How many times over the past few weeks have you heard maxims that sound like these:

  • “If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.” — Andrew Carnegie
  • “By recording your dreams and goals on paper, you set in motion the process of becoming the person you most want to be. Put your future in good hands—your own.” — Mark Victor Hansen
  • “All successful people have a goal. No one can get anywhere unless he knows where he wants to go and what he wants to be or do.” — Norman Vincent Peale 
  • “Let others lead small lives, but not you…. Let others leave their future in someone else’s hands, but not you.” — Jim Rohn
  • “You can do anything if you set goals. You just have to push yourself.” — RJ Mitte 
  • “All our dreams can come true—if we have the courage to pursue them.” — Walt Disney 
  • “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” — Alan Kay

So here we are once again at the beginning of another year. Most of us have been here many times before, we’ve heard the advice of the motivational speakers and writers, and perhaps even allowed their ideas to get us pumped up to make some BAGs (yep, “Big Audacious Goals”) that we were going to accomplish in the next twelve months. Of course, there’s a kernel of truth in most of these statements and the plethora of others like them that tend to get trumpeted this time of year. But what concerns me is the much bigger truths that often get overlooked or simply ignored when we start applying these motivational mantras.

In the Bible, James addresses this failure and shares a key insight that can help us to plan for the future, set goals, and work toward achieving them. James gets our attention when he writes, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.” (4:13) According to most goal-setting gurus, this is some pretty decent goal writing, when you consider that the generalities are simply due to the nature of the illustration. It involves establishing a long-range goal (“make a profit”), determining the means of achieving that goal (“trade”), setting a timeline (“spend a year”), and deciding a plan of action: a time to begin (“today or tomorrow”), a place for engagement (“such and such a city”), and a process for success (“trade” or buying and selling of goods). But James says if you talk like this, you “boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil”! (4:16) So what’s the problem? Are Christians supposed to avoid goal setting altogether, then?

The problem, he tells us, is that the goal as written ignores of a couple of significant, unchanging realities. One of them is that my knowledge is incredibly limited! James puts it this way: “…you do not know what tomorrow will bring.” (4:14) Here’s the thing. I have no absolute certainty of what will happen tomorrow—yet I often act like I do. After all, much of what I think will happen actually does! That just fuels the notion that I can say, “Tomorrow, I’m going to….” Similarly, I have no ultimate control over what will happen tomorrow, either. Again, it often seems that I do have at least some control. I mean, if I pay my bills, my car won’t be repossessed, the electricity will stay on, insurance won’t get cancelled…. The reality is that only God knows and controls the future. “I am God, and there is no other,” He says. “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” (Isaiah 46:9-10) So when I establish goals written like that above, I’m sounding a good bit like God, aren’t I?

That I’m incredibly limited in my knowledge is one sobering reality. Another is that life itself is incredibly uncertain. Again, James puts it this way: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (4:15) Have you seen anyone vaping? They inhale on this little block-like machine, and then exhale a huge plume of vapor that envelopes their head—for a few seconds. Before you know it, the “vape” vanishes! That’s life. Short. Transitory. Here, then gone. So going back to this model goal, the merchant arrogantly assumes that he’ll still be around a year from now to let us know just how much profit he’s gained from his buying and selling. In reality, though, he may never arrive in the city of his intended trade.

“OK, so I guess I’m off the hook when it comes to setting goals. Whew!” Well, not exactly. James isn’t applying these sobering realities in that way. Instead, he seems to encourage the very practice of goal setting, but with a very important additional component. All our goals and plans for tomorrow need to be prefaced with, “If the Lord wills….” But rather than a legal formula that must be written down as you set each of your goals for 2019, this is an underlying attitude of submission to the Lordship of Christ. Indeed, it can be very helpful to establish some long-term and short-term goals in every area of life—if you gladly recognize that the Lord Jesus is the Lord of your goal and the entire process leading to its achievement.

So, what—if the Lord wills—will you accomplish this year?