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The Right Kind of Goals, the Christian Life, and the Type A Personality Pattern

November 15, 2013

In all aspects of life, it’s a good idea to establish goals. Goal setting helps us prioritize our values and determine our life’s path. As I wrote in a post concerning chronic pain, goal setting ought to be smart in the sense that “goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time sensitive.” These five criteria for goal setting can help us evaluate whether a goal is helpful or harmful. For example, if I were to set for myself the goal of becoming a professional baseball player, that goal wouldn’t meet the smart criteria, for at my age and with my skills, it is neither attainable nor relevant to my present situation in life. Setting such an unattainable goal would ultimately lead to disappointment and be harmful. A smart goal such as walking half a mile a day, on the other hand, meets all five criteria and could be helpful in terms of maintaining physical health.

People with type A personality may be goal-driven, but those goals are often not particularly smart. According to Tony John Sorensen, “Studies have also shown that Type A individuals set higher expectations for performance before and during a cognitive task than do Type B individuals. They also set higher standards for performance on school exams (Grimm & Yarnold, 1984). Type A children are expected to attain higher goals and are provided with more ambiguous feedback regarding their progress toward their goals than are Type B children (Matthews, 1977). It may be that Type A individuals are competitive, hard-driving and achievement-striving in an attempt to produce information about their abilities when the extent of their abilities is uncertain.”

This leads us back to the core issue related to Type A behavior patterns: identity and self-worth being intimately connected to success and achievements regardless of how nebulously defined and ultimately unreasonable those successes or achievements may ultimately be. Sorensen continues by writing, “Type A behavior is seen as a result of placing a strong value on productivity and achievement, along with having unclear benchmarks for evaluating the achievement (Matthews & Siegel, 1982). The aggressive struggle that is typical of Type-A individuals is likely elicited during opportunities for achievement that do not have specific standards. Type A persons tend to compare their performance with the best possible performance (Suls et al., 1981).”

Failure to achieve a goal or success is intolerable for the Type A person. Life becomes a zero sum game in which there are no partial victories and no partial successes. Everything is a win-or-lose proposition that will turn one into a shining success or an abysmal failure. In such a world, it is not difficult to understand the aggressive, hyper-competitive attitude exhibited by the Type A personality.

However, such an approach towards life is not the one found in the gospel. The operative principle of the gospel and the Christian life is not winning at all costs, but loving under every condition. What guides us is God’s abiding love for us that warms us like the morning sun and our loving response to Him and our neighbor that brings us refreshment like an afternoon breeze. Life is not about the accumulation of success and worldly accomplishments for our inherent value lies in the fact that we are sons and daughter of God and called to something much greater, much firmer, and much more lasting than gathering up fleeting droplets of esteem that neither quench our thirst, nor satisfy our hunger. The ultimate aim of the Christian life is union with God that is achieved through His grace and our obedience to His life-giving commandments. Material success and accomplishments are certainly not smart goals for Christians with their chief aim in mind. Christians recall the words of the foolish rich man who met with material success, “soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years…, but God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee” (Luke 12:20). They recall the words of Father Abraham to the rich man, “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented” (Luke 16:25). And those “with eyes to see and ears to hear” conclude that success and failure, winning and losing, are not about what one accomplishes, but who one becomes. The Christian is called to become the salt of the earth, a source of living water, and the light of the world. Salt, water, and light season, refresh, enlighten by virtue of what they are, not what they produce. And so does the Christian.

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