Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
– James 4:13-15 (ESV)
It is January 2nd. Do you know where (or what) your New Year’s resolutions are?
I don’t know about you, but I am not very good about keeping up with New Year’s resolutions, even after the helpful tips Matt Perman wrote about yesterday. His post got me thinking about a question I’ve heard many Christians ask: “Should Christians even set goals?”
Some use the quote above from the book of James to suggest the Bible teaches us not to set goals. Others point to passages like “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty” (Proverbs 21:5), and suggest that goal setting is not only godly but absolutely necessary if we are to do what God has called us to do.
How do we resolve the apparent contradiction?
What Does the Bible Say About Goal-Setting?
The Bible has many names for setting goals: the “call of God,” the “will of God,” “mission,” or “vision,” to name a few. There are also many examples of people in the Bible that set goals, including:
- Noah saving his family and the animals from the flood.
- Joseph providing for Egypt and his family during the famine.
- Nehemiah providing security for the Israelites by rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem.
Throughout the Bible we see examples of God directly leading people to set and pursue goals of his choosing, whether it is telling Jonah to go to Nineveh, or Paul to plant churches.
The study of these examples makes it clear that Scripture calls us to a higher standard in setting goals. The goals we set as Christians must be in accordance with God’s will and under his leadership.
Goals Vs. Plans
To align our goals in accordance with God’s will and leadership, we must first understand the difference between a goal and a plan. We often use these words interchangeably, but we should not. A goal is desired result. A plan is the set of steps necessary to achieve the goal.
Both goals and plans are necessary to fulfill God’s call on our lives. A friend of mine used to say,
A goal without a plan is only a dream.
This is why we have such a problem with most of our New Year’s resolutions. They don’t include the detailed plans needed to make them a reality.
Our attempts to set goals usually falls into two extremes.
The first extreme are those who choose not to have any goals or plans. They aim at nothing and hit it with amazing consistency.
People in this extreme claim to always want to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, who they suggest only leads people in a spontaneous way. Although this may seem spiritual, they are not really using their God-given intellect to make plans and decisions. Their motto is “Let go and let God.”
Yet, in Proverbs 6, the author rebukes the man who prepares for nothing, calling him a “sluggard.”
The second extreme is the person who develops such rigid plans to implement their goals that there is no room for the daily guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This is not the example we see in the Apostle Paul’s life. On more than one occasion in his missionary travels, Paul planned to enter a region to preach the gospel and plant churches, but the Spirit of God prevented him. (Acts 16:6-7).
So Should Christians Set Goals?
Referring back to our passage in James 4, James is not saying that we should not set goals. What he is saying is that we should set goals and make plans as God leads, but always hold them loosely: “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that’” (James 4:15).
Herein lies the balance of the Christian life: although Paul set Christ-centered goals and developed specific plans to achieve them, he was also sensitive to the Lord altering his plans.
As we set goals and make plans for this new year, we need to humbly surrender our agendas and ambitions, and seek first God’s kingdom (Matthew 6:33). This commitment, perhaps as much as anything else, will help us align our work with God’s will and further his kingdom in the process.