By Anna Lynne Frazier
Are you setting goals backwards? It’s easy to do.
You say, “I want to drink more water or go to the gym 3 times a week or read X books this year.” Then you take steps to get started asap, packing your schedule with the new things, determined to start changing now.
But does this work? The 80% failure rate of New Year’s Resolutions suggests not.
Instead, turn your approach around.
Why do you want to go to the gym regularly? There are lots of good reasons, but what’s the biggest motivator for you? What is the real goal?
Then work backward: “How do I get to my real goal?” By going to the gym three times a week. Great. Start there.
Fast forward to when your alarm starts ringing at 4:30 a.m. because you need to be in class at 5. “I need to exercise more regularly” might not be enough to get you out of bed. But your real goal, that deeper why can.
And, even better, if you find out you actually just hate going to the gym, you don’t have to give up completely. There are other things you can try to still accomplish your real goal.
What’s your real goal when you think about spending more time with God? What will time for God accomplish? Why bother?
There’re lots of specific ways to answer that question, but a helpful summary is to pursue spiritual formation. And once you focus on this real goal, time for God will follow.
What’s spiritual formation and why does it matter?
“Spiritual formation is the ongoing process of maturing as a Christian, both personally and interpersonally, as reflected in lifestyle behavior.”
– Drs. Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie in Resilient Ministry
Let’s break that definition down:
Spiritual formation is…
the ongoing process of maturing as a Christian…
The key here is “ongoing.” It’s never over. Every Christian is in the process of growing more and more into the person God created us to be. This growth—which Eugene Peterson identifies as “a long slow journey in the same direction”—is the real goal.
both personally and interpersonally…
The key here is “both.” Spiritual formation cannot happen in isolation. But what you do by yourself when no one’s watching matters too. This means that spiritual formation occurs communally and privately, so it’s important to give time to both.
as reflected in lifestyle behavior.
The key here is “reflected in.” Spiritual formation is not accomplished through your behavior. This growth is accomplished by God’s power, not yours. However, if you’re growing, it will be reflected in your behavior.
What you choose to spend your time doing reflects what you value.
If your real goal is to pursue spiritual formation, then time for God has to follow. Spiritual formation necessitates a lifestyle that reflects it.
So instead of putting pressure on yourself to make more time for God each day, focus attention on the real goal that you’re working toward. The lifestyle will follow.
Recognizing that change requires loss.
Our ambitious, over-achieving society struggles with change. We don’t like having to say “no” to something in order to say “yes” to something else. We hear about what we should be doing and assume that means we need to add it to what we’re already doing.
The trouble is, we can’t. Humans are finite beings. Our sinful natures may trick us into feeling otherwise, but the reality is that God made us bounded. He intended for us to have 24 hours in a day, and he commanded us to rest.
When you recognize something that you want to add to your daily rhythm, don’t ask yourself, “Where do I have space for more?”
Ask, “What will this new thing replace?”
All change requires loss. (That’s why change is so hard.)
Sometimes, it’s joyful because you’re losing something not-so-good in exchange for something wonderful. But a lot of times change means losing something good, something you’ll miss, because you decide that the next thing is more important.
We experience the grief of loss and start wondering if changing at all was a bad move. When that doubt strikes, focusing on your real goal becomes even more important.
Jesus said, “Those who lose your life will find it.” And, frankly, he was talking pretty big picture—inviting people to leave their former way of living and follow him. However, those who are already following Jesus need this message too.
You’ve “given Jesus your life,” but does he have the hours in your day? Or are those still yours?
Making time for God doesn’t mean adding him to the empty space on your schedule. It means identifying what you’re willing to lose in order to give God more of your life.
Start making time today
Again, you can’t just decide to make time for God (not if you want to succeed). You need to plan how you’re going to do it.
This kind of intentional change involves understanding where you are right now, evaluating it against where you want to go, and deciding how you’re going to get there.
Try this three-part exercise of understanding, evaluating, and deciding over the next week.
Write it down in a journal. Take notes or use a calendar app on your phone. Whatever works for you!
Part One: Understanding where you are right now
First, find a quiet time to reflect on a typical week. Write down your answers to the following questions:
1. How do you spend your time during the week?
Make a list. Think about the concrete things on your schedule. But also consider the unstructured time in between. This can be as general or specific as you want. But be as honest with yourself as possible.
2. How does this help or hurt your real goal of pursuing spiritual formation?
Ask the question about each item on your list. Be gracious with yourself here. This isn’t a time to feel shame or to make excuses. It’s an opportunity to invite God into your whole life.
3. What should stay and what can go?
The “what can go” category will be a mix of cutting things to replace them with others and tweaking things to better achieve your goals. For example, mindlessly scrolling on your phone before bed can go, picking up your kids from school has to stay. But how can you use the time sitting in the carpool line to achieve your spiritual formation goals?
This is an opportunity to get creative!
Part Two: Evaluating how your day-to-day lines up with your real goal
Next, test out your assessment of yourself. Commit to repeating the following steps each day for a week to get a feel for how accurate your reflection exercise was.
1. As each day begins, pray for it.
Ask God to help you include him into your time. Call on his power as you pursue your real goal of spiritual formation. You may be surprised by how this intentional start with God can set a trajectory for the rest of the day.
2. Take notes about what you do throughout your day.
This may feel like a lot, but remember, it’s just for one week. Include as much as you can. And, as you do, try to hold back on any kind of judgment of whether it’s good or bad. That’s not where you’re at in the process yet.
3. As each day ends, reflect on how you spent your time.
Ask yourself, “How did my use of time today effect my goals for spiritual formation?” Spend time in prayer thanking God for places you saw him in your day. Ask for his help tomorrow in any areas that were a struggle.
Part Three: Deciding how you’re going to make time for God
Finally, we get to where a lot of people start: deciding what you’re going to do differently to make time for God. But because of the previous parts in the exercise, you’ll be making these choices prayerfully, humbly, and with a clear understanding of what’s actually true of your life.
After your week of evaluation, set aside time to make a plan for what’s next.
1. Review your notes from the previous week.
How accurate was your initial summary of how you spend a week of your life? Were you pretty close? Were you surprised by what takes up the unplanned time?
Spend some time reflecting and praying over what you learned about yourself.
2. Identify what needs to change.
What parts of your day do you want to give to God? What can you do to fill your next week with good time that moves you toward your real goal?
Keep in mind, reading the Bible and praying isn’t the only “good” use of time. Remember the wholistic definition of spiritual formation as you answer these questions.
3. Make a new plan for the following week.
With all this in mind, write out a new, ideal schedule for your week that’s structured around your real goal of spending more time with God. Allow for flexibility and spontaneity, seeing this as a guide rather than law.
Then, live it out! Feel freedom to reassess and revise as you go. But continue the practice of inviting God into each day through prayer.
Intentionally making time for God can take real thought and work before you seem to get to the “time for God” part. But the cool thing is, the very act of making time for God is time for God. He’s present in the process itself.
When your work through this exercise and invite God into your day-to-day, you’re taking steps along the path of spiritual formation.
How can you break through distractions in your life and know what to read or pray when you open your Bible? Subscribe to A Bigger Life, a podcast with Dave Cover, for guided prayer and scripture meditation twice a week.