The Nonsense of S.M.A.R.T. Sense

Is modern business wisdom destroying Christian spirituality? Oswald Chambers once asked, “[Do we consider ourselves] so amazingly important that we really wonder what God Almighty does before we wake up in the morning?”

Smart Sense

Contemporary sages tell us to apply business models to our spiritual work. They admonish us to make S.M.A.R.T. goals: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound. They teach us that the closer we follow these instructions, the more effective our lives will be.

But natural insight doesn’t translate into spiritual wisdom. It’s not even a dialect.

The author Oswald Chambers was mostly unknown during his lifetime. Before he died (at the age of forty-three) only the tiniest circles of believers had even heard of him. And at the time of his death, he had only glimpsed a proof of the manuscript of his first book. If he leaned on S.M.A.R.T goals, how would he have evaluated his life on the day of his death?

But since his death, his words have influenced tens of millions, and his classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, is one of top selling books of all time. Instead of leaning into worldly wisdom, Paul encourages us:

“Judge nothing before its time; wait for the Lord. He will bring to light what is hidden and he will expose the motives of the heart.

At that time each will receive their praise from God” (1 Cor. 4:5 emphasis added).

The world tells us to measure our results. God says the only result that matters is found in a personal connection with him. In that connection, he takes the broken bread-crumbs of our lives and feeds thousands.

How many of our S.M.A.R.T. goals are measured to make ourselves the hero of our own little mini-series?

It’s Not That S.M.A.R.T. Goals Are Dumb

Jesus commends our natural understanding; he just questions our spiritual understanding: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56).

There are all kinds of personal intentions that will be aided by S.M.A.R.T. goals. You might say:

  • I plan to lose ten pounds in ten months by eating only 1600 calories a day and running three miles three times a week; or
  • We want strengthen our marriage by improving our communication; we will attend a Love Language conference, spend twenty minutes a day listening to each other, and have a date night once a week for the next year.

I don’t mean we should abandon natural goals. It’s just that the deepest legacy of our lives will be accomplished only–only!–through God’s hidden work in us. When we die to ourselves and let him live.

As Jesus once said to Peter: “What I am doing now you do not understand, but later on you will” (John 13:7). And then Jesus washed his feet.

Which made absolutely no sense to the SMART-goal driven Peter. But later on, it did.

We Just Don’t Know

We are the worst judges in the world when it comes to interpreting spiritual reality. Two sad stragglers on the way home to Emmaus told a stranger that they were despairing because:

“Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, but our chief priests and rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and crucified him.

“But we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:19-21)

They hoped Jesus would save Israel, but instead he was killed. The irony was: the only way he could save Israel was to be killed! They saw life from the wrong side of the grave.

As long as we continue to deify natural common sense we will strangle supernatural sense. The way up is down. Peter said “I will lay down my life for you;” then he abandoned Jesus. His natural strength was useless until he let it die in humiliation and was raised by the supernatural love of Jesus.

We worry too much about the wrong stuff. There is only one way to Get SMART, and that is to join Agent 86 and humbly admit: “Sorry about that Chief … would you believe … I missed it by that much.”


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What do YOU think?

2 thoughts on “The Nonsense of S.M.A.R.T. Sense

  1. Thanks Sam! It seems to be a constant struggle to balance to exercise and appreciation of human wisdom (which God gives us, and commends, and expects us to use) with the truth that the message of the cross is foolishness to the world, God’s ways are not our ways, and that the “foolishness of God” is wiser than man’s greatest wisdom!

    One example that leaps to mind (because I’ve experienced it several times) is in running short-term or local missions, and how we “evaluate” them for effectiveness. If we do it a few times, and don’t see any fruit or change, not only do we get demoralised but we start to wonder whether it’s a good idea to keep continuing. Surely it’s irresponsible and unwise to pour heaps of resources into something that doesn’t seem to be working, to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results (as Einstein famously described madness). Yet just as you say, our goals are not all measurable, God’s ways are mysterious, and many times he has grown fruit from what seemed barren and empty, in his own time and to his own glory. Do you have any thoughts on how to strike that balance, and the right time and way to “evaluate” the effectiveness of our church programs?


    • Hi Tim,

      GREAT question. Now, if only I had a great answer.

      I believe that God deliberately does not give us a formula for evaluation. Because if we had one, we’d take it, run with it, and forget about God; “Hey, we’ve got the blueprints!” God wants co-laborers not subcontractors.

      So it comes down to honestly evaluating the motives of our hearts and to honestly listening to God. On one hand there are many “successful” pastors and churches who don’t bear real spiritual fruit and there are also many seemingly unsuccessful people (like Oswald Chambers in his lifetime) whose fruit is only seen later.

      But “obvious” success (or seeming failure) cannot be our only criteria. We’ve simply got to go to God and ask. He might say, “You are doing this ‘thing’ only because you’ve always done it, even though its fruitless, and its fruitless because I’m not in it.” Or, he might say, “Yes, it doesn’t seem to bear fruit now, but later on it will; like Psalm 1, it is the tree that ‘bears fruit in its season.'”

      When we evaluate short-term or local missions, one check on the fruit is the fruit in the hearts of the servers; is it burdensome duty, or is it delightful to serve? (Or like Chariots of fire: do I do this service because “when that gun does off, I have ten seconds to prove my existence?” or do I do this service because, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure?”).

      Again, I have no formula but this: an honest evaluation of our hearts’ motivations, and keep listening to God.

      Thanks for the great but tough question,