You're probably thinking, based on the name of this post, that this is just another in a long stream of posts and conversations that crop up this time of year about New Year's resolutions and the goals we set for ourselves to make this new year our best one yet. And while some of the same concepts of re-evaluating ourselves, our habits, and our relationships certainly apply, I pray that the Holy Spirit would give us divine discernment and guidance and ignite in all of us an intense desire this year to turn our inward focus upwards to the One that supplies us with our every need and in Whom we are made complete by His gracious love!
Making goals for ourselves is a wonderful, wonderful practice! Healthy diet changes are good for our bodies, watching less TV is good for the mind, and choosing to be a more positive person is good for the soul. But, as believers, let us take a step back for a moment from our goal-making and think about it in a way we might have missed.
In the book of Thessalonians, Paul, a man devoted to spreading the truth of Christ throughout many different cities of his day, writes with intensity to the believers in the city of Thessalonica about his intense efforts to reconnect with them after having been separated from them for a time. Imagine being separated from a close friend that really needed your presence in a very difficult time of their life and you won't be far off from his feelings as he wrote. These were people that he had grown to love after ministering to them and living with them; people for whom he knew the unique features of their faces and personalities, people that he called brothers and sisters, people, that he writes, his heart was still with although he was separated from them physically.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18 Paul says, "Dear friends, after we were separated from you for a little while (though our hearts never left you), we tried very hard to come back to you because of our intense longing to see you again. We wanted very much to come, and I, Paul, tried again and again, but Satan hindered us." [ For emphasis, you could re-read that passage and replace the word "separated" with the word "orphaned" and you would come closer to the original Greek connotation.]
If early January is the time for making goals for ourselves, can we at least concede that, dare we say, mid February is about the time many of us decide, "Eh......it wasn't so bad the way it was before." We make goals and then roadblocks appear. We set a plan in place to better ourselves, and then it gets hindered. But what if we looked at this whole thing from a new, heavenly perspective. What if (deep breath) it wasn't all about ......us.
The dictionary defines the word "hindered" or "hindering" as: to make slow or difficult the process of, to hold back, to impede, to interfere with the activity of, causing a harmful delay or an annoying interference." The Greek use of the word hindered in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 suggest a bit of military strategy behind it as well. Ephesians 6:12 reminds us, "We do not war against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."
If, as believers, we are fighting for the truth of the gospel of Christ and are persevering for its spread throughout our relationships, then let's remember that there is also an enemy whose goal is to hinder us all along our way through impeding circumstances, annoying delays, through others, and even through ourselves as goals are left unreached and discouragement is offered a permanent residence in our hearts.
We all recognize that we can be a hindrance to each other unintentionally. Legalism and perfectionism are just a few eager examples of the ways we can place incredible heavy, burdens on one another all in the name of righteousness. With unattainably high standards for others, we can kill relationships faster than squashing a bug when that person (shockingly) doesn't live up to our expectations.
We are also the very intentional target of the one who seeks to deceive and destroy. Beth Moore uses a gripping idea in her book, Children of the Day, to illustrate what Satan's goals of hindering the Saints might look like if he had a "motivational" poster in his office. Would it read something like, "KEEP PEOPLE APART, WHO TOGETHER WOULD SERVE GREAT KINGDOM PURPOSES."
And why is it so important for Satan to keep us apart from one another anyway like Paul was kept away from the Thessalonians? Because when we're together in healthy, Christ-centered relationships we encourage one another, and that encouragement leads to stronger faith, which leads to bolder living for Jesus!
And while sometimes Satan's plan in carrying out this goal of separation is to use others, in my own experience I can testify that I have let myself be my greatest determent in missing out on blessings from above. I have held on to bitterness far too long, when the Lord has asked me to forgive instead. I have held on to guilt instead of claiming the grace that is freely given in Christ. I have continued to practice habits that aren't in themselves bad for me, but were increasingly distracting to my relationship with God.
We live in a "self-help" culture. Its billboards tell us to look no further than ourselves for wisdom. Our standard for well-being and satisfaction? Our own selfish ambitions or the approval of others (who, we conveniently forget, are just as broken and empty as we are without the saving grace of Jesus.) And if we're not careful......if we're not very, very, careful....even as believers, we can buy into the lies, the great distractions from our faith in practice, that if we just worked out more we would be completely satisfied because of our slimmer body. If we just worked harder to get that job promotion we would be fulfilled with the recognition it inspired. If we just had that one person we would never be lonely or want for anything else again. The problem isn't in the goal setting itself, but if the earthly goal of the created has replaced our relationship with our Creator then we have grossly missed the whole point.
In "You and Me Forever", by Francis and Lisa Chan, the introduction is titled The Secret to Happily Ever After. And while it's a book on marriage specifically, we can learn a great lesson from the theme of its introduction whether we are currently in a marriage or not. You might think it mentions spending more time together as a couple. Perhaps it says the secret is to affirm each other more often with words or to do more acts of service toward one another in thoughtful gestures of love. These are all great practices that could be attained with goal setting and would certainly help infuse love into any relationship, but notice it says "THE secret" and not "secrets"...so we need to keep thinking and narrow it down to just one. Here is what they say: In order for a marriage to be truly successful, each person individually must fear God. (Not what you were expecting?) Fearing God is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge (Prov. 1:7; Psalm 111:10). This is what leads to life! (Prov. 19:23) The Lord takes pleasure in those that fear Him! (Psalm 147:11). "There are plenty of marriage books that will teach you how to get along and be happy and I'm not knocking those. The problem with those books is that they can make you feel like having a happy family is the goal of Christianity. They can make primary things like God's glory and His mission sound secondary."*
Now let's take the same principle, pair it with the fact that we, as believers, have found ourselves on the frontlines of a spiritual war, and look at it within the scope of our personal lives no matter our age, gender, career, or past. Have we let our pursuit of happiness replace the role that is rightfully God's? If we want help shedding habits that are choking our spirits, we need to fear the Lord and seek His wisdom! If we want to live our lives with a more positive attitude and be kinder to those around us, we need to fear the Lord and follow after the example of His Son! If we crave the kind of relationship that will remedy our loneliness, we need to fear the Lord and spend time with Him and we will find the true love of our lives! If we want to be better, we need to take the primary focus off of ourselves.
When I was younger in my walk with God, I set a goal for myself to spend more time using my Bible. So what I would do is when a problem occurred in my life I would use the concordance to look up the word I felt best fit the scenario, find a Bible verse that fit, and read it. Now don't get me wrong, scripture is meant, among other things, to encourage and be a source of strength when we need it most in this world. But at this stage of my walk, I had still not grasped the magnitude of the great tool that I held in my hands: 66 books of Holy Spirit-inspired word that when studied completely, consistently, and intentionally open my eyes to the WONDER and AMAZING TRUTHS of the Great I AM! It would be like carrying around Excalibur, but only ever using it to chop carrots.
Hebrews 12:1 says, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us!"
Instead of looking at the perfection of ourselves as the end goal, let us keep our eyes forever focused on Him who made us and RUN with excitement to His reward, flinging off those heavy blankets of guilt, resentment, and bitterness that we have placed on ourselves and embracing the fullness of His love towards us, His children! And if we're not sure whether something in our lives qualifies as a hindrance, then let's ask Him!**For we know and remember that if we seek Him first and His kingdom, keeping our eyes trained on Him and not primarily on ourselves, then all these things too will surely follow, for He has a great plan for each of us!
* You and Me Forever, Francis and Lisa Chan, 2014 Claire Love Publishing
** Children of the Day, Beth Moore, 2014 Lifeway Press