Since we are at the beginning of a new year, many of us will take the time to reflect on the past year to look on our accomplishments and failures, as well as make plans and set goals for the next year. For the Christian however, we must not only consider the goal but we must look at what motivates us.
Setting Our Goals Based On God’s Word
The Bible makes it clear that it is not enough to think about what we do, but we are to think about who we are – our character, our desires, and our passions. God is much more interested in who we are than what we do; because who we are should ultimately control our actions.
Many times when the Bible gives a command, or we are exhorted to do something, we are usually given the motivation or reward behind those actions. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:14 that he was constrained (or controlled) by the love of God. He later told the Philippians that he, “press[ed] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus“. There was something that was motivating him – the eternal promises of God, and the love of Christ – it wasn’t just about checking off a list of achievements!
Ephesians 4:25-32: A Model Of Biblical Goal Setting
If we were to go through the Bible and examine all of the key commands and admonishments, and take a look at the promises or even logical reasoning and motivations for them, this article would turn into book; so instead, I want us to look at one passage of Scripture to see how our behavior (in essence, our goals) should be directly tied to a strong and godly motivation.
Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not give the devil an opportunity. 28 He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need. 29 Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. 30 Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. ~ Ephesians 4:25-32
In Ephesians 4:25-32, we are given a list of God’s goals for our lives. Even the specific motivations given for these goals have at their foundation a deeper goal – to “not grieve the Holy Spirit of God…” (verse 30). In an overall sense, we are to do this by following what is laid out in Ephesians 4:22-24 – that we should “lay aside the old self”, be renewed in our way of thinking, and then put on a new way of living (the entire second half of the book of Ephesians is about our walk – how we conduct ourselves in the world). These 3 steps provide us with an outline for our worthy walk (verse 1).
So in each of these commands (in verses 25-32), we are admonished to stop doing something, replace that sinful behavior with something else, and then we are given the reason or motivation for this change. So we can see from this list of imperatives that the motivation is just as, or perhaps even more, important than the actual goal.
We will look at each one of these briefly to show why and how we can make these goals a part of what we’re trying to accomplish in our lives, as well as applying this way of thinking and living to all goals that we want to set:
Goal #1 – Being Truthful (Eph. 4:25)
The Sin To Put Off – Therefore, laying aside falsehood
The Virtue To Put On – Speak truth each one of you with his neighbor
Our Motivation – For we are members of one another
Here we are given the command to lay aside falsehood. Not only does this refer to outright lying, but it also speaks of deceitful motives and actions (making false excuses, breaking promises, etc). Every day our goal needs to be putting off lying and all sorts of falsehood.
The great thing about this section is that we are not simply given a command and then left to figure the rest out on our own. Paul next instructs us to speak the truth with our neighbors (cf. Zechariah 8:16-17). By practicing being truthful, we will be in a better position to overcome the temptation to lie when it comes around. We can more easily put this sin to death because we are now practicing godly behavior in its place!
Of course we are not able to do any of this without the power of God working within us (cf. Eph. 1:19-20, 3:20), but that is beyond the scope of this article.
So after Paul gives us the command to stop being deceitful, and then encourages us to replace that with the characteristic of being consistently truthful, he then shows us why we need to do this. The motivation for these goals is the fact that “we are members of one another“. Now, we can’t unpack all that this means here, but it is enough to say that we are all members of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12), we are called to love each other (1 John 3:11-5:4), and we have all been adopted into the family of God (Romans 8:12-17).
So, our goal is the laying aside the old man’s sinful propensity to lie and putting on the character of truthfulness. This is to be motivated by the fact that we are now members of one another, through Christ, and we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish this.
Goal #2 – Dealing With Anger In A Biblical Manner (Eph. 4:26-27)
The Sin To Put Off – Sinful Anger (or allowing righteous anger to lead to sin)
The Virtue To Put On – Examining the reasons behind your anger, and getting things right (immediately)
Our Motivation – Do not give the devil an opportunity
It would seem here that Paul is making the case for a righteous anger – hating immorality, injustice, blasphemy, and and sin in general – as Jesus did (cf. Matthew 21:12, Mark 3:5, and John 2:15 – note that the temple cleansings recorded here are 2 separate events [John at the beginning & Matthew at the end of His earthly ministry], which indicates that this wasn’t just a rash reaction). Again, this one verse can (and should) take up and entire sermon, so we don’t have room to exegete every detail. But I’ll share a few of my observations…
First, even if this is discussing righteous anger (sometimes referred to as righteous indignation), the verse still indicates that even righteous anger can lead to sin and bitterness, and needs to be dealt with in the proper way once it is identified. The second thing to note is that if righteous anger can lead to bitterness, then it’s a given that unrighteous anger (that which comes from impatience, discontentment, pride, or a lack of faith among other things) can lead to bitterness and other kinds of sin if it isn’t confessed and put to death immediately. In either case, we are simply told that we are not to sin in response to our anger.
