December 15, 1999
New Millennial Resolutions
Becoming More
Goal-Oriented in the
Twenty-First Century
    
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I often find when reading a book that some incidental observation the author makes helps me more than his or her main theme. This happened again recently when I was reading Ben Young's The Ten Commandments of Dating, as part of my preparation for revising Should I Get Married?.*

Young urges singles to set significant goals, so that they will have more to offer when that special relationship comes along. He counsels, "Goals move us. In business, sports, politics, and relationship with God, goals make the difference between reaching forward with purpose, or spinning around in meaningless circles. Most people have more difficulty setting goals than they do accomplishing them once they are set."*

Young makes this observation about goal-setting in passing, and doesn't return to the topic again in his book. Yet I was stunned by his suggestion that it is more difficult to set goals than to carry them out. At first I wasn't sure what to make of it. I had never thought of it this way before. I've always assumed that setting a goal is the simple part, and then the real work begins.

Yet after thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I'm convinced that Young is right. We easily and thoughtlessly set many fleeting goals that have no effect on our destiny. Yet establishing an effective goal takes time, careful thinking, prayer and reflection, planning and commitment of heart. Once a goal is firmly in place, it becomes part of us. Carrying it out often seems natural. And--maybe it's just that we're more alert to it--but it seems that serendipities occur. Life rises up to meet us and help us accomplish our purpose.

Why the Effort Is Worth It

Another book I read this past year was Napoleon Hill's classic Think and Grow Rich.* I read it not because I want to make my lifestyle more ostentatious, but because this book, first published in 1937, has been enormously popular this century and many claim to have been helped by it. I wanted to understand Hill's philosophy and be able to interact with it, knowing I'd agree with some of his points and not with others.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Hill's broad concern is not solely with helping one grow rich financially, but in ways that are important to one personally. And while I wish his book were better annotated, Hill bases his observations on two decades of research and interviews with hundreds of successful people.

It is hard to find a more enthusiastic proponent of goal-setting than Hill, an attorney by trade. When we have properly established a goal and truly own it, life works to our benefit after that, Hill insists. We are both surprised and pleased by what we're able to accomplish. Hill comes close to saying that an effectively set goal guarantees our success.

I don't agree that setting a goal ever guarantees anything. Our future is always in God's hands, and our expectations of what we will accomplish must always be qualified by "if God wills" (Jas 4:15).

Yet goal setting does make a difference--often a radical difference in what we're able to accomplish. This is true, I'm convinced, because of how God himself has ordered human life, even as part of his common grace. When you add to this the prospect of the Christian setting goals under Christ's direction, the possibilities are explosive.

Nehemiah's Example

Consider Nehemiah. His unthinkable accomplishments, detailed in the book of Nehemiah, included rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem and re-establishing the city as a vibrant worship center for Israel. Yet the project began in private for him. He spent a period of many days agonizing over the fate of Israel and praying for God's help and insight. During this time he resolved to do something to turn the tide. He set a goal, then confirmed it by praying for God's help: "O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant. . . . Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presense of [the king]" (Neh 1:11).

From that point on, events transpired to help Nehemiah accomplish his purpose. Even though Nehemiah, who was cupbearer to the king, hadn't asked him for any assistance, the king noticed Nehemiah's discouraged composure and took the initiative to ask him what was wrong. This provided Nehemiah the chance to explain his concern to the king and ask for specific help. The king agreed to assist him.

The project then accelerated forward at a remarkably rapid pace. The energy was there, and many volunteered their services to help Nehemiah. In spite of extreme obstacles which he faced, including physical persecution, his goal of rebuilding Jerusalem was so firmly established in his heart that he was able to press forward naturally and successfully.

Here's something even more interesting to observe. When we study Nehemiah's experience carefully, we find that it was more difficult for him to set his goal than to carry it out. Before resolving to take action, he "sat down and wept, and mourned for days; and . . . continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven" (Neh 1:4 RSV). While he faced many challenges in accomplishing his goal, that part was obviously easier for him than establishing the goal itself. He was swept along by momentum (Neh 6:15), by the encouragement of people who "had a mind to work" (Neh 4:6), by the conviction that he was doing a great work (Neh 6:3), and by the sheer joy of seeing the project succeed.

We learn from Nehemiah, then, that goal-setting is not an activity for the faint of heart. Doing it properly requires time, prayer, deep thinking and feeling, sweat and tears.

Yet he also demonstrates why the process is worth it. Three stunning results came from his establishing his goal:

His own life became focused in a way that made accomplishing the goal possible.

Others, inspired by his motivation and clear trumpet call, rallied to help him.

