The Limits of Positive Planning

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There are times I feel I’ll scream if I hear one more piece of advice on “how to get a job” or “how to improve your outlook on life.” It’s not that the advice is bad. It’s just that it doesn’t work in the way I feel it should work: a series of clearly defined steps that take you to a specific goal in a predictable manner. That works fine if you want driving directions or DIY instructions, but when it comes to improving your financial situation or your attitude, there are no guarantees–and typically what we wind up with is some version of “Keep trying until something works, even if it takes years.”

Can you tell I prefer things laid out in order, with clearly measurable progress points? And that most of the high-priority items in my life fall into the just-keep-plugging category?

“But, God, I Want to Set the Schedule!!!!”

Like it or not, the important things in life rarely come with a guarantee of specific results for specific actions. Most specific advice falls into one of two categories:

  1. Know your goals and priorities, know the steps to reach them, and write those steps into your calendar.
  2. Practice positive thinking. Know exactly what you want and believe with all your heart that you will get there, affirming and refocusing on your goals every day.

These approaches–and especially approaches that combine the two–do work. Usually. When applied with patience, perseverance, and discernment. But often, that’s not good enough for us. We discourage too easily, giving up after two weeks when it typically takes two months to see obvious results. We get so fixated on things working out in a specific way, we can’t see better opportunities when they arrive in unexpected forms. We look at the most spectacular examples of success, try to do exactly what they did (usually ignoring the parts where they admit struggling for years); and when we don’t get the exact results they got (a $200,000-a-year job offer, out of the blue, within 30 days?), we become bitter that we slaved away at our part and the world didn’t deliver what we thought came with the bargain.

In short, we presume to be like God, with the right to declare how everything should or shouldn’t go.

So What Should I Expect, Then?

Obsessing over what we might have done wrong is little help. Ditto for concluding we have no power at all and might as well let life just happen to us. So what’s the Christian alternative when we’ve tried our best and seen no obvious results–or when we know what we want but have no idea of the first step to get there, and are wondering if it’s even God’s will?

There’s an answer in 1 Peter 5:6 (NIV): “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” Or as the Good News Translation puts it: “He will lift you up in his own good time.” A major aspect of humility is accepting that we have no right to tell God when, or how, to lift us up. But when it comes to goal setting and life planning, there’s even more involved: Thanking God for the skills and dreams He’s given us. Thanking Him in advance for what He will do through those skills and dreams. Regularly asking for His guidance, and still accepting that He may not show us the big picture until long after we’ve navigated a hundred seeming dead ends to arrive at a different destination than we anticipated. He is God, and He knows how it all will eventually work out for good, even when we haven’t a clue.

And no, He doesn’t want us to stop setting goals and making plans. He just wants us to understand that there’s more to meaningful growth than getting our goals and plans “right” every time.

How Tough Should “Tough Love” Be?

black and white connected hands love

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As noted last week, I have mild autism (Asperger’s syndrome)–and it’s caused more than a few financial and vocational problems. Not to dwell on the past or blame anyone for anything, but sometimes I wish my family and friends had been less generous in automatically saying “Yes” to requests for financial help. We “Aspies” aren’t lazy, but we’re particularly averse to stepping outside familiar comfort zones–including current living situations, leisure hours, spending habits, and work/work-seeking habits (or lack thereof). A few “earn your own money” kicks in the pants might have done me some good.

Special needs aside, many parents fret over the question, “What can I do about my adult child who’s still living under my roof letting me do his cleaning and cooking? What’s the alternative–tossing my kid out on the street to starve?”

The standard answer is, You’ll have to risk the “tough love” approach–withdrawing all support and letting him take the consequences–or be stuck in this situation forever. But the best approach doesn’t necessarily follow a script. Remember the prodigal son? His father let him experience the consequences of irresponsibility–but only after giving him everything he initially demanded. And, when the son came back begging for help meeting his basic needs, the father gave him more than he asked, without a word of “Promise me you’ll never do that again.”

Whether it’s your adult child with one foot still in dependence, your friend who “needs to talk” for hours, or your spouse battling alcoholism–how can you find the line between genuinely helping them and simply enabling them to continue in irresponsibility?

Does This Person Have Legitimate Special Needs?

These include any diagnosable physical or mental disability, including chemical addiction. It’s best if you go to therapy with your loved one: you’ll be too emotionally involved to judge how much responsibility the other party can and should handle. Under a counselor’s guidance, reach a solid agreement on what will be expected on both sides. Then hold firm to your side of the agreement (which may require both saying painful “no’s” and inconveniencing yourself for legitimate needs).

Are They Even Aware of What They’re Doing?

If someone has no special needs confirmed by an objective third party, but is simply in the habit of asking for “help” the moment things get challenging, sometimes all that’s needed is a frank person-to-person discussion. If you genuinely try to understand your loved one’s concerns, and if you encourage them to explore what’s needed to achieve their real dreams, you may be able to reach an effective agreement on new boundaries and mutual accountability. And your relationship will be stronger for it.

Are They Unwilling to Learn Any Way But the Hard Way?

If, after giving your loved one every chance to share their point of view, they refuse to consider any option except “I tell you what I need and you give it to me” (or if they agree to boundaries which they then repeatedly violate), then it’s time to get tough with your love. Tell them clearly what you won’t do anymore: no more cash on demand, no more taking calls between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. Then, hold firm throughout the inevitable period of “just this once” and “I thought you cared” pleading.

You’ll probably need help yourself to ride out this transition, especially if your loved one is heading into serious trouble. Parents, in particular, feel morally bound to save their “baby,” even if “baby” is fifty-five years old and milking them dry to support illegal activities. Enlist support and prayers from trusted friends. Get qualified counseling. Confirm, as often as necessary, that you are doing the right thing.

Above all else (this applies however extreme or manageable your situation), commit your loved one to God and trust Him to work it all out for good. He’s the only One Who can handle any situation and Who loves everyone in perfect wisdom.

  • A blog for naturally melancholy Christians tired of being told to "snap out of it"; for Christians who struggle with mental-health issues and long for assurance God delights in them nonetheless; and for naturally optimistic Christians who want to understand their "gloomy" loved ones.

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  • About Me

    I am the go-to writer for people with tough stress issues and special emotional needs—and for those who love them, organizations that serve them, and anyone who just wants to better understand the world of mental/emotional struggles. Or who just wants to pick up some good stress-management tips! Visit my main website at

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See for copyright details.
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