With the start of a new academic year fast approaching, many of us are beginning to set some goals. No doubt we’re praying, planning, dreaming and desiring things for the year ahead – and many of those things will be good! Big picture, I’m certainly yearning for people to come to Christ, for others to grow in Christ and, for me, an ever-increasing dependency on the one who loves me best would be nice. Under those headings, there are long lists of things to do: books to read, talks to write, 1-to-1s to prepare, outreach events to co-ordinate and a huge range of intentional conversations to be diarised in the weeks ahead.
On the surface, I expect most of our aspirations look biblical and exciting. But there are dangers with setting goals. Sometimes they push us to want results more than we want our Redeemer.
The struggle, as ever, is in our heart and the nuances can, at times, be hard to spot. It might not sound too different but wanting to serve God by loving others well is a world away from wanting to be a popular youth leader. Wanting to faithfully hold out words of life is a very different scenario to wanting to be the “successful” evangelist in the church. The desire to see God grow his children, and being willing to learn from others who are more experienced than us at helping Christians grow, is poles apart from the desire to read those books so we can become the one who is really good at giving answers that promote understanding.
The difference? The first of each of those couplets seeks the glory of God, commits us to faithful service and accepts whatever outcome he chooses to give. The second seeks a specific outcome (usually one that helps others but one that makes us look good too) and merely offers a passing nod to the giver above.
Is that really so bad? Well, the Bible describes it as the difference between wisdom and folly. Or faithfulness and idolatry, if you prefer!
Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. To see his glory – to be bowled over by awe – to want what he wants at every turn. And to be willing to become nothing in order to serve him well.
Folly is to pursue what we want (even if that is ministry success and the salvation of many souls!) and merely try to use God to get to the ends we desire.
It’s a stark contrast. One that throws into sharp relief that, even with our godly-sounding goals, there are times when we can, quite frankly, be fools!
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Proverbs uses an illustration that might help us here. It describes wisdom as a great feast in which we are invited to take part: “come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed” wisdom says, “Leave your simple ways and you will live, walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:5-6).
God basically says, come and partake of my desires – eat your fill of what I want – and I will transform you to be ever more like me. The more you feast on my ways (through word and Spirit) the more you will reflect my heart. It’s a very spiritual version of “you are what you eat!”.
Wisdom’s feast looks very different to folly’s table. Folly offers us what we want through seductive lies, “stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!” she whispers in our ear (Proverbs 9:17). Come on – go for your goals, live your dreams. It’s them that matter most in the end. But the sweet fruits are not hers to give. The promise of success is hollow and offers no nutrition to our souls. If we keep feasting at her table, it is likely there will be disappointment, hard-heartedness and spiritual-drift ahead.
So, before you start working on your goals, why not give them another look? Do they reflect a ministry that is thoroughly steeped in wanting to feast on God’s wisdom and ways? Or have you bought into the lie that stolen water is sweet and written a list of what you want for the year ahead?
If you have fallen for the deception, it’s not too late to turn round – in repentance and faith to pursue something more God-honouring, more self-effacing, more trusting than you had planned before.
Either way, in 2020–2021, why not commit yourself to feasting at wisdom’s table? To be so immersed in God’s word and prayer that you gradually want what he wants more and more! Shun the “stolen water” – dive headfirst into the “wine that he has mixed”. Doing so will be better for God’s glory, better for the people around us and, quite frankly, better for us too.