I remember being at a huge church service years ago when a pastor approached me to ask if I knew why I was there. Confused, I wondered if this was a trick question. “Um…” I hesitated. “To worship God?” The pastor then asked if I had ever thought about being ordained. I froze, thinking that maybe this might be some sort of “angel Gabriel and Mary encounter” where he would announce that the impossible was about to happen. I literally almost started to cry on the spot, but it wasn’t tears of joy that threatened to fill my eyes. You see, the idea of being called into ministry filled me with terror. Well, actually, it was more like horror—terrifying horror, to be exact. Seminary was never a dream or a goal of mine; a nightmare is more like it.
I occasionally think back to that pastor and wonder if God had shown him something that was more than a decade away from happening. Although I am not yet ordained, I happily graduated from seminary with a Master of Divinity in 2021, and no one was more surprised about that than me. I made the decision to begin three challenging years of study in my late fifties because God prompted me to do so. There was no goal or dream involved, but God was at work, nonetheless.
“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)
I wonder if you have had similar experiences. Maybe you’ve done some incredible things in your life seemingly by accident—as in you never set a goal to achieve those things, but you did them anyway. It’s important to acknowledge that this can happen because goal setting—which is what we have been discussing for the last few weeks—isn’t always the be-all and end-all. If you believe that God created you with a plan and purpose for your life, Scripture reminds us that although we can (and should) make plans, God will establish our steps. This is true even when we feel like we’re in a season of standing still (which I wrote about last week) or when he calls us to go to seminary.
All that said, if you are thinking about 2024 and would like to set some goals for yourself, I’m here to help! Before setting goals for the new year, I recommend that you first look back to see 2023 from God’s perspective. I have found this exercise to be profound in more ways than one. My biggest takeaway is that as you learn to see the past year from heaven’s perspective, you will be better positioned to see where God is leading you in 2024. This perspective is valuable whether or not you decide to set any goals for the new year.
The second step of goal writing is to take the time to dream with God about what He would like to see happen in various areas of your life. What does He have for you in regard to your health, marriage, parenting, community, friendships, job, ministry, and finances? When you do this, don’t feel compelled to be realistic or practical about your desires because the very nature of dreams is that they seem impossible to achieve. If we limit ourselves to what seems possible using only our own strength or ingenuity, we will miss what God has for us. He wants us to depend on Him to go beyond what seems possible. Ephesians 3:20 reminds us that He is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine according to His power that is at work within us. As you write down your dreams, you may feel like you are wishing upon a star, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. God is the one who gives us the dreams to begin with.
Once you’ve got your list of dreams, you can then turn them into goals. Let’s say you dream of a better relationship with your spouse because you are not content to live like roommates anymore. Although God could certainly swoop in and supernaturally heal all the problems in your marriage, the truth is that He is more interested in the process than the result. This is where goal setting comes in.
Prayer is the first step in turning dreams into goals, because it brings God into the process. If you have not done this before and don’t know where to begin, here is an example of a prayer: “Father God, thank you that you are with me and are for me. I lay my dreams before you and ask for your help. Show me the steps I need to take to turn my dreams into reality. What are the specific and measurable things I need to do? I trust you to lead me and guide me in this process.”
The best goals share characteristics captured by the acronym SMART. They have these five characteristics:
- Specific: the goal clearly describes what you want to achieve
- Measurable: the goal describes how you will know you have achieved it
- Achievable: the goal is ambitious but achievable with God’s help
- Realistic: the goal is attainable with the available resources
- Timely: the goal has a defined, reasonable deadline to reach it
In summary, a dream that depends on God will be big—even seemingly unachievable—while goals should give you clarity about what you need to do to make your dreams reality. So, following the example above of a joy-filled and thriving marriage, your 2024 goals should detail what you will do in 2024 to get closer to that dream. Some examples of goals you might set for yourself:
- Agree with your spouse that you will have a weekly date night and schedule it on your calendar.
- Set up a phone charging station outside of your bedroom and keep phones parked outside.
- Pick a day of the week that you commit to praying for your spouse. Keep track of prayers in a journal.
- Sign up for marriage counseling and commit to regular, recurring sessions.
- Commit to eating dinner together (with no distractions) X days per week.
God may prompt you to set any number of goals to help you achieve your dream, but the truth is that until you write them down and plan to make them happen, the likelihood is that you won’t achieve them.
While a dream about a relationship is more likely to come true if you have the buy-in of the other person, you can always set goals for yourself that will have a positive effect on the relationship. For example, you can set a goal of praying for that person weekly or even daily. You might also set a goal to speak to him/her about your desire to improve the relationship and write out a plan you both agree on.
One last thing to remember is that many people find it difficult to achieve their goals without an effective accountability system in place. Writing down your goals and establishing a tracking system (even if it’s just checking off your tasks on a weekly basis) can be really helpful. Many people find having an accountability partner to be even more helpful. When identifying an accountability partner, it’s important to consider people who will keep you from fooling yourself while encouraging you when you might be tempted to give up. These people should be trustworthy and have your best interests at heart. You will undoubtedly have times when your motivation ebbs and an accountability partner can provide the encouragement you need.
If you might be interested in joining a small group of people who are committed to meeting weekly to encourage each other and be held accountable for their goals, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am accepting applications for “Better Together” groups starting early in 2024. Spots are limited, so don’t wait.