It’s one of those catch-phrases that make up the world’s motivational matrix. The idea is that setting clear, calculated, realistic goals for the future makes them easier to achieve. For example, setting a specific target for your bank account in 2017 is much likelier to succeed than a simple “I’ll make more money this year”, because you have a concrete figure against which to adjust your expenditures.
Sometimes we call this a “New Year’s resolution”, but I’m over that. Calling something a resolution almost dooms it to fail; resolutions are the butt of all our New Years’ jokes. Calling it goal-setting lifts it clear of all that.
So why am I still uncomfortable with it? With the rah-rah determination of goal-setting?
Maybe it’s just the subtle undercurrent of humanism. “You can do it! Imagine yourself succeeding and it will be so!” At the risk of overthinking, the philosophy of goal-setting feels like something you’d get from a corporate solutions seminar or a self-help book, too closely connected to all that power-of-positivity, we-can-change-the-world stuff. We know what Christ thinks of that. Life isn’t about success; our lives are not in our own hands.
Or maybe it’s just that I’m a contrarian, reacting to new ideas by looking for the holes in them. I don’t know. Am I being harsh on goal-setting? A wise man and a true steward of God’s things goes forth with a plan as well as a prayer. Conscious goal-setting could be simple wisdom.
See, I’ve got great ideas for 2017. Finish the Christian book I’m writing. Pay off my last debt (within reach this year!). Memorize Romans, or maybe James. Few people would criticize me for those goals. It seems ridiculous that God would. They sound nicely spiritual.
…in my judgment.
But maybe that’s the problem.
Am I stopping to ask God what my goals should be?
David probably thought it ridiculous that God would take issue with getting a new temple.
After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.” (2 Samuel 7:1-3)
Davids motives are spot on. He wants to glorify his maker, has a good sense of the order of things (God > David). Even his prophet agrees with him, boldly proclaiming that God is behind the goal – evidently without actually asking said God.
For he turns out to be wrong. Solomon finishes the tale in 1 Kings 8:18-19:
“But the Lord said to my father David, ‘You did well to have it in your heart to build a temple for my Name. Nevertheless, you are not the one to build the temple, but your son, your own flesh and blood—he is the one who will build the temple for my Name.’”
God honors David for his heart but has his own plan. After all, it is God, not man, who decides how God is glorified, and sometimes his ideas of his glory surprise us. And when we don’t ask God his plan, we’ll often never know it, for he is someone to be sought. Only through devoted listening and prayer are God’s words heard effectively.
You know God wants to free your friend from addiction, and that someone needs to say something before the spiral goes too far. But is that someone you? If it is, when? You know God wants you to start a ministry. But there are a hundred choices to be made, traps and false starts in every direction. How will you pick your way through the mire without the counsel of the Holy Spirit? We know what God wants to accomplish. But how?
Whatever good plans you have, perhaps God is saying, “You did well to have that in your heart, but I have something better.”
Or he could be behind our goal, but have a different target, route, or timetable.
Goal-setting without God is prone to the illusion of control. It suggests that we are capable of doing life based our own lone-wolf application of Scriptural principles, without so much as a prayer to God (yes, this can happen). Nathan fell for this. The temple idea seemed glorifying, seemed principled, so Nathan assumed. Mistake. David’s life teaches us that the most spiritual thing we can do is ask God what he wants, directly, in prayer.
Don’t make your own goals for 2016. Ask God’s what his goals are for you.
I want to finish off my book, but maybe I need more time; maybe I don’t yet have enough followers (hint hint) to convince a publisher of my reach as an author. Instead, maybe God wants me to try those 90 mile hikes I’ve been mulling as I work towards my long-term goal of through-hiking the Continental Divide Trail. He knows I’d enjoy that; he knows I’d meet him out there.
Or maybe it’s the reverse – the book, not the hikes.
Who knows? Certainly not someone who never asks him.
As this wretched 2016 mercifully starts its death rattle, I’ll try asking God what his plans are for my 2017. Doing so will force me to face that quiet dread of “ugh, his plans will be hard and boring” (can you relate?). Maybe they will and I just need to buck up; maybe they won’t and I just need to calm down. But either way, it’s an opportunity to exercise my “his plans will benefit me” muscle. It’s getting a little droopy lately.
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps. (Proverbs 16:9)