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Of Goals and Grace

Grace and unconditional love should always win over works based in guilt and pride

"Did you make any New Year's resolutions?" my friend Jill asked me when we were at my friend's New Year's Eve party.

"Yes, I've decided to try to get to bed earlier in the evenings," I responded, adding that I have the unfortunate tendency of getting a second wind toward the end of the night.

"So, you're saying you want to spend more of this year asleep?" she teased.

I laughed, then explained, "It's not like I want to sleep to avoid being awake. It's just that after ten days of great sleep at my parents' place over the holidays, I'm reminded of how much better I function when well rested. And frankly," I added, "it just seems a lot more attainable than all the lofty goals I'm tempted to set this time of year." The kind that are all but forgotten by February 1.

I didn't admit it to Jill, but I did harbor a secret, wildly optimistic hope that more sleep would lead to more energy, which would lead to more exercise, which would lead to lost weight … Still, I figured if my goal didn't lead me to being revolutionized, at the very least I'd be more rested.

I also knew some of the simplicity of this goal was a backlash against my recent awareness of a growing singleness pressure—the felt need to achieve or accomplish something amazing in my solo state. That if I'm not going to do the noble work of personally upholding the institution of marriage or birthing and rearing some great human beings (either not yet or not ever), then I need to have a pretty darn good reason. That as a single, I somehow need to account for the space I'm taking up on the planet in grandiose ways.

Actually, it was a letter from a reader of this column that raised my awareness to this pressure. She wrote in response to our article about role model singles—people who are using this stage of life to birth ministries, serve the needy overseas, share the love in their families and communities.

She wrote, "If I don't make use of my singleness by traveling the world, being an entrepreneur, working at the head of my field, leading some amazing ministry, or serving as an overseas missionary, am I somehow a less 'successful' single? Am I wasting my singleness? What if I don't have that sort of ambition or desire?"

Her e-mail surprised me, but I totally got what she was saying. I thought of the oft-quoted verse about how we singles have that wonderful "undivided devotion to the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:35). A great perk of this life stage, to be sure. But also one that can feel like undue pressure to have something really impressive to show for that extra devotion. Pressure to achieve, to earn our spot at the table in God's family, to somehow excuse something that most often doesn't need excusing.

I'm not saying that wanting to shake the planet for heavenly purposes is a bad thing. Not in the least. Rather, I'm talking about the motivation for such a goal. If God is leading us to do some great work, then fantastic. But if we're compelled by guilt, a works-based faith, or a prideful need to prove our worth to others, then maybe we need to regroup and rethink a few things. Remember grace and unconditional love.

Besides, that kind of pressure can be immobilizing—not so unlike all those January goals to revolutionize our life (lose 50 pounds, learn French, take tae-kwon-do lessons, and write a letter a day to out-of-state friends and family . . . all by March) that can pile up and set us up for failure.

And how often is one person called to singularly save the planet? More often we're called to help mend our little corner of it—so that together we can fix our fallen world and point to the One who's already saved it.

Of course, when I'm really honest with myself, I realize that some of this pressure comes from within—and is aimed at God. In other words, a sense that if God's not going to shape my life in traditional ways—with a husband and kids—it's okay with me only if there's some sort of equally noble purpose or mission involved. As if God has to answer to me. As if everything on our broken earth has an explanation or will make sense from our earthly vantage point. As if there isn't noble purpose in faithfully trying to follow Christ.

I'm learning that for some of us singles, one of the best goals we can have is cutting ourselves a little slack. And perhaps one of the best gifts we can give the church is to help imbue a sense of noble purpose to a well–lived single life—which is essentially the life of a faithful Christ–follower. Knowing that sometimes that means doing a great, important work for the Kingdom. And sometimes that can simply mean "doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).

And other times, it may even mean getting a smidge more sleep.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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