Annual Planning with the Ten Commandments

By Joe Holland    |    December 26, 2022


December is for the next year’s planning, or so many of us think. No one plans the next year in November. And no one plans for the next year once it has begun (i.e., in January). But is that the best time to plan for such a large chunk of our lives, a whole twelve months? I suppose it is inconsequential since yearly planning seldom occurs outside of the time-honored month designated as the twelfth.

The lean and pull to planning in December relates to how we account for time in twelve months, somewhat related to the seasons. A full description of how all this works out is beyond the scope of what I’m trying to cover in this brief essay. But I’ll say in broad and sweeping (and potentially reckless terms) that the reason we plan in December is that we’re trying to make sense of reality—a reality segmented into batches, batches that end and begin and begin again. But that leads to some honest introspection as to whether December is the best time exactly to make sense of the reality of time.

When we’re honest with ourselves, December is really difficult. If you’re a pastor, this is obvious. Whatever you did for Thanksgiving is in the rear-view mirror faster than deacons resign before the mission conference. And now you have to prepare for a Christmas Eve service, Christmas morning service, and whatever else falls in between. Adding to this, the bulk of your crisis counseling will happen between December and February. There are reasons for this,1 but again, they are outside the scope of this brief essay. Scheduling and people’s problems are enough to prove the point that December is difficult.

And if you’re not a pastor, the same truth controls. December is hard. You’ve said goodbye to Thanksgiving. And now you’re staring down Christmas (and New Year) with all of their requisite family gatherings, and joys, and dramas, and memories, and uncle Jack staying longer than expected with his whittling kit setup in your living room—wood shavings on the carpet and all. You get the point. December has a bit of psychic trauma attached to it. So, I know what we’ll do; we’ll sit in the middle of it and plan for the next year. What could go wrong? Could I suggest that December isn’t the greatest time to plan for anything, and yet that is precisely what we need to do? There could be a better way.

Enter the Decalogue as Real

There is a better way. When God’s people left Egypt, God buried the greatest military might of that generation under a few metric tons of Red Sea water. You can imagine the elation and fear of the Israelites—this is awesome; how do we avoid a watery grave? The answer was clearly God’s grace because the Israelites hadn’t done anything to be saved except to be in slavery and be favored by God. But God, following that deliverance, provided a Decalogue—ten words that would forever shape the world’s understanding of reality.

And I mean that; the Ten Commandments shape reality. They summarize everything we could and should consider about God and the world he created for us to live in. They aren’t just ten suggestions. They aren’t just the most important ten things. They are the only important ten things. They are an outline of reality.

The Positive in the Negative

I always have to address this whenever I say things like I’ve said so far. The Ten Commandments, in their negatives, also include their positives. What I mean by that is that the Decalogue is mostly “thou shalt not.” But for each “thou shalt not,” there is a “thou shalt” included. And for the minority “thou shalt” among the Decalogue, there is included the negative “thou shalt not.” So, when God says, “don’t murder,” he also says, “protect life at all costs.” When God says to rest on the seventh day, he also says don’t rest on the other six.2

We see this clearly in the teaching of Jesus. When the Jewish teachers came to test Jesus, they asked him to summarize the Ten Commandments (Matt. 22:34–40). He might have responded with negatives: don’t offend God and don’t do anything terrible to your neighbors. Instead, he responds positively: love the Lord your God and love your neighbor. Interestingly, the Jewish teachers respond approvingly, showing that they shared this view of the law, that the negative and positive were interchangeable aspects of the same commandment.

The Whole in Sum

Confessional theologians have written for centuries on this topic that the Ten Commandments provide, in sum, the whole of all there is to know of the duty God requires of men. I know we’ve wandered a bit far from annual planning, but I do have a point. And the point is this: when God summarizes the whole duty of man, he is also defining reality. When the whirlwind of December depends upon us, all blustery about our ears, we aren’t left to wonder if there is any other way. When our context speaks certain things to us that may or may not be true, we actually do have a way of discerning the signal from the noise.

