The Limits of Positive Planning

pen calendar to do checklist

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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.

Starting Fresh

young game match kids

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As promised, I’m back from vacation and ready to start posting again. What better way to begin than with a few hints for those ready for a fresh start in life?

  • Don’t let guilt over past sins or missed opportunities hamper you. Trust your life to the God Who works all things together for good (Romans 8:28) and has plans to give you a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).
  • Cut ties with bad habits, toxic relationships, and other things that hinder your progress (Hebrews 12:1). With those that can’t be completely severed–a difficult marriage or a debt that still has to be paid–seek out compensating spiritual support in other areas.
  • Cultivate relationships with spiritually mature, supportive, and optimistic people who believe in you.
  • Don’t chase instant gratification, but do follow your God-given passions. If you have a long-neglected dream, now is the time to pursue it.
  • Remember that keeping busy with trivial matters is often an excuse for being lazy about your true calling. Give high-priority tasks high priority on your daily calendar, and let God show you which “urgent” tasks don’t really need doing.
  • Always save time for prayer and worship and a regular day of rest. Don’t, however, feel you must pray three hours a day because someone you admire does; look for prayer and worship approaches that match your unique temperament.
  • Take good care of your physical health. Especially when moving into a new stage of life, you need adequate nutrition and rest to keep your strength up.
  • Don’t push yourself to make quick progress, or you’ll get perfectionistic and discouraged, and perhaps give up on change altogether. Slow and steady really does win the race.
  • Save time to have fun and pamper yourself! Give yourself every reason to stay grateful to the God Who gives us every good thing for our enjoyment (1 Timothy 6:17).


  • 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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    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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