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January 3, 2012

This time of year, a lot of people are thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. Many of us take the turn of a new year as an opportunity to assess what we would like to change in our lives. I’d like to expand the conversation about resolutions and make it bigger. I want to talk about goals. Do you have personal goals for 2012? Why or why not?

Like many of you, I have a complicated relationship with goals. I don’t really want anything to do with the triumphalist “self made man” who progresses from one accomplishment to another. I’ve also had God prevent me from achieving some of my most deeply-cherished goals in the past. In hindsight, this has often been a very good thing. For these reasons, I had not set formal personal goals until a couple of years ago.

At the same time, I have come to believe that goals can be a very helpful thing. I am fairly capable and can get a lot of things done in the course of a year. Goals, however, keep me from just mindlessly jumping from one thing to the next. In other words, they help me avoid “competent busy-ness” and instead push me towards living and laboring in a very intentional way. This is a good thing.

I believe one can make a solid Biblical case for the need for goals or some other kind of intentional way of living our lives. Psalm 90 asks God to “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom”. The idea is that we have a very limited time available to us in this life. Instead of wandering aimlessly, there should be a method to our madness. Goals are a very good way of doing this. Incidentally, this whole notion of living in light of our mortality is one of the driving forces behind the Rule of Benedict–a very ancient way of living a disciplined, intentional life.

It’s important to point out that I am not saying having a set of life goals is a biblical command. Rather, I think it’s a good idea. I think the biblical command is to intentionally live in a manner that is consistent with the trajectory of the gospel. Having personal goals is one good way to do this. It is very helpful to be able to distinguish between a good idea and a biblical command. Unfortunately, not all preachers make this distinction and sometimes try to bind peoples’ consciences with good ideas.

Here are some practical tips on setting goals.

1) Be comprehensive. My goals are constantly evolving, but I try to cover all the bases. My categories right now include: God, personal holiness, marriage, my children, my job, physical fitness, money and my house. I will no doubt adjust these categories in future years. You could have categories for friendships, creative endeavors or education. My point here is to address the significant areas of your life.

2) Dream. Don’t just look at what is. Think about what could be. What would you like to happen in the next five years? For example, when you think of character development, you may want to consider the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Which aspect of the “Fruit” would you like to see more of in your life? What can you do to pursue that? Or, maybe you’re in debt. Think about what it would be like to live a life not hindered by debt. And, then, think about how can you start to move in that direction.

3) Re-structure Your Life Accordingly. You will need to change things to pursue your goals. Pursuing goals will affect your calendar, your money and your free time. Essentially, this means changing the “liturgy” of your daily life. What is the rhythm of your life structured around now? What would you need to add to your life to change directions? What would you need to subtract?

Over the past several years, there have been a couple of ways I have restructured my life to pursue goals. These changes have made a tremendous impact.

First, back in 2009, my wife and I started pro-actively budgeting our money for the first time in our marriage. We have always had fairly disciplined spending habits, so we weren’t up to our eyeballs in debt. This change required about 5 hours per month of my time to crunch the numbers and plan ahead. That’s 5 hours that I can’t use doing other things, but I think it is time very well spent. It also creates an environment where I am forced, every month, to think about where our money is going. This change has had significant repercussions. By becoming more forward thinking and forward planning with our finances, we have really been able to do more things with our money and even give more away.

Secondly, at around the same time, I began exercising in a much more disciplined manner. To help jump-start this process, I started using the P90X exercise program. I know, it’s inundated with all the Southern California body image cheese. But the reality is, I needed the structured program to get me off the couch and motivated again. This required several hours per week to devote to exercise and it also triggered a change in the way I eat. But I am much healthier than I was before. I also sleep better at night and have more energy.

4) Take a Long View. You need to dream and push yourself, but don’t try to accomplish everything in one year. Maybe there are one or two areas that need specific attention in a given year. Pursue those goals with gusto and cut yourself some slack in other areas. Also, pay attention to your current phase of life. If you are slammed in grad school or have a bunch of kids in diapers running around the house, there are some things you will not be able to do for a while.

5) Remember the Gospel. Goals are a way of “working out your salvation”, not earning it. If you fail at a goal, it doesn’t touch your identity in Christ. Also, if you fail, you have to be open to the fact that God might be trying to re-direct some of your deeply held ideas about what your life should be about.

Happy New Year!

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