She looks almost beatific in her black velvet senior drape, her bright hazel eyes gazing heavenward. Next to her portrait, her senior quote reads, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have yet been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of me” (Philippians 3:12).

It was an apt senior quote for the young perfectionist, who spent hours of every day striving to achieve—A’s in her courses, the approval of peers and faculty members, and most of all, a perfect Christian life. It was an apt senior quote for the young perfectionist, who keenly felt her failure to “obtain all this,” who knew how short she fell in every area where she longed to succeed.

Sadly, that seventeen-year-old senior, who had only been a Christian for two years when she chose Philippians 3:12 to mark her life, didn’t fully understand the dynamic of grace and goals. Happily, that seventeen-year-old senior, who was me, discovered the joy and rest of knowing that God’s grace undergirds our one central goal in life: “to press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13).

God’s Grace and Our Goals

What does it look like to allow the goal of “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” to define all of our other goals? Let’s consider some of the good and helpful goals people set in the New Year:

I will get the promotion this year.

I will lose the ten, twenty, or thirty pounds.

I will help my child get into college.

I will run a half-marathon.

I will quit drinking, overeating, compulsive shopping, etc.

I will develop healthy friendships.

I will rest more, work less.

The problem with my goals as a high school senior, and the problem with many people’s goals, is that we forget to account for God’s grace and power when we are making them and as we seek to attain them. As an adolescent with a perfectionist bent, I assumed that achieving my goals of good grades, being well-liked, and living a holy life depended on my efforts alone. I had completely missed the point of Philippians 3:9, that my righteousness, my “right-ness with God,” depended on faith in him alone (Philippians 3:9). I had also failed to recognize the connection of Philippians 3:9 to Philippians 2:12-13. It is true that we are called to “[work out] our salvation through fear and trembling.” But by his grace, God is working in us for his good pleasure, sanctifying (“perfecting”) us by our faith in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit (Philippians 2:12-13). That reality affects all of our goals.

A Gospel Grid for Setting Goals: 5 Questions

Gospel-shaped goals begin with the central goal for our lives, “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Gospel-shaped goals recognize our utter reliance on God’s grace for attaining these goals. Let’s consider five key questions to look at our goals through a gospel grid:

  1. God, what do you want me to do with the precious time you have given me? What fruit do you want to bear in and through me?

All goal setting should begin, continue, and end in prayer. Colossians 3:9-13 provides an excellent framework for praying about goals. Pray for “the knowledge of his will,” for “wisdom and understanding” that will enable you to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord…” (Colossians 3:9-10).

  1. Why do I want to achieve this goal?

As you answer, consider how working toward the goal could be glorifying to God or could help you enjoy him more fully: “Because it glorifies God to treat my body as the temple it is, and my doctor says my weight is endangering my God-given life.”

  1. How do I want to achieve this goal?

In addition to praying about the goal and inviting others to pray with you, consider the resources you may need: “I will ask my friends to hold me accountable about my eating, drinking, shopping, or any other compulsive habit I want to change.” “I will seek help from my child’s guidance counselor about the college application process.”

  1. How does this little-g goal fit in with my ultimate goal as a Christian— “to press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14)?

“I know that I am called to live in community as a Christian, but as an introvert, I will have to rely on God for the courage to seek healthy friendships.”

  1. Where am I going?

Along the way, we need to check in with our goals and see if we are working the plan and to notice if we have gotten sidetracked. “It’s February, and the half-marathon is in September. I haven’t even started running yet.” Maybe we got sidetracked because we never made a plan or never really wanted to attain the goal in the first place. But it could be that God sent us off in a completely different direction: “I haven’t started running yet because my mother had unexpected knee surgery and caring for her took all of my time and energy.”

Knowing that God will continue to work in us so that we can take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of us will energize us to set gospel-shaped goals. With this good news in mind, let’s set some good goals for the year, start moving toward them by praying and planning, and watch to see what fruit God bears.

About the Author:

Elizabeth Turnage

Elizabeth Turnage is a writer, story coach, and teacher. She founded Living Story to help people learn, live, and love the gospel. The author of the Living Story Bible Study Series (P & R), she is currently writing a devotional for people in health crises. Elizabeth offers gospel-centered resources at her blog, www.elizabethturnage.com.

Elizabeth has been married to orthopedic surgeon Kip Turnage for 36 years. They enjoy spending time with their children, Kirby and Amy Anne Turnage, Jackie and Matt Roelofs, Mary Elizabeth and Caleb Blake, and Robert Turnage. When they are not working or visiting their kids, they enjoy doting on their golden doodle, Rosie, the “best-dog-ever”!