Instead of allowing our anger to lead to sin, we are to deal with the issue and get it right as soon as possible. If you become angry with a person, then you are to work things out with them as soon as you are physically able. Even if you are not able to before the literal setting of the sun, you are to forgive them (in your heart) as soon as possible, and then work through it with them whenever time allows. Allowing anger to go unchecked will cause bitterness to settle in your heart and lead to all kinds of sin (Hebrews 12:15).
By examining our heart for unchecked anger (and even frustrations) and attempting to get those things right as soon as possible, we will avoid “giv[ing] the devil an opportunity”. This literally means to not give the devil “a place” (it’s translated “leave room” [NASB] in Romans 12:19), and I think it really shows just how subtle he can be when our anger is not dealt with biblically and immediately. When we don’t follow this command, we are actually giving the devil a place from which he can more easily entice us to sin.
So, our goal is to be sure that we handle both righteous and unrighteous anger in a biblical manner. We do this by constantly examining our reactions and our heart to ensure that any anger is dealt with immediately. We do this because we are motivated by the fact that not doing so will give the devil “a place” or “an opportunity” to tempt us to sin.
Goal #3 – Working With Integrity (Eph. 4:28)
The Sin To Put Off – Stealing
The Virtue To Put On – Hard Work
Our Motivation – So that [you] will have something to share with one who has need
The command here is pretty simple, “he who steals must steal no longer“! Stealing here refers to the act of taking anything that doesn’t belong to you. It doesn’t just mean physical possessions, but can extend to time, money (many do this by not working as hard as they should for their employer), mismanaging something over which you were made a steward, and countless other areas. God is very clear and direct about this…if you are stealing in any form, stop it!
Instead of stealing to provide for ourselves and our families, we are to engage ourselves in honest, hard work. Hard work is the primary means by which we are to support ourselves (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 esp. 10, and 1 Timothy 5:8), and it is the perfect way to put off the temptation to steal. Stealing really does show a lack of faith in God’s ability to provide, and it is something that we all need to root out of our lives. Just because you aren’t taking clothes from the local department store doesn’t mean you aren’t stealing.
Even though we talked about hard work being the primary means by which we are to support ourselves, God gives us another motivation for making this a goal: We are to work hard so that we will have something to share with one who has need! We saw this type of attitude at work when the church was first being established (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-37, 20:33-35), and it is how we are to be toward each other today (cf. 1 Timothy 5:3-16 esp. 9-16).
I am sure that hard work is a part of many goals/resolutions this year, but we should really dig deep and ask ourselves what the motivation is behind that goal. Do we just want to be rich so we can feel secure (1 Timothy 6:17-19, Matthew 6:33)? Are we seeking wealth because we think it (or what we can buy) will make us happy (Mark 8:36-37)? Are we trying to work hard for a promotion so that men will esteem us because of our title/position (Galatians 1:10)?
So even as we evaluate a noble goal such as working hard and refusing to steal, we have to make sure that part of our motivation (see Eph. 6:5-8 for another part) ought to be the fact that we want to have something to share with one who has need. Our love for Christ and our brothers & sisters should be what propels us to strive in this area daily.
Goal #4 – Godly Communication (Eph. 4:29)
The Sin To Put Off – Unwholesome Speech
The Virtue To Put On – Wise & Edifying Conversation
Our Motivation – So that it will give grace to those who hear
Now Paul moves on to our speech. The command is that we not let any “unwholesome” words come our of our mouths. The Greek word for “unwholesome” literally means “rotten” or “foul”, and gives the idea of spoiled, putrid meat. As Christians, we are not to allow these rotten, corrupt words come out of our mouths. In Matthew 15:18-19, Jesus said…
“But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”
This shows us that the things that come out of our mouths are an accurate representation of what is going on in our hearts! James 3:6 tells us that the tongue “…defiles the entire body“. The fact that we now have a new heart means that these evil, corrupt, rotten words should not so easily come out of the mouths of Christians (cf. James 3:3-12, esp. 9-12).
