Years ago I had a friend who made no plans, set no goals, aimed at nothing. His reason? He wanted always to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Before he decided anything, he prayed. He asked the Lord whether he should go to work that day, brush his teeth, use deodorant. (I wish he had asked me!) Needless to say, he didn't keep a job very long.
My friend made three faulty assumptions in determining God's will:
(1) He thought that his feelings were an infallible guide for sensing the leading of the Spirit. But even Jesus did not take this attitude, for when he prayed in the garden, "If it is possible, let this cup pass from me" (Matt 26:39), he was clearly indicating (among other things) that emotionally he would prefer not to face the cross.
(2) My friend believed that the Holy Spirit leads people only in a spontaneous way. That is, he does not move them to make plans. But Paul made plans (see, for example, Acts 15:36; Rom 1:13), the apostles made plans (Acts 6:1-3), and even Jesus himself made plans (Matt 10:5-15; 16:21; 26:17-19). Surely we cannot claim that these men were not Spirit-led in their planning.
(3) My friend subconsciously rejected the idea that he could hear the Spirit's voice through the Scriptures. But by abandoning the Word of God as his normative guide, he was assuming that the Holy Spirit usually circumvents the Word when he speaks to men. This is hardly the view of the Spirit-led men of the past (see, for example, Ps 119:9-16; Matt 4:4; 5:17; 2 Tim 3:15-17).
On the other hand, some Christian businessmen are so rigid in their schedules that any little 'crisis' ruins their day. Sometimes they stick to their plans even when the only reason for doing so is to save face. But the apostle Paul did not share this rigidity. On more than one occasion in his missionary travels, Paul planned to invade a region with the gospel but the Spirit of God prevented him (Acts 16:6-7). Herein is balance: although Paul planned, he was sensitive to the Lord altering his plans.
Such people approach goal-setting from opposite ends of the spectrum: the first fellow, though humble, does not really use his God-given intellect to make decisions. He does not love God with his mind (Matt 22:37). The second fellow, however, though using his mind, neglects his heart. In his rigid long-range planning, he assumes omniscience. But he does not really know everything. Even when his plans go awry, he arrogantly clings to his objectives. Often his anxiety about the future underlies his desire to control all aspects of his life (but see Matt 6:34).
Two passages especially address these extremes. In Proverbs 6, the author rebukes the man who prepares for nothing, calling him a "sluggard." He implores the sluggard to observe the ant which "prepares her food in the summer, and gathers her provision in the harvest" (v. 8). According to the Scriptures, the wise person in business will establish objectives and prepare for the future.
But that is not all. The wise businessman will recognize his finiteness and subject his plans to the Lord. In James 4, the author specifically addresses the one who sets his goals in concrete: "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.' Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away" (vv. 13-14).
James calls such rigidity arrogance ( v. 16). But he does not say that we should not set goals. Rather, we should make plans, but submit them to the Lord: "Instead, you ought to to say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that'" (v. 15).
In reality, James 4:15 balances out both extremes. We should use our minds and set goals, but we must do so in humility, recognizing that God alone controls our destiny.
Three specific areas come to mind:
(1) With reference to business, our "yea" ought to be "yea" and our "nay" ought to be "nay," yet we need to learn to make contingent promises. That is, concerning a matter outside of our control, we may need to add certain qualifications to those kinds of projections. Although a client may not like this approach, he would like much less an absolute promise that was later broken due to "unforeseen circumstances." And in these cases, if we are able to improve on such a projected (not promised) deadline, we might gain additional respect and some repeat business by our honesty.
(2) With reference to our family, we also need to learn to make contingent promises. However, if we are not running on a "do or die" schedule at the office, then our work will not be one of the contingencies. If I tell my son that I will take him fishing next Saturday, I'd better add, "If the car works and it's not snowing." But if I repeatedly add, "if I am caught up at work," then my son will soon come to believe that he is not as important to me as my job. You see, contingent promises in business and family work together!
(3) Finally, with reference to one's financial stewardship, again contingent promises need to be made. Very few people have both the means and the knowledge of the future to say honestly, "I pledge X amount of dollars to this missionary for the next year." It is far wiser to say, "If the Lord enables me, I will give so much." Though missionaries, churches, seminaries, etc., might feel uncomfortable with such a "pledge," they ought not. For in reality all of us are daily dependent upon the Lord for the provisions of life (Matt 6:11).
In stating these three applications, I fear that some will see in them an excuse for not meeting obligations. But the businessman who repeatedly fails to meet even his projected deadlines will soon be out of work; the father who repeatedly fails to spend time with his children will be the catalyst for rebellion in his own home; and the steward who neglects the work of the Lord will not be a cheerful giver in whom the Lord delights.
Setting goals is serious business. We ought not to be so anxious about life that we make rigid plans which are beyond our capacity to keep, nor should we be so lazy as to make no plans at all. Rather, with all humility, let us submit our plans to the Lord, and work for his glory.