A troubled man poured out his frustrations to me. He had made a career of government service—over twenty years so far—and he had peaked early. Promotions eluded him. Regulations hamstrung him. Yet he said, “If I can hang on just a few more years I’ll be able to retire. I don’t want to lose my benefits.”

I listened and made some notes.

“I feel that I’m at a dead end,” he continued. “So many days I just want to park my truck and walk away from it all—from the job, the family, everything. I feel trapped, and I don’t know how to get out.”

“How old are you?”

“Fifty-three.”

“Not that old. And you’re in good health. Barring any accidents or unexpected illnesses, you should live past the average life expectancy for a man. That’s about age 80. How old were your grandfathers when they died?”

“They were both in their mid-80s.”

“Then the statistics say you’ll probably live to your 80s, too.” I did a quick mental computation. “That means you may have nearly thirty years of healthy, productive life ahead of you. One-third of your life. So what are you doing the rest of your life?”

His predicament is all too common among Christians. In our rush to make a livelihood, we have forgotten our goals for life. So when we come to a critical juncture, such as the last decade before retirement, we feel anxiety and fear. We don’t know where we’re going. We have no long-range goals.

This is why I believe we should study what God’s Word says about our life goals. How does God say we should set long-range goals? How does He say we can reevaluate our goals when life changes drastically and unexpectedly? These are the questions we will tackle in this book.

You will find some practical tools for goal-setting as well as step-by-step procedures for reevaluating your life goals at crucial decision points, such as this government worker was facing. More important, you will be challenged to consider how your daily plans fit into the big picture of lifelong goals. You will gain a fresh perspective on the way God reveals His will to you. In short, this is more than a nuts-and-bolts manual of life planning; it’s an invitation to reassess your relationship with God.

A Christian does goal-setting and plan-making within the context of this relationship, while a non-Christian sets goals and makes crucial decisions without the benefit of it. We will come back to this matter repeatedly and test your aspirations against Scripture to see whether they are godly aspirations, because we feel most satisfied when we strive to become the persons God created us to be.

A personal relationship with God—intimate communion with Him—is essential to Christian goal-setting. Throughout this book, you will be called to reexamine your relationship with Him.

Goal vs. Plan

First, we ought to understand the difference between a goal and a plan. We often get the two confused.

On New Year’s Day, people often make resolutions for the year ahead. Most of those resolutions are not goals; they are plans. That is to say, they are methods for reaching a goal. I might tell you, for example, “I have a goal of losing weight this year.”

“Exactly what do you have in mind?” you might ask.

“Well, I’m going to eat no more than a thousand calories a day.” (That’s not a goal; it’s a plan. It’s how I’m going to act in order to reach my goal.)

“How much weight do you hope to lose?” you ask.

“About thirty pounds.” (Again, that’s not a goal; it’s a plan. It’s a strategy for reaching my goal.)

So you press me. “Why do you want to lose thirty pounds?”

“So that I’ll be healthier,” I say. “My body will be stronger and perhaps I’ll even live a bit longer by taking off some excess weight.”

Now that is a goal! It is the end toward which I am aiming. It is the destination I am trying to reach. All the other steps—the menus, the exercise routines, the targets for each week’s weight loss—are simply means for reaching my ultimate destination. That destination is my real goal.

For this reason, I’m not too upset if I forget my New Year’s resolutions by Ground Hog’s Day. I won’t wring my hands and say, “Oh, no, I’ve really failed!” Because resolutions are not really my goals; they are simply plans for reaching my goals. And if one plan fails, I can try another.

Here is a good way to tell the difference between a plan and a goal: Generally, you describe plans with “do” sen­tences and goals with “be” sentences. Here are some sample New Year’s resolutions; see if you can tell whether they are goals or plans:

“I’m going to iron shirts every Monday morning.”

“I’m going to visit Aunt Emma every week.”

“I’m going to take a course in accounting.”

All of these are “do” sentences. Each one describes a method or strategy for reaching a goal. Now look at these resolutions:

“I’m going to iron shirts every Monday morning so that I’ll be a more efficient homemaker.”

“I’m going to visit Aunt Emma every week so that I’ll be a more faithful nephew.”

“I’m going to take a course in accounting so that I’ll be a better bookkeeper”

See the difference? The “do” sentences described a plan of action, while the “be” sentences described the result of that action. Your plans are how you intend to reach your destination; but your goals are your destina­tion.

Keep sight of your goals—what you intend to “be.” Instead of thinking about what you will do in the next year, think about who you will become. That really is your goal.

I believe many Christians act unwisely because they are so busy with short-range plans that they don’t take stock of their goals, or they are so absorbed with the daily strategies of living that they forget about their goals. They don’t know if they have reached today’s goals or if they are any closer to tomorrow’s. They are obsessed with what they’re going to do, but they don’t consider who they will become.

