The lives of two fascinating women intersected in 1922 with the composition of the beautiful hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” The music and lyrics were the creative work of a singer and songwriter by the name of Helen H. Lemmel, and her inspiration came from a poem entitled “Focused: A Story and a Song”, written by a talented painter and missionary named Lilias Trotter. Their stories should be told not only because of what they accomplished in their lifetimes but also because of the way their legacies live on through their works of art today.

            Helen was born in England in 1863 and moved with her family to America at the age of twelve. A brilliant musician, Helen studied under vocal teachers and eventually returned to Europe where she continued to pursue and develop her gift for singing. She married, completed her education, and returned to The States. She performed in concerts and began writing hymns as well as poems and stories for children. Later in life, Helen contracted an illness that left her blind, and she was abandoned by her husband. The heartaches of her life did not defeat her; rather, they caused her to draw nearer to God. One day, a friend of Helen gave her a pamphlet entitled “Focused: A Story and a Song,” which contained the poem written by Lilias Trotter, a woman unknown to Helen.

Lilias Trotter had been born in England, ten years before Helen, in the year 1853. Also an artist, Lilias had the gift of painting—a gift that could have secured her a successful career with many who would have been willing to invest in her training. However, Lilias had a passion that took her in another direction: She wanted more than anything to be a missionary. Unable to gain support for her mission work, she moved to Africa anyway, where she spent 40 years living in the desert and devoting her life to serving the people there. Lilias gave up everything to follow her heart in missions; she knew what it meant to focus completely on Jesus and on what she wholeheartedly believed to be her purpose. One day in July, while spending time alone with God and reflecting on her time spent in Africa, Lilias spilled her heart onto the pages of her diary with words that gave birth to the poem “Focused: A Story and a Song.” After first being published in a religious periodical, the poem was later made widely available in the form of a simple pamphlet. This was the pamphlet that fell into the hands of Helen some two decades after Lilias penned the words within it.

When Helen was introduced to the poem contained in the pamphlet, one particular statement rang out and continued to resonate within her over the following week: 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.” Those words inspired Helen to write “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”—one of the nearly 500 hymns she wrote in her life of 97 years. Perhaps you have sung these convicting words in worship:

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.

This is a song about looking to Jesus and not only looking to Him but turning our eyes away from everything else: looking full in His wonderful face. It recalls the words of the Hebrews writer who encourages readers to lay aside entangling sin and run the Christian race with endurance by looking to Jesus, the author, and finisher of faith (Hebrews 12:1–2, NKJV). The Greek verb that is translated as “looking unto” or “fixing our eyes on” is aphorao, and more specifically means “to look away from everything else.” To be women who daily walk with God, we need to make a diligent effort to look away from everything else and turn our eyes fully upon Jesus. It’s not easy when so many things compete for our time and attention. It’s difficult to focus on one thing—even when we understand it to be the most important thing—when other well-intended interests lie all around us. In her poem, Lilias described it as “living in a dozen good harmless worlds all at once where we run the risk of drifting about, the “good” hiding the best.” We must ask ourselves, how do we turn our eyes upon Jesus? How do we look away from everything else and focus on Him? The very text in Hebrews that encourages us to “look unto Jesus” continues to explain how we can do it:

  1. Be Considerate of Him. Think about the joy that Jesus has provided for us by enduring the shame of the cross. We should remind ourselves how He endured hostility on our behalf and allow that to keep us from becoming weary and discouraged. Think about Jesus often throughout the day (Heb 12:2, 3).
  2. Be Chastened by Him. To keep our eyes focused on Jesus, we must allow God to correct us and train us as a loving father would correct and train his child. This means submitting to God and His desire for our lives. It means changing our behavior when we recognize thoughts, actions, and intentions that don’t line up with His Will—even when it’s difficult and even when it’s painful (Heb 12:4–11).
  3. Be Strengthened by Him. We look to God for spiritual strength, direction, and healing. We pursue peace with everyone and holiness (which the Hebrews writer says is necessary if we want to see the Lord) in order to prevent bitterness from springing up and causing trouble and to avoid immorality and irreverence (Heb 12:12–17).
  4. Be Aware of Our Company. Recognize that we are a part of something big and grand: the general assembly and church of the firstborn! We have been registered in Heaven and are among an innumerable company of angels! If we are in Christ, then we are members of His body and have a place in the family of God. That means we are never, ever alone. (Heb 12:18–24)
  5. Be Mindful of His Voice. We cannot refuse the words of God. We must listen to what He is saying to us through Scripture and follow Him. We should be filled with thankfulness for God’s kingdom, and that gratitude will help us to serve Him with reverence and godly fear (Heb 12:25–29).

              To live our lives as women who daily walk with God we must turn our eyes unto Jesus—look away from everything else and focus on Him. Hebrews 12 gives us the guidance we need to keep our sights aimed Heavenward. In her poem, Lilias Trotter presented a challenge to herself and her readers to help determine focus—a challenge that we might consider taking up today. She wrote these words:

It is easy to find out whether our lives are focused, and if so, where the focus lies. Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning? Where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? Does this test not give the clue? Then dare to have it out with God—and after all, that is the shortest way. Dare to lay bare your whole life and being before Him, and ask Him to show you whether or not all is focused on Christ and His glory.”

Lori Boyd
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Lori Boyd is from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and attends the East Main church of Christ.  She and her husband, Sam, were married in 1998 and have three children, Evie, Kate, and Briggs. Lori is a Registered Nurse and a high school teacher at Middle Tennessee Christian School, where she teaches Honors Anatomy and Forensics. She is pursuing a Master of Arts in Christian Scripture at Heritage Christian University.

  Lori has been a writer for Think, Tennessee Home and Farm, and Christian Woman magazines. She has written four books: Trailblazers, Walking to the Promised Land, Hope Island, and Praying Through It; all made available through Kaio Publications. She is part of the Ministry League team and a World Bible School board member. She loves public speaking and teaching Bible classes and presents regularly at workshops and ladies’ events.

Lori was born in Germany and grew up in the Air Force. She attended Abilene Christian University in Texas and graduated from the Abilene Intercollegiate School of Nursing in 1996. She moved to Nashville in June of 1997 and has called Middle Tennessee “home” ever since.