"For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline… He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of His own purpose and grace.” (2 Timothy 1:7, 9)
How are you doing with those New Year’s resolutions? Some surveys say four out of five people will break their resolutions, and a third of them will do so in the first month! Many of us were ready for 2020 to be over, but have we put much prayer or consideration into what we hope to see in 2021? While the beginning of a new year can come with a new sense of motivation, purpose, or direction, what does it take to follow through the rest of the year?
In short, the answer is discipline, but we’re not exactly born with that. If we were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation! Maybe some people can wake up one day, say, “I’m going to get in shape this year” and actually do it, but for most of us, there’s a difference between the idea of making resolutions and the disciplined process of setting attainable goals. Have we been intentional about what this means for us in terms of spiritual development?
A couple of years ago, around this time, The Wesleyan Church posted “10 Personal Questions to Start 2019 Well.” In 2021, as we pause to look back and look ahead, these reflection questions are worth revisiting. Especially when little on this earth seems certain, where do we find a firm foundation to build on? Author Dan Reiland states, "My advice is not to make a list too long. That can be overwhelming. If you do make a long list, then prioritize it and start with a short list of the most important things first.”
If nothing else has come of this long COVID season, I hope we can all agree God has used these circumstances to bring our attention to what really matters. So, as we consider the beginning of this new year, what will be essential... foundational... to the way we approach these next 12 months of our lives?
This month, in the Intentional Foundations seminar, we have identified some important building blocks to answer that question. (The final seminar is January 20. Find the session recordings and notes HERE) As the Lord God Almighty says in 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
What does it mean for all God’s people to humble ourselves, pray, seek His face, turn from our wicked ways? Maybe it feels like that list could get really long, really fast, and become overwhelming before we’ve even begun.
I don’t know about you, but I like to have a goal. I have long-term goals, short-term goals, in-between goals… And, about every six months or so, I end up re-evaluating, re-prioritizing, and re-focusing on the goals that are most important. Otherwise, I can lose track and never make much progress on any goals. We can never do everything all at once, but we can always do something to move in the right direction. So I’m continuously re-learning to start wherever I’m at.
That ties in with our Big 3 philosophy about starting points for church connection...
This can feel frustrating at first, when we want to get involved, make a difference, and see big changes right away. We want to go all in! But discipline—and discipleship—builds on itself. Discipline in one area of life builds discipline into other areas of life. And we can’t rush discipleship. There’s no life hack to spiritual formation.
So, how do we decide which goals, or which areas of growth, are the most important at any given point? Sometimes, God leads me to set a major life goal that determines many decisions and takes years to accomplish (like walking the path to ordained ministry, a 2020 goal set way back in 2013). Other times, though, I hear myself throwing around a lot of vague, guilt-based, half-hearted goals, like “I really need to start working out again” or “I’ve really got to work on that savings account” or “We should really stop eating out so much.” When I catch myself, I have to stop and ask, “Am I honoring the Lord in this area of my life?”
Then it’s not about how I feel or what I want or what you think I should do. Then it's about being called to honor the Lord with my body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), be faithful with the resources He’s given me (Luke 16:10-11), and encourage others to good deeds (Hebrews 10:24-25). And it usually doesn’t take very long in prayer before an area emerges that needs my attention.
God’s will has a way of simplifying a lot of decisions. "Is what I'm doing honoring to God?" Yes? Well, do that, then. No? Then change that. Here’s a way to start...
Part 1: Set a SMART Goal.
"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won't you first sit down and estimate the cost...?” (Luke 14:28)
Once you’ve identified a change that’s important enough to follow through, let’s get “SMART” about it. A reason most people fail to achieve goals is we don’t set specific goals to begin with. The advice is given so frequently it sounds cliché, but the fact is, creating a written set of goals can be a first step toward actual, tangible progress. After all, if you’ve never written down your goals, and you do that today, then you’ve already made more progress today than you have before. Ta-da!
Effective goal-setting is outlined in the SMART model:
To develop a SMART goal, don’t be afraid to dream—embrace God’s potential for your life! Now articulate...
Part 2: Create an Action Plan.
“Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and He will establish your plans.” (Proverbs 16:3)
When we break down a “big” goal into a series of “small” goals, change starts to look sustainable. For instance, it might feel overwhelming to say, “I want to read the whole Bible in a year.” But this is actually a quite specific, measurable, attainable, right, and time-bound goal. With this SMART goal identified, an action plan provides a set of logical steps to follow. For example:
With a SMART goal broken down into an action plan (even one this simple), it doesn’t look so overwhelming after all! And the smaller we break down the action steps (for example, book by book or even chapter by chapter), the quicker we gain momentum.
To draft an action plan, first picture your end result: the completion of the goal you’ve identified, in the time you’ve set to complete it. Now, work backward from there:
Moving forward means taking the first step, then the next step after that, and the next step—and so on. So, what's the next step you can see from where you’re at right now? (Don’t worry, we’ll always be asking God to adjust the course as needed, as we go.)
Maybe the first step, right this moment, is to stop and pray about it. Ask the Holy Spirit to bring your attention to an area where you need God’s help to be intentional in discipleship this year. Then ask for His power to do it!
What specific, measurable, attainable, right, and time-bound goal has God given you in the year ahead?