Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Goal-Setting, A Christian Approach, Part 1

Yesterday morning, after I’d spent some time praying and reading Scripture, I pulled out my day planner and jotted down the things I wanted to get done.

During the day, I made satisfying checkmarks next to each completed task. I say "satisfying" because each fulfilled goal brought a sense of accomplishment.

I guess that other people feel the same way. I’ve read that achieving goals, even small ones like the items on my daily to-do list, can infuse our physiological systems with a supply of endorphins, those little "feel good" chemicals our bodies crave.

Whether that’s true or not, I like attaining goals. If the racks of self-help books found in the average book store are any indication, you probably feel the same way.

And if those same books tell us anything, it’s that most of us who adopt goals do so because we want to achieve something called success. They advise that our daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals ought to have something to do with an overall game plan, a scheme or vision, for what successful life for us is to be about. Otherwise, they argue, we’re a bit like the hungry person pushing a shopping cart through a Super WalMart. We may add a lot to our carts, but not get what we need to be our best selves.

Before you tune me out on the suspicion that I’m about to rail against success as an unworthy desire, put your mind at ease. I can’t imagine that any of us, no matter what our religious background, would say that achieving success is a bad thing. What parent, for example, would ever tell their child, "Make failure your aim"?

But I do think there is a huge problem with the notions of what constitutes a successful life that fill so many self-help books and on which, truth be told, we often build our goals.

In his important book, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren writes:
Self-help books, even Christian ones, usually offer the same predictable steps
to finding your life’s purpose: Consider your dreams. Clarify your values. Set
some goals. Figure out what you are good at. Aim high. Go for it! Be
disciplined. Believe you can achieve your goals. Involve others. Never give
If you’ve ever read a self-help book, you know that drill. Maybe like me, you’ve also known people who followed that drill and rode it all the way to the success of their dreams: self-aggrandizing, self-glorifying success. In these folks, I’ve usually observed a few characteristics:

First: They’re not happy or fulfilled. A friend of mine once served as the accountant for a successful entrepreneur. My friend and he spent hours strategizing ways to shelter the man’s fortune from taxation. One day, in the middle of one of these sessions, this wealthy guy told my friend, "Back when I had nothing, I used to think that if I had just a fraction of the money I have now, I’d have no worries. But I worry more now about keeping it than I ever did about getting it."

Second: Because success hasn’t proved fulfilling, they often start searching for other pots of gold at the ends of other rainbows. Their lives become futile searches for things that will confirm that they’ve arrived. Their pots of gold don’t have to be money or possessions. They can be experiences, sexual conquests, sports trophies, prestige, recognition, power, winning an argument, or a zillion other rewards we may use to salve our egos and assure ourselves of our value as human beings. "How much money does a person need to live?" a wealthy man was once asked. "Just a little more," he replied. We apply this same approach to many of the things we use to define successful living.

There’s nothing wrong with having desires or goals. Human beings appear to be unique among the species in our ability to contemplate and anticipate a future, to form desires for the days and years ahead. This, I believe is part of what the Old Testament book of Genesis means when it says that we were created in the "image of God." (Genesis 1:26) God has created eternal appetites in us.

But, like the rest of our nature, our appetites and desires have become marred, distorted, by that state of alienation from God, from others, and from our true selves that the Bible calls sin. Rather than setting our desires, hopes, and ambitions on eternal things--things that don’t wear out, give out, or die--we make dead and dying stuff like money, possessions, experiences, sexual conquests, trophies, prestige, recognition, and power are ultimate aims. This is like filling the belly of a crying baby with junk food. It may be momentarily filling, but it won’t be very good for them.

The New Testament portion of the Bible says of us:
Claiming to be wise, they became fools...they exchanged the glory of the
immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed
animals or reptiles...they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped
and served the creature rather than the Creator...[Romans 1:22-25]
Warren, I think, correctly identifies the biggest problem with our self-driven notions of success and goal-setting, when he writes of the self-help books’ advice:
Of course, [their] recommendations often lead to great success. You can usually
succeed in reaching a goal if you put your mind to it. But being successful and
fulfilling your life’s purposes are not at all the same issue! You could reach
all your personal goals, becoming a raving success by the world’s standards, and
still miss the purposes for which God created you.
Jesus once told the story of a man who achieved his self-defined goals and purposes in life:
"The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What
should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do
this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store
all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods
laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You
fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you
have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures
for themselves but are not rich towards God." [Luke 12:16-21]
So, is Jesus saying that we shouldn’t have goals in life? That we shouldn’t work hard or earn money?

Not at all. But I do think that the first thing we need to get straight when it comes to establishing goals for ourselves is what our ultimate desires are to be and from what sources we ultimately are going to derive meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. More on this subject in the next installment of this series.


Anonymous said...

I can't wait until part 2, Yes, we get too much into the self help arena!

Mark Daniels said...

All the parts to this series were completed some time ago. Here's a link to a post with links to all five parts:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I found this commentary on goal setting from a Christian perspective. I am actively searching for information on goal setting but felt that there could not be effective goal setting without putting God's will and purpose first on the list. Thank you for this God-centered reflection on such a determining aspect of human life.

Unknown said...

Yo im so impressed with yur christian point of view good job