If you want to become the person God created you to be, I urge you to set goals before you start making plans.

Heart vs. Mind

God influences a Christian’s goal-setting and plan-mak­ing through a kind of spiritual internal guidance system. When engineers designed the Mars Rover spacecraft, they gave it a computerized internal guidance system. Earth-based flight crews could not manually steer it to its destination over fifty million miles away. If they erred by even a fraction of an inch, they would miss the target by hundreds of miles. So microcomputers were stowed in the belly of that spacecraft to steer it and ground crews left the “driving” to that internal guidance system.

God has given every one of His servants an internal guidance system, too. It’s not electronic. It doesn’t use computer chips or cables. But something within us is capable of receiving God’s guidance, just as the Rover spacecraft received electronic guidance. The Bible calls our internal guidance system the “heart.”

Granted, our hearts sometimes go wrong. We must take readings against God’s Word and the counsel of other Christians to make sure our hearts keep us on God’s true course. But God does steer us inwardly, so we should pay attention to our innermost aspirations. When our “hearts” are properly tuned to the Lord, they will point us toward serving Him.

While Scripture uses the term heart to refer to our goal-setting, it uses the term mind to refer to our daily plan-making. One New Testament passage points out the difference between a person’s heart and mind:

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people (Heb 8:10).

This verse suggests two distinct functions when it says God will “put” His law into His people’s minds and “write” it upon their hearts. The word put suggests temporary change, while write indicates more permanent change. We still observe this distinction. We often say, “I’ve changed my mind,” yet seldom say, “I’ve changed my heart.” The mind is a part of our internal guidance system that seems capable of being quickly reprogrammed, while the heart isn’t.

To carry out the spacecraft analogy, we could say the heart the “wired circuit” of our personal guidance system, while the mind is more like the random access memory (RAM) of a computer chip—quickly changed and reprogrammed.

This distinction between heart and mind reappears throughout the Bible. Scripture suggests that our hearts guide what our minds think. An evil heart directs the mind to devise evil schemes. Notice how the Bible describes the human race just before the Flood:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually (Gen 6:5).

Fallen humanity had turned against God and did not want to serve Him. Note that Scripture says, “Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts only evil. . . .” Evil thinking bubbled up from their evil hearts. Now notice how the psalmist described a wicked person:

Deliver me, O Lord, from evildoers;
protect me from those who are violent,
who plan evil things in their minds
and stir up wars continually (Psa 140:1‒2).

The psalmist knew that every ungodly person has the same basic problem—”heart disease.” An evil person’s heart is not right, so the life purpose is not right. As the King James puts it, such a person makes “mischief” with other people’s lives. When a mischievous heart steers a person, every decision and plan springs from its malevolent purpose.

We cannot expect that we, as basically selfish people, will act differently until God changes the goal-setting center of our lives. He can do that. He can give every one of us a new character and a new vision of our future. The Old Testament man named Saul was a case in point. He was the son of a farmer, who sent him out one day to look for some stray donkeys. Saul searched and searched without success and finally decided to consult the prophet Samuel, hoping he might know where the donkeys were. However, the prophet discerned that God wanted this young man to lead the Israelites in battle against their enemies, the Philistines. He announced that Saul’s donkey-rustling days were over—he was a soldier now!

Saul did not believe him. “Saul answered, ‘I am only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel, and my family is the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin. Why then have you spoken to me in this way?” (1 Sam 9:21).

The prophet was undeterred. He knew God’s purpose for Saul, so he predicted that God would give him several signs to prove he should take this new assignment.

First, Samuel said Saul would meet two men who would tell him to get along home—friends of his father who would warn him to go back to his donkeys. (Interesting! We tend to think that when God gives us new goals, He shuts the door to old opportunities. That wasn’t so for Saul.)

Second, Saul would meet other strangers who would give him bread without his asking. (We often think that when God calls us to do something, He will make us scrounge and scrimp for the means to do it, as if a call to God’s work is confirmed by poverty. But that wasn’t so for Saul.)

Third, Saul would meet a band of prophets singing, dancing and prophesying as they traveled down the road. This was the strangest sign of all, for Samuel said, “Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person” (1 Sam. 10:6, italics mine). We often think that when God gives us new goals in life, He changes only our goals. But when the Spirit of God came upon Saul, he became “another man.” The shy, quiet farm boy turned into a whirling, singing prophet. So Saul’s third sign of a God-given change in goals was a change in his personality.

All three signs came soon after Saul left the prophet’s house, proving that God was calling him to be the captain of Israel. Notice verse 9: “As he turned away to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart; and all these signs were fulfilled that day” (1 Sam. 10:9, italics mine).

