I first felt inspired to set big goals at a cozy little cottage on Round Lake in southeastern Michigan.
I was in my second year of graduate school when Candice Zouhary, a girl I was dating, invited me to visit the cottage her parents had just bought. We flew out in October of 1996 — just in time for a spectacular Midwest Autumn. From the deck of the small house, we looked out over a sparkling lake encircled with charming houses surrounded by red, orange and yellow trees.
Somewhere in the mix of experiencing this gorgeous getaway and the excitement of a growing relationship, the cottage became a special place for Candice and me. Eight months later we got married and decided to spend a portion of our honeymoon there. Canoeing, lounging on the dock and taking long bike rides through the community gave us lots of time to plan our future together. Something about the lake air just made us want to dream big.
Later that summer, we took jobs at Focus on the Family and moved to Colorado. By December, we were ready to visit Round Lake again. As I stepped out onto the front porch, I could see the lake was frozen over and covered with snow. The few houses with lights still lit had smoke billowing up. After breathing in some crisp lake air, I went inside to find wood for the big rock fireplace. As the fire got started, we scrounged around for good music and landed on some James Taylor.
Once the right mood was set, we talked about a new development at work. One of Focus on the Family’s board members gave a large gift to be used for a new magazine for college students. Some people at Focus knew Candice and I had been pushing for a webzine for young adults and asked us to help with this project. While the fire popped and James Taylor crooned, we dreamed up the first concepts for what soon became Boundless.
The next December, I gave Candice a doorknocker as a Christmas gift and announced optimistically, “Let’s accessorize this with a house.” I suspected it would be a while before we actually achieved a goal that big, but we drove off to the cottage to think and pray about it and see if we could actually pull it off.
The dream big “lake effect” kicked in again and a couple of hours later, we had a plan in place to become homeowners. While we were making bold New Year’s resolutions we decided to also include the goal of starting a family that year.
The next winter, we skipped the cottage and opted to have our annual planning retreat in our newly built home, with our two-week old son. This big annual goal thing was really starting to pay off.
The next year we went back to the cottage and tried to dream up some bigger goals — things like “start a new business” and “write a book.” We also looked at new areas of our life that could benefit from goals — exercise, reading, vacations, major purchases, and so on. This time we climbed up onto the kitchen counter and hid the list on a ledge above the sink. We thought it would be fun to go back the next year and see how much we had accomplished.
But the next year’s retreat wasn’t as exciting as we had hoped. Reviewing the list, we realized there were a lot of things that we didn’t get done. Maybe we had hit a wall or something. We wondered if we were just dreaming a little too big.
In an effort to get the lake-air magic working again, we moved our planning to a local restaurant called the Lyon’s Tavern. Not meeting so many of our previous objectives made us think we should downsize some and just focus on our pressing priorities. After we got our 2-year-old son busy with crackers and crayons, we turned over a placemat and started jotting down our list. We knew we needed to prepare for a new baby we were expecting in two months. We also knew our jobs were about to change and could make things a little unpredictable. As our list grew (and as we struggled to keep our son entertained), we realized that one reason it was hard to achieve new goals was because the things we had achieved in the past — especially our goal of growing our family — were making it difficult to add anything else.
This reality made us start asking some tough questions. “How much could we really do?” and more importantly, “How much should we do?”
For the past few years, the “lake effect” had inspired us to dream big and the result was a habit of setting bigger and broader goals. Now we were left to wonder if this exercise was starting to take on a life of its own and run ahead of the process of hearing God’s voice and focusing on His work in our lives.
That year’s lake visit was a turning point for us. Back at the cottage after our son went to sleep, we held off our typical goal setting and instead started listing the things we valued most. We came up with things like: work alongside God’s big plan; experience God’s pleasure; be in His will; feel peace; do work that has eternal value; use our gifts in ways that actually serve people; have more balance between work and family; be less anxious and trust God more.
This exercise helped us to see that even though we have the ability to set and work towards goals in our lives, it really does matter what our objectives are. We realized that some of the objectives we had set in the past may not have been worth pursuing. In the spirit of self-improvement, we had taken on a lot of to-do items that made our lives more busy than better.
We could see how our efforts weren’t always directed by — or surrendered to — our relationship with God. Oh sure, we had prayed about our goals before, but often it was after they were already on paper and we were just looking for God’s blessing after the fact. Looking back on some of our financial goals, especially, we could see how we had dedicated large chunks of our effort and resources to accomplish things God may have never wanted us to do in the first place.
Despite all the problems we could see looking back, we still sensed goals were valuable. We knew the power of focusing and committing our efforts on important things. But now we didn’t want to clutter our lives with just any goals — we were more interested in pressing toward only those things that really were important.
We knew we couldn’t take on anything else without asking a few soul-searching questions. Here are a few of the questions we’ve asked since then that have helped us to land on and reach goals that really matter.
- What has God already called us to do in His word?
- What resources has God entrusted to us and how can we be better stewards?
- Where has God gifted us and what needs does He want us to meet with those gifts?
- How can we live in balance?
The question about balance forced us to think about something we had never really connected to goal-setting in the past: the importance of Sabbath. We had been attending church on Sundays and trying not to do any work, but we hadn’t grasped the real spiritual significance of a day of rest.
Not long ago, some older friends shared a valuable perspective on Sabbath rest. They said, “The faith-based ritual of Sabbath allows you to center on God and not be anxious about your labor. By resting and worshipping Him, you can have contentment and confidence in knowing you have more than you need.”
Their description made me think back to a few weeks we spent at the cottage while we were between jobs after graduate school. Every day, we worked hard trying to take care of small projects to bring in money while calling up leads about potential jobs. We wanted to dream big, but we knew we were utterly dependent on God. Our most peaceful moments came when we rested in Him, laying our best efforts at His feet and trusting Him to provide.
Each week now, we steadily try to make progress on the goals of service and stewardship that we sense God values. By Sunday, however, we know it’s time to honor the Sabbath in a way that brings the best of the “lake effect” back into our lives — keeping us replenished and aligned with what really matters.
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