“I’ve set goals. I’ve even mapped out habits and made a rule of life,” my colleague told me, “but my rule never seems to leave the binder where I put it after I print it off. I dream up this perfect life where I sleep, work, and pray the right amount, but I can’t seem to find the link between high-level dreaming and Wednesday afternoon.”
Maybe you’ve been there. You know the person you want to be, the books you want to read, and the habits you want to adopt, but you struggle to fit the contours of your big goals into the rough corners of daily life. You need principles to make your plans realistic, and you need motivation to keep going when you falter—instead of throwing it in the garbage and starting over next January.
1. God’s call motivates faith-filled discipline.
When we set goals, we tend to look to the future. We begin with the end in mind. Smart planners envision the kind of life they want then reverse engineer it, working backward to habits and commitments that support their vision.
As an editor, I want to honor authors by stewarding their words with excellence and care. So this year, I plan to grow my proofreading skills by doing weekly exercises from The Copyeditor’s Workbook. One learns a trade by practice, an instrument by playing the scales. When I look to the future, editing excellence is my goal, so I’ve planned to put in the proofreading reps to get there. This makes sense when we’re making plans.
You need principles to make your plans realistic, and you need motivation to keep going when you falter.
But from Ridderboss, I learned that the motivation to keep up with plans comes not from looking forward but from looking back at God’s promises and his redeeming work for us in the past. When Paul tells Christians to “not let sin reign” in our mortal bodies, he grounds his command in our union with Christ; he says our sinful way of life has already died with Jesus (Rom. 6:6, 12 NIV). When Paul calls Christians to be living sacrifices who use their gifts to build up the church, he looks back again. He gives his commands “in view of God’s mercy” (Rom. 12:1, NIV).
To grow in Christ and as a person, I need discipline, but not raw discipline. I need discipline fueled by faith that “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10). Because the Lord gave me daughters and called me to be their dad, I plan family worship and daddy-daughter dates. Even with my job—that area of all our lives where working to achieve an envisioned future is part of the fabric—I can look back, finding motivation in the truth that God placed me in my profession. My vocation, my calling, is the work he’s prepared in advance for me to do (Eph. 2:10). In this way, a look back at God’s call fuels a disciplined Christian life, but a God-centered perspective does more.
2. God’s providence constrains our ambition.
To have integrity with your plans, you must schedule your commitments. I type out an ideal weekly schedule spreadsheet at the beginning of each year. Then, each Monday morning, I look at it, consider any necessary adjustments, and write out my schedule for the new week in penciled columns on a legal pad. I’m also careful to block off times for regular habits and commitments on Google calendar where I keep up with meetings and appointments.
I’ve been a careful scheduler for years, but still, there never seems to be enough hours for my aspirations. Sometimes I run out of time because I need to repent from laziness; I need to get off Twitter and do my job or shut off Prime Video to pray with my girls before bed. Other times, a Godward frame of mind means crucifying not only sinful sloth but outsized ambition. It means remembering that the God who called me as a Christian, husband, father, and employee also knows my limited frame and numbers my days.
Even if there were time in the week for all I want to do, things come up. Hard drives crash. Kids get sick. Traffic jams lengthen my commute. As a result, each February . . . and August . . . and whenever it becomes clear some things just won’t get done, I adjust my goals so they correspond with reality. I don’t see this as cheating or quitting. I still pick up a prayer book each morning, go to the gym, and read before bed. But when I don’t read all I hoped to, or miss a day of exercise, I can acknowledge that while I may have God-sized desires, I’m not God.
Submitting to God’s call also means submitting to his providence and recognizing the commitments I adopt can only happen within the time he gives. After all, time and circumstances even forced Paul to change his plans, but that didn’t shake his confidence that God’s promises are still “Yes!” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:15–20).
To grow in Christ and as a person, I need discipline, but not raw discipline. I need discipline fueled by faith.
For Paul, pursuing godly discipline means to “hold true to what we have attained” (Phil. 2:16). It’s to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1). “‘Worthy’,” observes Ridderbos, “has nothing to do with meritoriousness, but the motive lying in it is entirely derived from the gracious activity of God, by which he sanctified [us] to himself and thus made [us] worthy of his calling.”
If you’ve received God’s call, if you’re part of his sanctified people, root your new year’s planning in God-centered faith. When you need motivation, look back at who he’s declared you to be. When you need to embrace your limits, look up with trust at his guiding hand.