My mom called me recently with a question: “Can you name all of the books of the Bible in order without looking?”
I made it just fine all the way through a good chunk of the Old Testament, faltered and forgot some of the lesser prophetic books, and then breezed through the New Testament, albeit in the wrong order. Given time and space, I confessed, I could recite all the books in the Bible from memory probably – but in perfect order? No way.
“Me either,” Mom agreed. “So I think it would be neat to try. I’m going to do it.”
This is the best example of an ideal goal that I can think of. It is defined: there is a distinct task to complete. It is specific: learn all the books of the Bible in order. It has a clear end-line: once the books have been learned, the goal is met. And there is a purpose to it: for my mom, it’s one tiny part of a greater program to know the Bible better generally (she already knows it frighteningly well and she’ll be embarrassed that I acknowledged that here) in order to teach it to the children at her church.
As a professor, I’ve learned the value of specific, clear, concrete goals. I can’t just walk in a class and say to my students, “Write better.” That’s amorphous and means nothing and is as likely to produce twenty-five essays of varying (bad!) quality as it is to produce anything of worth.
Instead, I break down “write better” into a set of concrete steps: first, use good diction. Second, create clear sentences and paragraphs that inform each other. Third, proofread for comma splices, sentence fragments, run-ons, and misspellings. You get the picture. By giving them achievable goals that have measurable and understandable results, I’ve made it at least slightly easier for them to get on about the nebulous process of “writing better.”
Most people will tell you this is an ideal way to get about accomplishing anything. So why do we, as Christians, instead on keeping our goals vague?
I’d like to read the Bible more. (What is “more”? Twice as much as now? Two verses more per day? Five times a week?)
I’d like to get closer to God. (By maintaining a better prayer life? By alone time? Or are you just talking about cultivating some emotional sense of closeness?)
What I really want is to get more involved in ministry. (What ministry? At your church? Something going on now, or some ‘something’ you’d like to start on your own?)
I’d like a church that feels like home. (A church that feels like home in the sense that they play that music you like? In the sense that you’ll be scolded if you miss a Sunday? In the sense that people are friendly?)
I am not exempt from doing this. Every believer I know does it. We form these half-thought-out wishes for our spiritual lives, note them, and then go right on never doing anything about them because we can’t accomplish such a vague idea in a practical way. We have no way to hold ourselves accountable to anything. And so our goals remain beyond our reach. The grand idea is one of Satan’s greatest temptations to failure; you become so enraptured by the vision of what you want to do that you never actually think about how it is you’re going to get there.
I also think these kinds of phrases give believers a way to feel holy without actually trying to be holy. I hear a lot of these vague wishes and phrases a lot in larger Christians groups, where it’s a sign of your spiritual growth to say that you want to be more [insert Christian virtue here]. Unfortunately, spiritual growth isn’t accomplished in talking about things; it’s accomplished by doing them.
So be specific in your goals. Try to eradicate those vague “I wish for…more” ideas out of your vocabulary. When you hear yourself heading down that road, ask yourself: how exactly do I want to accomplish this? In what time frame? What is it I’m after? Write down some steps to get from point A to point B. And then pursue those steps with steely determination.
Because Jesus was right. Anything is possible for him who believes. There is no door in the Christian life that is not open to you. Do you want to memorize books of the Bible? Might take years, but you can. Do you want to dig into some theology and finally make sense of that one passage that bothers you to death? The information is available. Do you want a killer prayer life? There are books that can point you in the right direction. Itching to start a ministry? Write down a plan!
But you do have to take that first step.
Get specific. Get thoughtful. Make it happen.