At last weekend’s Roundtable, the women gathered in my living room discussed goals and resolutions. Should Christians set them? Why or why not? We came to the conclusion that while goals can be beneficial for believers, they must be rooted in something far deeper than the typical new-year’s change.
But we also landed on a point I’ve been mulling over for the last few days. Most goals are about improving ourselves. We want to lose weight, eat well, improve family relationships, and read more. None of these things are wrong. But when we look across the goals we set as people of God we should ask ourselves: Why all the self-improvement? Is this what Christians are called to pursue?
I’m the first to admit I love goal setting. I have used PowerSheets – a goal planning workbook – for three years now. I use them to plot out ten goals I for each year. These keep me focused on my priorities and help me stay on track with what I accomplish each month, week, and day. But my goals today are much different than they were when I was right out of high school, when I set specific benchmarks for each area of my life (physical, emotional, mental, academic, and so on). I’ve mellowed – as much as a Type-A woman can!
But I did not mellow simply because I found a new way to do goal setting. The change in my character and my priorities is a direct product of my maturing spiritual walk.
The more I’ve grown to know Jesus, the less self-improvement matters to me.
In the classic book The Christian’s Secret to the Happy Life (by Hannah Whitall Smith), Smith points out there are two parts to our sanctification: Our part, and God’s. Our part is to trust; God’s is to work. By taking the step of faith in His work, we submit ourselves to God’s will and power. It is God who works change in our desires and nature. Our “work”, if you will, is to give ourselves over to Him.
But this balance gets tipped too far either direction. Some people use “trust” as an excuse to take no step of faith at all. They do not listen for the Spirit’s leading and do not respond to God’s daily direction. Others try to “help” God out in His sanctification process by deciding who they will be and how they will get there. This, from my observation, is a distinctly Western approach to Christianity and one that dominates today’s Christian culture.
“Bootstrap” Christianity is a worldview. It’s “I am the master of my destiny” with “…and I love Jesus” tacked to the end. We decide what holiness looks like. We decide what needs improvement in ourselves. So we set our goals and we make our lists and we read our bibles to make ourselves into better versions of who we once were – all in the name of Jesus.
But the responsibility for sanctification does not start or end with us:
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:23)
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:7)
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:6)
It is God who works sanctification in us as we entrust ourselves to Him. And it is God who defines what that sanctification should look like.
Where Our Treasure Is
In Matthew 6, Jesus is in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount when He begins a discussion of priorities:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt. 6:19-21)
We think of these verses in relation to materialism, but “treasure” can be widely defined. What if our “treasure” is to become better people? “Level Ten” people, who are fit and pretty, well-organized and successful? It’s very easy to do in a culture that admires drive and worships success. In our pursuit of holiness, have we forgotten who makes us holy? In our chase for betterment, have we stopped to ask our Creator who He created us to be?
Does Jesus Need Your “Better Person”?
One of my favorite productivity bloggers talks often of our “fantasy selves”; people we wish we could be, and sometimes deceive ourselves into striving to be. I’ve always had a fantasy self. She sits on foreign policy committees and attends the Nutcracker. Never mind that the real me has no interest in foreign policy and can’t stand the Nutcracker; in my mind, these things are connected to class and status. My pride tells me if I want to have class and status, I should enjoy these things, too.
Fantasy selves take many forms. The motivation may not be class and status; it could be money, attention, fame, or approval. When we let these motives go unchecked, we may find ourselves using Christ – and Christianity – as a means to become the person we want to be. We load up our schedules with goals and achievements, creating an idol in our own image… all while following Christ.
I better do my devotions so I can become a more godly woman (and therefore deserving of a husband).
If I follow the Lord, I will be blessed (which could result in more money for me).
I’m going to cultivate my spiritual gifts (so I can lead worship on stage and further my music career).
Jesus may not be calling you to give up your spiritual gifts, and He’s certainly not calling you to stop opening the Word. The question is WHY are we doing these things? What are we trying to accomplish by becoming “better people”, and why are we doing it on our own?
There is a person you need to be, and God knows who it is. God Himself will make you into that person as you entrust yourself to Him, ask Him for direction, and let Him define your priorities. Let Him tell you who your real self should be; not the fantasy version. Let Him show you what goals to set – and be okay with Him changing them.
It would be a dreadful shame to reach the end of your life as the “best person you can be” – and nothing like the woman God wanted you to be.
“And the God of all grace… will Himself restore you, secure you, strengthen you, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10)