I have a confession that some of you might not know. Between May to December 2015, I lost 60 pounds. People sometimes ask me how I did it. Did I jump on some paleo/Atkins/Mediterranean fad? No. No fads, dietary or otherwise. I did two things. First, I took stock of what I was eating and turned it into math. Everything I put into my mouth was thought out beforehand and considered for nutritional health and overall calorie count. If I wanted to eat almonds, I weighed them first to determine whether they fit into my caloric budget. If I wanted to eat pretzels I counted each individual piece. I even counted the glasses of water I drank. Second, I bought a Fitbit, went to the gym, and increased my heart rate (in various ways) according to certain goals I had set beforehand. In other words, everything I did throughout the day was thoroughly intentional down to what and how much I ate, exercised, and even slept. There was not a moment where I accidentally ate something or forgot to do this or that exercise. Everything was methodical.
This certainly doesn’t sound exciting and, trust me, it wasn’t… at first. But it did teach me to overcome my urges to eat bad foods, reject a sedentary lifestyle (of which I was prone), and develop healthy habits. I believe one of the keys to my success was in the method. I tried to be smart about my body. I didn’t go outside and run for some arbitrary distance. I didn’t skip a meal or two and hope that triggered weight loss. I quantified every aspect of my food, sleep, and exercise and constructed a system that attuned them all to meet my goal.
So what does this have to do with the Bible, Nate? Oh, I’m so glad you asked!
Some of us desire to be better, to do more for God. Perhaps this is even a New Year’s Resolution for you. I’m going to pray more deeply. I’m going to get better or more confident in evangelism or develop my apologetics skills, or all of the above. I’m going to start trusting God more. Whatever that is for you (I have my own goals as well), I think it’s beneficial to remember a couple of important pieces of advice.
1. Be Humble
Paul told the Philippians that “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (2:13). Notice, God works your will just as much as your work. Sure I lost 60 pounds by being intentional and sticking to a plan. But before I even did that, I prayed. As a matter of fact, throughout the last 7 months, I continued to pray and ask God to provide in me the ability to maintain a strong desire to be healthy, to give me the wisdom and strength to develop good habits, and to be consistent. It is of the utmost importance to ask God to shape your will such that you can accomplish your goal to please Him.
For example, maybe it is your desire to be more loving towards difficult people in your life. It would be a mistake to believe that, in order to be more loving, you simply need to rely on yourself and change your own disposition. Paul warned against a kind of self-made or self-imposed worship that is merely a reflection of a vainly puffed up, fleshly mind (Colossians 2:23, 18). This is just like the self-help, self-affirming nonsense that has permeated today’s culture. The biblical way to accomplish your goals is to, first, give proper deference to God’s will. That is, acknowledging that you only accomplish your goals if God allows you to (Proverbs 16:9; James 4:13-15). So the first thing you need to do is display proper humility and ask God to continue to shape your will so you can achieve your goals. For some of us that simply means, “God, please give me the desire to want to change.” Baby steps, for sure, but biblical baby steps nonetheless.
2. Be Intentional
Some Christians like to go overboard and assume that God does everything for us. So the idea goes: We only accomplish our goals if God allows us to, therefore, God accomplishes our goals without our involvement. As if God hears our prayer and simply rewires our mind in such a way that we are instantly healed of our grumpiness and are perfectly loving. Or our lazy spirit has been exorcised from us and now we are proactive prayer powerhouses overnight. That’s not how it works! Peter told the churches to prepare their minds for action (1 Peter 1:13). So, first, we must pray. Second, we must mentally prepare. Peter’s comment comes within a context of being holy in behavior and not succumbing to fleshly lusts. But I think the principle of being mindful applies to all our actions, particularly those that require consistent routine.
For example, if your desire is to be more vocal with people about God (because, perhaps, you tend towards shyness), it is wise to, first, mentally prepare what being more vocal will entail. Ask yourself: Whom do I want to speak to? What should I say when I do? How should I respond if they say X or Y? Being mentally girded or prepared leads to a number of benefits, including greater confidence with engagement and, even, a way to self-assess performance later. Or, perhaps, your desire is to trust God more. Being mentally prepared might mean: Determining the root cause(s) of why you lack trust in the first place. What are you doing and thinking in moments when you lack trust in God? Which circumstances seem to be triggers of doubt for you. Are there any Bible characters that trusted God fully? How do they model trust in moments of uncertainty? Since the deeper motivation behind not trusting God is not so easily clear, using your mind to prepare in advance will provide much clarity and confidence. Again, this does not mean we solely rely on our selves to accomplish our plans. Rather, we trust that God is establishing our steps as we begin moving forward.
3. Be Smart
In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul likens preaching the gospel to running a race. But he seems to advocate for a particular kind of running, not a wandering or aimless jog but an intelligent run. He says, “I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (vv. 26-27). In other words, “Run in such a way that you may win” (v. 24). Again, the context is specific to preaching the gospel but I think this principle is crucial to advancing our particular goals: Do not simply run. Run smart. For example, if you want to get better at giving an apologetic or providing a defense of the faith, it is unwise to engage every single person you meet because not everyone deserves an answer. To engage those who do not deserve an answer is like “beating the air”; the contact is fruitless. Or if you want to get better at being persuasive, it is unwise to answer every single challenge lobbed at you. Instead, you should answer the questioner. Discover your interlocuter’s doubts, fears, and concerns and deal directly with them. To be more effective for the Lord means sidestepping superficial challenges to get at someone’s heart. It’s the equivalent of cutting the fat off a steak in order to get at the meat.
Maybe you want to develop your prayer life (as I do). Instead of simply shutting your eyes for an arbitrary number of minutes, identify what could be hindering your prayer life. Is it a distraction problem? Is it an inability to focus for periods of time? If so, what could be the causes of these issues? Or do you feel disconnected from God? Like God is not a real Person to you. If so, what has caused (or is continuing to cause) this disconnect? For me, it was my relationship with my biological father. He was often a cold and distant person. Consequently, it is difficult for me not to view my heavenly Father as also distant from me. For you it could be another reason. Try to determine the answers to these questions and effectively deal with them as best you can. Continue to pray to God for wisdom, strength, and consistency. Wisdom may also dictate that you study biblical prayers. A good place for this is the Book of Psalms. You could take note of the Psalmists’ brutal honesty and vulnerability (amongst other things) before God. Or you could study the prayers of Christians in history. An excellent book on this is The Valley of Vision. In it you’ll find the prayers of folks deeply connected to and seeking God with all their hearts. Perhaps these examples of prayers could become models for your prayers. As always, as you run smart, ask God to remove whatever particular hindrances surround you. Name them, describe them to Him. Keep asking Him to change you.
The worst thing you could do is attempt a goal, whatever that is, without a proper perspective or plan of action. Had I attempted to lose weight with no perspective or plan, I wouldn’t be writing this post touting my success. I would likely have gotten frustrated and quit shortly after starting. So for those of you looking to develop your souls for God this year, whatever that may entail, remember: Be humble, be intentional, and be smart. You will be blessed, whatever the result.