Saul acted differently because God changed the very core of his life. He changed Saul by changing his “heart,” the seat of his goals and aspirations.

Unfortunately, years later, Saul’s heart changed again. He took up the high priest’s duties, kept the spoils of battle, consulted the witch of Endor, and dis­obeyed the Lord in other flagrant ways. His personality did another about-face so that he became impulsive, volatile and vain. The wizened prophet Samuel had to denounce him and announce the selection of a new king.

Notice this: Though God had changed his internal guidance system, Saul remained at the controls of his life. He could choose to heed the dictates of his changed heart or override them to suit more selfish purposes. Sadly, he chose to turn his heart away from God to serve and promote himself. He ignored the readings of his spiritual “instruments” and instead followed his own perverse de­sires. In the process, Saul wrecked his life.

There are many other Old Testament examples of how God can use a person’s spiritual internal guidance system to direct goal-setting. But let’s notice what the New Testament says about the heart.

Jesus taught that the “heart” guides our entire life (Mat­t 12:34; Mark 7:21‒23; Luke 6:43‒45). The heart dic­tates what we say; it organizes what we think; it initiates what we do; it brings forth every emotion we feel. Visualize your heart as the switchboard at the center of your thoughts, feelings and actions. If you change the alignment of your heart, you change your entire life. Jesus condemned the evil things that come from the heart of an evil person, but commended the good things that come from the heart of a good person:

The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45).

What accounts for the difference? Why do some people have hearts that honor the Lord while others don’t?

A person’s own choice accounts for the difference. Each one of us decides whether to receive or to shun God’s transforming power. We decide whether to follow our re­bellious heart or receive a loyal, obedient heart for God. When Gentiles began giving themselves to Jesus Christ, Peter said, “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us” (Acts 15:8).

We often speak of someone “giving his heart to the Lord” at the time of conversion; and that is exactly what happens. A Christian gives the goal-setting core of life to God, allowing God to change it. The apostle Paul wrote:

. . . God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom 5:5).

But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom 6:17‒18).

What a dramatic change God worked in your life when you became a Christian! He began changing you at the very core of your life—your “heart”—so He could govern everything else you do. The love of God took control of your heart, drawing you to follow His Word. Though once you were a slave of self, you now are a “slave of right­eousness.” Your heart belongs to God, and your thoughts, attitudes and actions will bear this out.

The Bible reveals that every person’s spiritual internal guidance system has two interrelated functions: the “heart function” (setting goals, forming your character) and the “mind function” (making daily plans to reach your goals). Your goals deter­mine your plans; your heart steers your mind. And no matter how long or how grievously you have disobeyed God, He can transform your life by giving you a new “heart.”

A Developing Dream: Joseph

That transformation may not come in an instant. Your vision of the future may evolve over a period of months, even years, as God molds your heart. You may have no clear idea of your ultimate destination, seeing only the first step of change. But as you take each step (a plan), you get a better idea of where you’re going (goal).

Do you remember how this happened with the patriarch named Joseph? While a young boy, Joseph dreamed that he would be­come superior to all his brothers, superior even to his parents. He would become a man of such great power and influence that they would bow down to him. What bom­bastic dreams those seemed to be! But over the next several years, Joseph realized God’s plan for his life as…

  • He was sold into slavery and carried into Egypt.
  • He was thrown into prison, falsely accused of molest­ing his master’s wife.
  • He lay in prison fifteen years, forgotten by a prisoner he helped to free.

Only when he was called to interpret a dream for Pha­raoh did Joseph become one of the most powerful men in Egypt.

That’s often how God deals with us: He gives us a snapshot of what He wants us to become. Then, step by step, He develops the details of that picture. In Isaiah 42:16, God says:

I will lead the blind
by a road they do not know,
by paths they have not known
I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
and I will not forsake them.

God says He will make the darkness into light before us, but He may do it just when we think we’re stepping off into an abyss! He says He will make the rugged places plain, but He may not do so until we are ready to step into those places.

“I will make the darkness into light before them,” God says. How far before us? Perhaps just one step—when we’re ready to take it. That way, we have to follow Him by faith.

You may have a mental snapshot of the kind of person you believe God expects you to be, even though it may be poorly focused and fuzzy. Or you may have no idea at all of God’s expectations for your life. You may feel like saying, “Where’s the camera and how do I take that picture?”

Before we start snapping pictures of the future, though, we need to deal with some pointed questions:

  • How can you know whether your goals are truly God-given?
  • How can you overcome the fear of change in order to pursue your goals?
  • How can you shake off the numbness of indecision when several goals seem right for you?
  • How can you know when it’s time to take another step toward your goals?

From forthcoming revised edition of Setting Goals That Count: A Christian Perspective. Copyright Joseph D. Allison. All rights reserved.