From Thomas Philbrick
I love goal-setting. Probably too much. I love it to the point of having goals for practically every part of my life. Each of these sets of goals is accompanied by a lengthy to-do list that I believe will help me accomplish that goal with the utmost efficiency. How would I know where to go if I didn’t have goals?
Perhaps you can relate to my situation. Although I’m sure this mindset is partly a result of many years of societal and cultural development, the Scriptures provide numerous examples of humankind’s desperate attempts to control the outcomes of their lives. The emphasis on the future that prevails in the privileged societies of the world adds to this as well: we are obsessed with the future. We have an insatiable desire to know what comes next. The agrarian poet and writer Wendell Berry talks about this quite often, particularly emphasizing our focus on quantitative change rather than qualitative change; in other words, we would rather move up the business ladder than add richness to the experiences we already have. In short, we want to be God.
“You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:2 –26).
“But as for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more…I will come and proclaim your mighty acts, O Sovereign Lord.” (Psalm 71:14–16).
The Psalmist presents a strikingly different perspective for us to consider. While there are many things that could be drawn from this passage, I keep returning to this thought: Instead of focusing on who we want to be and what we can do, we should be focusing on who God is and what He has done. Rather than focus exclusively on the future tense of our lives, we must learn to lean on the present and past tenses of God’s wisdom. The Psalmist is very clear about this in these two Psalms (as well as the entire rest of the book); he is constantly referring to the wisdom and majesty of the Lord’s past deeds (see Psalm 19, Psalm 34, and many others). Even a cursory review of Biblical history (never mind the history of our own individual lives) quickly reveals a numberless host of instances in which God has protected, guided, punished, loved, and redeemed us.
Henri Nouwen, in his wonderful book Reaching Out, notes that focusing on what the Lord has done for us makes us more grateful and thankful for His influence in our lives. However, Nouwen adds that our attempts to recognize God’s hand in our past will be challenged by our human inability to remain still enough to do so. Stillness requires the confrontation of those questions that we try to push to the side, and gratefulness will be challenged by the temptation to always be moving onward and upward. This realization of our struggle to be grateful certainly lends new meaning to the Apostle Paul’s ability to “be content in all situations.” Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk from Kentucky, wrote that “we do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God.” What a wonderfully simple and terribly difficult thing to do. I certainly want to learn how to focus on what the Lord has done for me rather than what I can achieve next, and that starts with a refocusing on the ways God has guided me in the past. Merton sums it up perfectly: “So keep still, and let Him do some work.”
I live in Somerville with my wife Sarah and enjoy playing violin, drawing, and anything to do with outdoor adventures. I hail originally from a farming family in NH, where I grew up using teams of oxen to gather firewood and plow gardens, and most recently from Wheaton College in Illinois. I stay busy nowadays working as a legal aide for a regional New England law firm that administers vaccine funding programs for state governments.