Tuesday, July 6, 2021

A Path Through the Tall Grass

I think it’s important for us Type A personalities to occasionally slow down long enough to rethink our purpose and goals in life. Those two words — purpose and goal — are often used interchangeably. But there’s a world of difference between them. A goal is a desired outcome. It’s something you want to achieve in life. Purpose, on the other hand, is the reason you’re striving after that goal. Purpose and goals work together. They are like yin and yang. A goal provides us with direction. Purpose gives our goal meaning and significance. 

At certain seasons of life it’s good to clarify the purpose of one’s goals. We have to keep asking "Why?" until we arrive at a very personal, core reason. After I graduated with my doctorate from Basel, I entered a new phase of my teaching and academic career. I therefore set out certain goals for my writing. I realized that the dissertation I had written (and published) was likely to be the least significant thing I would ever write. A doctoral dissertation is never an end in itself. I have always viewed it as a stepping stone — a launching pad — into a lifetime of research and writing. So when I returned from Switzerland to California, I wrote down my writing goals for the rest of my career:

  • Write a book every 5 years.
  • Write a journal article at least once a year.
  • Write several book reviews every year. 

These goals kept me on track. In the end, by God’s grace, I exceeded them. A goal should be high enough to push you but no so high that it paralyzes you. I prefer it when my goals seem to be a little out of reach for me. That’s partly because I realize that I never outgrow my need to be challenged and to grow thereby. 

But why had I set these goals? What was the purpose behind them? When I first started teaching I thought my purpose was to become a responsible academic and an excellent classroom instructor. But that was my goal. What I really wanted was to realize my God-given potential as a teacher. The classroom was simply a means of fulfilling that purpose. Back in the 1980s, none of this was very clear to me. For those of you who are just starting your own teaching career, it can be difficult to find the path. It’s a bit like walking through tall grass. 

But as you continue to walk and explore the ground beneath you, the path becomes clearer and easier to navigate. With retirement upon me, I feel like I’m going through this process again. The process is very similar to the way exercise reshapes your body. As you continue to work out, the process becomes more instinctual. Remember, a goal is not a purpose. Purpose connects us to something we value. In my case, the thing I value the most is being a good steward of the blessings and talents the Lord has graciously given me. More and more I feel the need to carefully steward these things in view of that Day when I will stand in his presence to give an account. Our supreme business as Christians is not survival or success or comfort or the good life. What matters is stewardship, for it is require of stewards that they be found faithful, not only until death but unto death if necessary. God bids us, "Be faithful." That is our sole obligation. Whether we eat or drink (or write or teach) we should do all to the glory of God. With some, Christ is present. With others, he is prominent. Oh, may he be preeminent in my life! May he be not simply Item Number 1 on the program. May he be the Program! 

The Christian life is not merely a life dedicated to Christ. It is not merely a life lived by his help. The Christian life is Christ. He alone can help us find the path through the tall grass. 

June 20, 2021