TURN YOUR EYES UPON JESUS: The Story Behind the Hymn

Lilias Trotter (1853-1928) grew up in a wealthy London family and could have been a world-famous artist.  Her mother recognized her exceptional talent and sent some of her drawings to a world-renowned art critic, John Ruskin.  Together with her Mom, Lilias made a trip to Venice and spent some with John.  He told her that if she devoted herself to her art “she would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be immortal.”  But it was not to be.

Both Lilias and her Mom had responded to the gospel during the London campaign meetings of Dwight L. Moody.  Though drawn to the prospect of life as an artist, Lilias decided that she could not do that and continue still to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”  She became active instead in the YWCA and began a ministry to prostitutes, fearlessly canvassing the streets of London and trying to rescue them from their plight.  In 1884, suffering from physical and emotional exhaustion, she underwent surgery.  Her heart was permanently damaged in the process.

During the next few years, she began to sense a call to missions and ultimately responded to a plea for workers in North Africa.  She applied to the North Africa Mission but was rejected due to her poor health.  The mission though ultimately decided—since she had the means to support herself–that she could go and work with others without being an official member.

Nine months later Lilias and two other financially independent women made the trip.  Trotter wrote of that experience, “Three of us stood there, looking at our battle-field, none of us fit to pass a doctor for any society, not knowing a soul in the place, or a sentence of Arabic or a clue for beginning work on untouched ground; we only knew we had to come.  Truly if God needed weakness, He had it!”

Ultimately she served as a missionary to Algeria for 38 years.  The ministry was difficult.  Converts were banished and sometimes beaten, some died.  Undeterred by poor health and much opposition, her ministry in Algeria eventually grew to include thirty full time workers and fifteen preaching stations.

She did a lot of writing and once wrote a little treatise entitled “Focused: A Story and a Song” which concluded with these words: “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…For “He is worthy” to have all there is to be had in the heart that He has died to win.”

Helen Lemmel (1863-1961) was also born in England, but her family migrated to America when she was 12 years old.  Her singing ability soon became evident.  She traveled broadly throughout the Midwest during the early 1900s giving concerts in churches.  She married a wealthy European and taught voice at the Moody Bible Institute and at BIOLA.  She composed over 500 hymns and poems and authored a highly successful book for children.  But when she became blind her husband abandoned her. 

One day, in 1918, when Helen was aged 55, a missionary friend gave her Lilias Trotter’s tract entitled “Focused.”  Her attention focused on this line: “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.”  She wrote of what happened next: “Suddenly, as if commanded to stop and listen, I stood still, and singing in my soul and spirit was the chorus of the hymn with not one conscious moment of putting word to word to make rhyme, or note to note to make melody.”  So, she wrote the hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” (one of my favorite hymns). 

“O soul, are you weary and troubled?

No light in the darkness you see?

There’s light for a look at the Savior,

And life more abundant and free.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,

Look full in His wonderful face,

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,

In the light of His glory and grace.”

 

Those words, “turn your eyes upon Jesus,” speak to the great need and God-given purpose for every soul.  Weary and troubled souls can find true solace and lasting hope in the One who died for sins and rose from the dead.  In fixing her eyes on Jesus, Lilias Trotter forsook the dream of becoming a world-famous artist to do something of far greater and eternal consequence.  Though blind, Helen Lemmel was not prevented from turning her spiritual eyes upon the One who would never forsake her.

“Oh soul, are you weary and troubled?” Who isn’t from time to time? Is there one who can comfort us? Is there one who can capture our hearts and set them aright on a good and prosperous course? Jesus can do all that and more. There is an insightful comment in Lilias’ treatise that caught my attention. She wrote, “It is worthwhile to let God see what He can do with these lives of ours, when ‘to live is Christ.’ 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.” In other words, the key to serving Jesus with a “but one thing I do” attitude is not focusing on what we must give up, but by gazing instead on the beauty of the object of our attention (and affection). In this dark and trouble-filled world, may the Spirit work within us that our gaze might be directed to Jesus and the light of HIs glory and grace (Cf. John 16:14). Or, as another hymn puts it: “Thou hast bid me gaze upon Thee, And Thy beauty fills my soul, For by Thy transforming power, Thou hast made me whole” (“Jesus, I Am Resting, Resting;” Text: Jean S. Pigott; Music: James Mountain).

Author: looking2jesus13

Having served as pastor at Lewis and Clark Bible Church, in Astoria, Oregon, for almost 28 years, my wife's cancer diagnosis in January 2017 has resulted in much change. I retired in March 2018. We moved to the small town of Heppner, Oregon--to be near our two grandchildren.

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