Alongsider Briefings: Reflections of a Life Lived with God

Do we have dreams or memories?


Re-thinking goal setting

Stacked on top of my desk was a decade of my life recorded in a motley collection of journals. My sabbatical goal was to read these journals to trace God’s work in my life. What did I discover as I read?

I soon realized that I’m the consummate goal setter. About every four months I recorded a new set of goals. I worked hard at writing these goals. I polished the wording to make them memorable. Some goals remained the same over time. Others retained the same theme but with different action steps. Many were new.

In any given year, I probably had thirty-plus goals. I was on my way to spiritual perfection and ministry effectiveness. Then I noticed something. I barely accomplished 40% of my goals.

“Why set goals if I don’t act on them?” said my discouraged self. I was ready to write off the decade as a failure but then I remembered that this was the most “productive” and fruitful decade of my ministry career. God did above and beyond what I had hoped despite failing to accomplish my goals. What’s going on here?

As I thought about this dilemma, a new way of thinking about goal setting emerged. I typically set goals to initiate new activities in my life — lose weight, start exercising, pray more. However, as I thought about the goals I accomplished in my journal review, I realized that my achieved goals were responders rather than initiators. Let me explain.

Even though I failed in many of my goals, my sense of God’s purpose or direction never wavered. The Lord had given me a vision to help churches become intentional disciplemaking churches. This is my dream, my purpose, my direction.

The ministry opportunities that emerged over time were results of living within God’s direction not as a result of my carefully planned goals. In fact, opportunities occurred that I never dreamed or planned for!

In the last decade, I didn’t have goals or even dreams to serve disciplemaking ministries in Canada or New Zealand, lead a fun and productive staff team, design a national training initiative, get three books published by well-known publishers . . . and the list could go on. The Lord did above and beyond what I could have hoped or dreamed for! All of this emerged as I followed God’s direction for my life.

My polished goals did not create opportunities but my faithfulness to God’s direction did. I came away with a simple life maxim: Direction is more important than goals.

Pursuing God’s direction has been a serendipitous experience. Serendipity means “happy surprise.” As I pursued God’s direction in the past decade, He habitually surprised me with the new, the unexpected, or the unsolicited. Goals were not the initiators but became the necessary responders.

These “happy surprises” needed some goals. Writing books, leading teams, and equipping leaders didn’t happen by osmosis. Direction opens opportunities but opportunities need goals to become reality. Direction is the door-opener and goals are the closer; goals respond to what God’s direction initiates. This led to a second maxim: Goals make direction happen. Goals turn dreams into memories. 

The difference between dreams and memories is wonderfully illustrated in this excerpt from a short story by the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. 

An explosion had occurred on an orbiting space platform. The astronauts had quickly suited up before being propelled into space. As they drifted off in space, each knew that within minutes they would die. For a few precious moments they enjoyed radio communication with one another. 

As they shared their last thoughts, Bradbury describes one astronaut’s realization as he drifted into space, “There were differences between memories and dreams.” This astronaut had “only dreams of things he wanted to do, while Lespere had memories of things done and accomplished.”

What’s the difference between a dream and a memory? Memories are things we’ve tasted, touched, or seen. They’re accomplishments not fantasies. They are goals fulfilled. Lespere illustrated what I call maxim #3: Goals are achieved by decisions.

The bottom line is that I must exercise the fruit of self-control (Galatians 5:23) making decisions that turn goals into reality, dreams into memories. The Holy Spirit has taught me a simple memory-maker; it’s called the discipline of “I WILL!”

I too often say “I think I should do ____” or “I want to ____.” I have a desire but no decision; a dream with no memory. Here’s when the memory-maker comes in. I need to turn “I should do” to a decisive “I WII DO!” ” Saying “I WILL!” forces me to step out in faith, I’m now committed to the Lord to act. When I say “I WILL!” I’m choosing to set goals that turns an opportunity into a reality. “I WILL!” is an act of faith, a commitment to the Lord and others to act; it encourages the discipline to turn a dream into a memory.

As I start a new year, I’m reminding myself that God’s direction is more important than goals. I need to be on the lookout to celebrate and act upon God’s serendipitous leading in my life. As I discern the opportunities He creates I will choose to write some goals. Now the challenge is asking the Holy Spirit to give me the self-control to turn “I think I should” to “I WILL!” Now memories will happen.

May 2022 be a year of memories and not just dreams for all of us.

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