(1) Conventional approaches to success and goal-setting, even when resulting in success as usually defined by the world, can leave us empty and unhappy. That’s because the finite, dying trophies of this world cannot scratch the itch for significance we all have.
(2) The place to start in establishing goals for our lives isn’t inside of ourselves because we are as finite and death-bound as those trophies. Rather, we must begin with the eternal God of the universe. The God Who designed us and Who, when we had gone wrong, entered our lives in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth to die and rise for us, has every right to call the shots in our lives. In the model for prayer that Jesus gave us, the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father, the centrally important petition is one that echoes Jesus’ earnest prayer in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest: “Your will be done.”The third point to be made about establishing goals for ourselves, be they the overarching direction we establish for our lives or the baby-goals that we jot down in our day planners each day, may be considered a bit objectionable by some. I would have found what I’m going to say objectionable myself just a few short years ago. But prayer, study, and life experience have convinced me of what I will assert here.
Regular readers of this blog know that one of my favorite books of recent years is The Will of God as a Way of Life by pastor and historian Gerald L. Sittser. It’s had a great impact on my thinking and my life.
As a student in college, Sittser was certain that God had called him to be a doctor. But while in college, he got turned on by theology and ministry. A new certainty supplanted the old one. Now, he was sure God was calling him to be a pastor.
To the extent that such things can be measured, he became a successful pastor.
After several years though, he felt that God was calling him to yet another profession. He was sure that he needed to go to graduate school, earning advanced degrees in History so that he could teach at the college level. This he did. Again, he was successful.
As he looked back over his life, Sittser was sure that God had called him to everything he had done. Included in this certainty was his marriage to Linda and their beautiful family. Friends told them they had the perfect life. They were convinced that in it all, they could see the sovereign hand of God.
But then, tragedy struck. One day when his mother was visiting Gerald and his family, a drunk driver struck the vehicle in which they all were riding. His wife, his mother, and one of his children were killed. Was this the will of a sovereign God for a family that had always sought to do God’s will?
Some Christians, particularly those whose lives have never been touched by tragedy or those who have never helped a friend through a tragedy, might answer thoughtlessly, “Of course.”
But such responses hardly do credit to God, to those whose lives have been snuffed out, or to the ones left behind.
After these multiple tragedies, Sittser still believed in the goodness of God. The willingness of God to share in our sufferings on a cross showed that.
Sittser still believed in the power of God. Jesus’ resurrection and His continuing ability to change people’s lives for the better are evidence of that.
But Sittser also believed that he needed to look exactly at what the will of God means.
All of his life, Sittser had assumed that the will of God was about the future. If things he thought were God’s will turned out okay, he assumed this to be God’s affirmation of his having made the right guess about God’s will for his life. I suspect that most Christians take a similar view. It’s the view I held until a few years ago.
But as Sittser looked at the Bible’s understanding of the will of God, particularly as evidenced in the writings of Paul in the New Testament, he made a discovery. In the Bible, the phrase is never used of the future, only of the present.
In other words, the will of God is not some mystery shrouding our futures which we must, through agonizing prayer and discernment, seek out.
Instead, the will of God is about how we live in the present moment. And how we are to live in the present moment is crystal clear. As Sittser writes:
...the New Testament offers no hint that Paul agonized about the will of God as it pertained to the future. He gave himself to the present because he was eager to use what little time he had to do what he already knew God wanted him to do.The only time we have to know and do God’s will is this present moment.
If we sense any agony in the heroes of Scripture, it is not in discovering the will of God but in doing it....
So, what exactly is the will of God for our lives in the present moments in which each of us live our lives? Even a perfunctory reading of the Bible will give us the answer to that question. It would include these imperatives from Jesus:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die...” [John 11:25-26]All these passages make clear what God’s will is and for any given moment of our lives, give us more than ample inspiration for our goal-setting.
...”’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’...’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 22:37-40]
“This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you...” [John 15:12]
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:19-20]
“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” [Mark 16:15]
“...strive first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness...” [Matthew 6:33]
They indicate that God isn’t terribly concerned about what profession we enter. Chefs, plumbers, teachers, carpenters, computer programmers, housewives, preachers, and others all have the same mission. So long as the profession is honorable, God’s will is the same for all of us and each of us is equally capable of pursuing it. God calls all to follow Jesus.
The imperatives also indicate that God may not be terribly concerned about who we marry, so long as we submit our marriages to His lordship.
God may not care what we volunteer to do in the Church or in the community, so long as we express His love in whatever we do.
God may not care how many children we have or how we spend our quiet evenings at home either., so long as He is at the center of our lives
God may not care where we live, so long as we seek to live for His purposes.
To all followers of Jesus, God addresses the words found in the New Testament:
...you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. [First Peter 2:9-10]As Sittser points out, Jesus doesn’t say that we need to go through a process of discernment to uncover what God wants us to do with our vocations, avocations, relationships, or futures. He writes:
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exhorts us not to be anxious about tomorrow but to concentrate on what we must do today...[He says] nothing about how to discern God’s will for our lives...Jesus demands instead that we establish right priorities and put first things first...Jesus only requires that we make sure our heart is good, our motives are pure, and our basic direction is right, pointing toward the “true north” of the kingdom of God. We can, in good conscience, choose from among any number of reasonable alternatives and continue to do the will of God.I agree with Sittser.
This insight complicates, simplifies, and grants freedom to us as we set goals for ourselves.
(1) It complicates because doing the will of God can sometimes bring trouble, challenge, and difficulty to our lives. It necessarily means “dying to ourselves” and our old selfish ambitions so that our new God-selves can rise. [Romans 6:1-8] The martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “when Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
We can no longer dodge the will of God as a “someday I’ll” proposition. We know the will of God and we know that it’s something that we can and should do right now.
Doing the will of God isn't always easy. It got Jesus into trouble. Why should those who claim to follow Him be any different?
(2) It simplifies things because the will of God is clear to us. It helps us to know what to say Yes to and to what we should say No.
(3) It grants us freedom because we can plan and live each day in the certainty that if our intention is to follow Christ and do God’s will, our life is being lived God’s way!
In The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren identifies five purposes for every one of us:
- to worship God with our whole lives
- to fellowship with other Jesus-Followers
- to grow spiritually, learning to love God and neighbor more each day
- to serve others in Jesus' Name
- to be messengers for God, telling others about the free new life that comes from Jesus Christ
[Read the first two installments of this series: