A Goal-oriented Christian Life
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Last week we saw that Paul was prepared to do anything (within framework of biblical absolutes) to get the message of Jesus out to others (vs 23). For some here today, this may be difficult to understand. But for those of us who have received the benefits of this message (forgiveness; Holy Spirit; eternal life), we see the importance of this because we realize how high the stakes really are.
He concludes this exhortation in vs 24-27 (read). It should be evident that Paul is advocating a purposeful, goal-oriented spiritual life. He focuses on this quality of the athletes of the Isthmian Games. He says this is the way he lives his life--doing the things calculated to win (disciplined training schedule; efficiency in effort)--but for different goals and for a different prize. And he directly calls on the Corinthian Christians (and us) to imitate him in this area.
Yet, like the Corinthians, many of us struggle in this area. Most of us have goals for other areas of our lives (economic; educational; family; recreational), but it is relatively rare to meet Christians who can articulate clear spiritual goals. Some even protest that it is unspiritual to be goal-oriented in your walk with Christ, as though the Spirit-led life is completely spontaneous (BIBLE TEACHER WHO NEVER PREPARED). This is an important area which we need to explore in depth . . .
Its Biblical Basis
Is this an isolated passage that can be written off as a neurotic fit by Paul? When we survey the Bible on this subject, we find an amazing amount of material. We can distill this material into the following theses:
God is goal-oriented. (Jn. 5:17; Eph. 1:10)
Goal-orientation is part of being made in God's image. (Gen 2:15 >> pre-fall; GARDENING; contra PASSIVE REACTION)
Eternal life will include goal-oriented activity. (MY FEAR OF BOREDOM >> Lk. 19:17)
Jesus and other biblical models were spiritually goal-oriented. (Lk. 13:32; Jn. 17:4; 1 Cor. 9:26,27; Phil. 3:13,14 >> 2 Tim. 4:7,8)
God exhorts all Christians to be spiritually goal-oriented. (1 Cor. 9:24,25; 2 Pet. 1:5-8; 1 Pet. 3:15; Heb. 10:24,25)
All Christians should have clear spiritual goals, and these goals should be the most important goals in our lives! This is a non-optional component of a spiritually healthy life. You can see from many of these passages that there is a close connection between spiritual goal-orientation and motivation and fulfillment in your Christian life. This is a big reason why so many Christians are unmotivated in their walks. If you want your relationship with God to be motivating, it has to be making progress, accomplishing something.
If the biblical case is so clear and the benefits are so great, why do so many Christians lack spiritual goal-orientation? One reason is that there are problems you can run into . . .
Legalistic vs. Grace-oriented Approach: If you take your sense of identity and acceptance from your performance, you will tend to shy away from spiritual goals (at least high goals) because failure will threaten you as a person. This is why understanding God's grace is so important (EXPLAIN >> GOSPEL). Grace should free us to set goals, because our identity and acceptance are already established and secure through Christ's work and aren't based on our performance. In fact, goal failures can actually increase our appreciation of grace!
Another form of legalism is viewing spiritual goals as a rigid, all-or-nothing standard of success or failure. Instead, we should view them as something to shoot for which will help us make more progress in the right direction than if we didn't set them (JOHN COOPER: "I'd rather aim for an eagle and get a birdie than aim for a par and get a bogey.").
Unrealistic vs. Realistic Goals: Those who are perfectionistic tend to set unrealistic goals (J.H.: "I should be teaching central teaching by now."). Then because they fail to meet them, they quit ("I'M GOING TO PRAY 2 HOURS/DAY"). Sometimes we can't know we have unrealistic goals until we try and fail--then we need to adjust our goals (OUR HOME CHURCH PLANTING SCHEDULE). Advice from other experienced Christians can help a lot here.
Autonomy & Self-sufficiency vs. Humble Dependence: Jas. 4:13-16 is not down on setting goals; it is a rebuke for setting goals autonomously--without consulting God and without acknowledging in advance God's right to interrupt our goals. We can also have valid spiritual goals, but pursue them by our own strength, without depending on God's wisdom and power through consistent prayer (Jn. 15:8,16 >> 4,5). But the answer is not to have any spiritual goals; it is to set them with genuine dependence on God (WILLIAM CAREY: "Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God.").
Carnal Competition vs. Service & Cooperation: Some competition can be healthy (BEST GRADE ON TEST), but Christians sometimes pursue spiritual goals in order to beat other Christians even when this is harmful (PRESSURING A NEW CHRISTIAN TO LEAVE ONE GROUP TO JOIN YOURS). It would be wrong to use vs 24a to justify this, because Paul's point is not that there is only one prize for Christians to fight over. His point is that we should pursue spiritual goals with serious-minded dedication like those who compete in the games. If this is a problem for you, the answer is not to drop your goals; it is to ask God to sanctify your motivation and cooperate with him in doing so. Spiritual goals should involve cooperation with other Christians (1 Cor. 3:4-9), and we should have some spiritual goals which entail helping others succeed.
Moral Impurity vs. Integrity: Quote 2 Tim. 2:5. Some Christians are disqualified from reward because they break the rules. Some pursue spiritual goals to gain power over other people. Others get involved in goal-oriented ministry to run from their poor marriages. Others get involved in knowledge advancement while carrying on a double-life sexually. This is hypocritical goal-orientation, and God will often sabotage the attainment of our goals out of love to discipline us.
Yes, there are lots of ways to abuse spiritual goal-orientationbut don't throw baby out with bathwater! The alternative of an aimless, goal-less spiritual life leads to something just as uglyseduction by worldly goals. We are designed to need goal-accomplishment, so if we aren't getting this from our walks with God, we will seek it elsewhere.
Elements of Effective Spiritual Goals
Are they sufficiently specific? Goals must be specific to have value. You must be able to tell whether you have attained them or not. What specifically do you want to accomplish, and within what time frame? Avoid comparative goals for the same reason.
"Get more involved in fellowship" vs. "Commit to regularly attend a home group. Initiate one personal conversation at each meeting. Call or visit someone at least weekly."
"Improve my prayer life" vs. "Pray 3 times a week alone for at least 10 minutes. Pray twice a week with other Christian friends. Read 3 books on prayer this year."
Are long-term goals broken down into short-term goals? You should have long-term spiritual goals, but unless you identify the practical steps to them and turn these into short-term goals, you will probably get disheartened.
"Become proficient in the Bible knowledge" >> "Take 2 courses this year. Read 1 theological each month. Memorize 2 verses each week."
"Give at least 15% of my income to Christian ministry" >> "Set up & stay on a budget. Give 5% of income this year. Retire credit-card debts within next 18 months."
Are they properly prioritized? Goals do conflict, and everyone prioritizes consciously or unconsciously. How you habitually choose when they conflict is one of the truest indicators of your actual (vs. professed) values. Consciously decide in light of scripture which goals you will prioritize, or you will probably default to those which are easiest or most immediately gratifying at "crunch-time." Be proactive in prioritizing your goals, or you will live under "tyranny of the urgent."
GIVING TO GOD'S WORK vs. RECREATIONAL TOYS; FAMILY & FELLOWSHIP INVOLVEMENT vs. CAREER ADVANCEMENT; FOCUSED MINISTRY vs. RESPONDING TO EVERY REQUEST
Some may say "I don't like these goals. They're too confining. They don't fit who I am." Fineformulate your own spiritual goals. But don't just criticize those who are spiritually goal-oriented as an excuse for not having goals (MOODY: "I like the way I do it better than the way you don't do it!").
How important you consider a race to be determines how hard you'll run in it. OLYMPIC ATHLETES put years of training to win a metal disk--and sometimes they are disqualified just like that (DOWNHILL SKIER). I'm not willing to expend that kind of effort for athletics, but eternal reward is worth striving for!
GOSPEL: You can take the first step toward this today by receiving Christ . . .
CHRISTIANS: We need to begin to order our lives in a more conscious way. Set forward-focused spiritual goals, and be delivered from the boredom of an aimless, goal-less Christian life!