Instead of the rotten or foul speech that was a part of our “old man” (Colossians 3:5-8), our goal should be the consistent use of edifying words (words that build others up). Our speech should be characterized by encouraging, helpful, instructive, beneficial words – this should be true even when we must point out sin or correct wrong thinking/doctrine (Proverbs 15:23, 25:11-12).
The motivation that we are given for changing our speech is the benefit that it will provide to others. Paul says that we are to cultivate a heart and tongue that works to edify, “so that it [our speech] will give grace to those who hear“. The idea of our speech being graceful calls to mind the command found in Colossians 4:6, “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person“.
The fact that we now have the power to put on the new man, and speak words that can minister grace to others should motivate our goal to put away unwholesome words and instead, edify one another.
So again we are given a command/goal of putting off and putting on, and we are also given a motivation for that goal. This time, the way in which we communicate with others is in view.
A Summary Of Our Goals/Commands (Eph. 4:31-32)
Paul then gives a summary of all the changes that occur once we are rescued from the kingdom of darkness (Eph. 2:1-7). He first mentions all of the things we are to put aside, then he lists the things we should do. Instead of just firing off a list of commands, he gets more at the root of what causes the actions he mentioned earlier:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. ~ Ephesians 4:31-32
These are things that can be the underlying cause of some of the sins which he gave more attention in the previous verses. So the goal to avoid all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice should lead to putting off falsehood, sinful anger, stealing, and unwholesome words. The same is true with being kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving others as God has forgiven us.
We are given an underlying motivation for not only this summary section, but all of the commands/goals listed in the larger section: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” ~Ephesians 4:30
Our ultimate motivation for putting off these sinful behaviors is the fact that the Holy Spirit of God will be grieved if we don’t. So, on top of all the other motivation that we are given here, knowing that the Holy Spirit will be grieved when we continue in the sinful behaviors from which we have been saved and freed, is what should cause us to put these sins to death!
Following A Biblical Model For Setting Goals
In this passage we see a wonderful model for setting goals. Not only is the end result important, but we also need to make sure that we have a godly motivation.
Having A Biblical Motivation
Of course, these and other biblical goals should come first and we should be motivated by all of the exhortations, promises, and warnings found in scripture. We aren’t just following a list of dos and don’ts, trying to earn favor with men or even God by doing certain things, but we are actually “work[ing] out our salvation with fear and trembling” Philippians 2:12. We are compelled by the love of Christ to live out the faith which is within us.
We are told to, “be holy, for [God] is holy” (1 Peter 1:16), and we are even exhorted to let our focus on the future promises of God impact our behavior/mindset here on earth (2 Peter 3:10-18). Motivation is everything to God. He looks at the heart, rather than the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7), which is why being merely a hearer of the word is useless, and even sinful (James 1:22-27).
Examining Our Hearts Is The Key: Seeking To Glorify God
Before we set any goal, we need to examine our heart and our motives to ensure that we are seeking to honor God. If your goal is to lose weight, make sure you are doing it to honor God with your body (which is really His – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20), rather than to turn heads when you walk down the street.
If your goal is to save money, check your heart to make sure that you are not looking to a huge savings account or wealth in general to provide you with security, but that instead you gain your motivation from the command found in 1 Timothy 6:17-19!
There are many other common goals that we may set for ourselves, but when we examine our motivation, very little (if any of it) has to do with bringing glory to God. We are told in 1 Corinthians 10:31, that everything we do, no matter how mundane, should be done in order to bring glory to God:
Whether, then, you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
If our goals and motivations do not line up with this principle, then we need to do some serious heart-searching and prayer in order to get our goal in line with God’s will. Setting goals, no matter how noble and praise-worthy from a human standpoint, can easily be worthless at best, or even sinful in God’s eyes.
- How easy do you find it to set goals without considering God’s will?
- Why is it so rare to find the type of godly goals mentioned here or in other passages, in our own list of goals/resolutions?
- How often do you examine your goals to see if your motivation is godly or just a part of you seeking your own glory?