or bend awkwardly, or jump weirdly – and something would just… tweak. The most vivid example I remember was when I was shoveling mulch in our backyard, and then I wasn’t. I couldn’t straighten up, and had to use the wheelbarrow to brace myself back to the house and lay down on the couch. Painful to the body, sure – but more painful to the ego.
After each incident, I would rest, and ice, and heat, and stretch my back until I could go back to my normal activities. That was the pattern until a couple of years ago when I swallowed my pride and went to see a physical therapist who, much to my surprise, told me that I had zero lower back problems. Apparently I had hamstring problems.
Funny, right? At least a little? It seems that for all those occurrences, I was looking in the wrong place. I was focusing on my lower back when I should have been focusing on my flexibility. And consequently, no measure of stretching of my lower back was really going to fix the issue – it was that entire perspective was wrong. I was looking to one area when I should have been looking to another.
Just as that happens physically, it also happens to us spiritually. It happens any time when we look horizontally when we should be looking vertically. That is, when we look for something in our environment – to our spouse, our career, our friends, our possessions, our kids – when we should be looking to God. And until we look vertically, we will never be able to deal with the real issue. Practically, then, here are three areas in which we tend to focus horizontally when we should be focused vertically:
1. The issue of identity.
When I speak of identity, what I mean is the fundamental definition of who a person is. Down at the core, the issue of identity is the answer to the question, “Who am I?” This is an issue which has always been pivotal in human beings understanding of themselves, but has become popularized more so in the last several years. That’s because in the last several years, we have, as a culture, looked more and more horizontally for the answer to that question.
How do we look horizontally in the issue of our identity? Well, we look to the popular issues of the day to define us. Or we look to our career to define us. Or we look to our position or power or relative importance to define us. We look everywhere around us but seldom do we look vertically, and that refusal to look vertically is the core of our identity issues. That’s because the issue of identity is really an issue of authority.
Do I have the right and authority to define who I am? Does my career or my bank account or my title have that authority? Not really. Not ultimately. I am who God says I am. He alone has the authority over my identity and therefore identity is always going to be a vertical issue.
2. The issue of validation.
Just as we tend to look horizontally to tell us who we are, we also have the tendency to look horizontally to tell us we are worthy. We seek to find validation in the same places we find our identities – careers, kids (and their accomplishments), and positions in the community. We all, whether we admit it or not, are still very much like kids on the first day of school looking for an invitation to the lunch table.
We are crying out to be told we are worthy. Seeking validation. And because we are, we tend to use people for just such purposes. Our insecurity from seeking our validation horizontally renders us incapable of being authentic in relationships – of truly sacrificing, truly giving, truly loving – because we are constantly in need from the people around us. We are constantly in need of their validation, and when that is withheld, we find ourselves crumbling.
Our validation can only truly come vertically. And God has shown us how much we are worth with the death of His Son, Jesus. This is what love is. This is how much He loves us.
3. The issue of worship.
The human heart was made to worship. We are created to praise by our Creator. But terrible things happen when that compulsion to worship is misdirected, and it can become misdirected so easily. This is, in a sense, the source of sin – it is when, as Paul reminds us in Romans 1, when we exchange the truth of God for a lie and fail to give Him the worship and acclaim and glory that is only rightfully His.
We are going to worship something – we are hardwired that way. The question is not whether we will worship; the question is whether our worship will be directed horizontally or vertically. The only pathway to true satisfaction, true joy, and true meaning is through the right placement of this fundamental part of our humanity.
Identity. Validation. Worship. The list could go on. And in looking at that list, it would be an interesting exercise to thread it out further. How many of our current issues of angst, discontentment, worry and so on could be remedied if we changed the direction of our focus? A vertical focus is just that powerful.