God worked providentially to ensure his success.

Nehemiah's experience, then, inspires us to take goal-setting seriously. It is a critical key to realizing our potential for Christ.

Finding an Approach That Works

Perhaps you've been intending to make some resolutions as you begin the next year (century, millennium). Let me suggest a slightly different twist.

Why not resolve to become more goal-centered from this point forward in your life. Instead of making a few impulsive resolutions that quickly get broken, establish a game plan for making ones that stick. Feel the passion for goal-setting, and determine to make it part of your lifestyle. Think through some changes that will make it possible.

Each of us is different. The process that helps you establish goals successfully may not work for me. The important thing for each of us is to find the approach that works for us.

But at minimum it require from each of us time and effort and commitment of heart. Goal-setting should become a goal in itself.

If you need some suggestions, here's a track to run on--an approach that will work well for many of us. Make three general commitments concerning goals:

Yearly. Plan to take a personal retreat at least once a year. Determine a date or time during the year when you will do this, and stick to that commitment annually. Allow at least a day of uninterupted time--if possible, a weekend or several days--in a quiet setting.

Begin by spending some time in prayer, asking Christ to direct you. Maintain a prayerful attitude during your entire retreat.

If you have never done so before, write out a mission statement. Keep it concise--a few paragraphs at most--but list your major priorities, and state your longest-term goals, those things you most earnestly want to accomplish with your life. If you have previously designed such a statement, review it and see if it needs any changes.

In light of your mission statement establish goals for the coming year. They do not necessarily have to be ones you intend to complete during the year, but ones which need your attention during this time. Consider the major areas of your life--spiritual, relationships, career, education, health, finances, lifestyle, hobbies--and set goals at those points where you need to grow or change. Make sure the goals fit you well--that they match your gifts and interests, and your clearest understanding of God's direction for your life. But let them challenge you as well, to grow at a pace that is right for you.

Be as specific as possible with each goal, stating clearly what you want to accomplish and the date by which you intend to do so. This is especially important. Then establish a clear plan of action for carrying out each goal.

Allow yourself to dream. Envision completing your goals, and anticipate the joy of doing so. If you cannot feel strong passion for a goal, don't adopt it--you'll never follow through. Choose those goals that really stir your heart.

Keep a notebook dedicated to goals. Record the ones you have set on this retreat in it. Then make a copy of this list to carry with you in your wallet or pocketbook.

Close your retreat with another time of prayer, asking God to give success to these goals, wisdom in carrying them out, and understanding if any need to modified.

Monthly. Set a day once a month to review your goals. If the first of the month can work for you, choose it, for it is easiest to remember. Plan to spend at least an hour on that day focusing on your goals. In a prayerful spirit, read over your list, reaffirm your commitment to your goals, and make any adjustments to them that seem necessary. Focus especially on your plans of action for each goal; evaluate how well you're doing in following through, make any changes needed, and re-determine to stick with your strategies. Allow yourself again to dream, to rekindle your passion for your goals.

Daily. It is equally important to review your goals daily. Do so during your devotional time. Read over your list of goals and pray about them at least briefly. (If you don't have a daily devotional time, here's a good incentive to begin one!).

Make it your habit also to review your goals just before you go to bed, and as soon as you wake up. Napolean Hill recommends verbalizing your goals to yourself; at the least, make a point of doing so before bed and first thing when you awake.

A Matter of Stewardship

My favorite article by Andy Rooney is one he authored on new year's resolutions. In it he states his intentions for the coming year: He will not read a novel. He will stop worrying about cleaning up the basement, for anyone with a tidy basement needs a psychiatrist anyway. He will stop trying to please his wife by standing up straight.

Rooney's tongue-in-cheek rebellion against new year's vows gets to the heart of why we find goal-setting so futile. We've been there. We've made endless resolutions, often to appease our guilt more than anything, which we've never fulfilled. Why bother trying again? Why saddle ourselves with all that stress? Why not just lighten up about life and take the course of least resistence?

There is another side to the story. We experience our greatest joy when our life is moving forward with a strong sense of purpose. And a reasonable level of stress actually contributes to both our happiness and health, especially if it is related to clearly-defined objectives we wish to attain.

The truth is that we each are far more capable of setting goals and sticking to them than we normally realize. Part of the answer is discipline. Yet a big part of it lies in our approach to goal-setting itself. Fortunately, there is much we can do to improve the process.

Resolve to become more goal-centered as you move into the next century. Determine to cherish the gift of life Christ has given you so greatly that you will make the best possible use of your time. Open yourself fully to his provision for your life and to the accomplishments he'll make possible for you. Goal-setting is the right place to start.
   

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