Plan for the next year by strolling through the Ten Commandments.”

—Joe Holland

The Ten Commandments, not often associated with annual project planning, actually are a reliable guide for what is real. God actually did segment the potential thematic elements of all we will face, and he did it on tablets of stone. So the Decalogue serves us as a way to put our feet on a firm foundation when other factors try to convince us that life is a chaotic mess.

Planning with the Decalogue

So this is my encouragement to you. Plan for the next year by strolling through the Ten Commandments. Now, this is not to disregard general revelation. In my training as a project manager and work as a leadership coach, I can attest to the power of reverse engineering, developing user stories, SMART goals, and KPIs. There are some basic practices that are helpful.3 But, if, as we’ve said, planning takes an objective view of reality and the context of December is rather discombobulating, why not use God’s description of reality—the Decalogue—as a guide?

Here is how that might go:

  1. Don’t worship other gods. Are you prioritizing worship in 2023? How can you better attend to the means of grace? Where does your church need help, help that you can provide? Were you able to give beyond a basic 10% tithe? Plan to grow in your worship.
  2. Don’t make a graven image. This commandment certainly means that you shouldn’t build idols in your home (or tear them down if you have). But it also governs all of our use of creation. Do you use all of your belongings, all of your physical self to glorify God? Are there any ways that you’re using creation in idolatrous ways (addictions, unhealthy behavior, etc.)?
  3. Don’t take God’s name in vain. Again, simple obedience would be to honor God’s name. But this command covers more than that. It covers our whole use of human language. How can you use language better to glorify God this year? Do you sing and pray to God regularly? Do you use cutting or harsh words towards others? What are your language goals for 2023?
  4. Honor the Sabbath Day. If you don’t rest for 24 hours, start. If you don’t work hard for the other six, start. But more than just that, the fourth commandment covers our use of all time (Eph. 5:16). If you struggle with laziness or overwork, make a plan to repent of these sins and walk in new obedience to the Lord in 2023.
  5. Honor your father and mother. This involves the reverence due to your actual parents but also the due observance and honor to all authorities. What civic goals might you have for 2023? Serve on the city council or the HOA? What about honoring your boss, who may or may not deserve it?
  6. Don’t murder. This includes addressing any hatred you may harbor toward others. It also includes working as hard as possible for your health and the health of others. Yes, fitness goals for 2023 fall under the sixth commandment. Also, don’t kill anybody.
  7. Don’t commit adultery. This includes avoiding sexual sin of all kinds as well as working to fortify your and others’ marriages. What are some ways you hope your marriage will be stronger in 2023? How could you encourage others to pursue stronger marriages?
  8. Don’t steal. Stop shoplifting. But also . . . do your taxes with integrity, create a family budget, stop frivolous spending, work hard at your vocation (or find a new one), and commit to other practices that lend toward fiscal health and the financial peace of others.
  9. Don’t lie. How can you practice better truth-telling in 2023? Are you in a job that regularly asks you to make unethical decisions? Purpose to get a new job in 2023. Is there conflict you’re avoiding because you don’t want to tell someone the truth? Purpose to sit down and have the conversation(s) you need to have.
  10. Don’t covet. Delete all your social media. Ok, I’m kidding, kind of. Are there any habits or indulgences in media that tempt you to covetousness? Cut them off. Are you forming relationships that encourage you to contentment? Do you have a family budget that you live by (see also the sixth commandment)?

This is a very cursory and (at times) shallow application of the Decalogue to annual planning. I offer examples only for you to get a sense of what I’m proposing. Maybe after running through each commandment, you notice a theme emerging, and that becomes your focus for 2023. No matter how you spend it, by God’s design, 2023 will be governed by his moral law, summarized in his Ten Commandments. If you’re going to plan, why not do it in light of divine reality?

  1. A few of them included the increase in debt, substance abuse, and family drama in late Thanksgiving through mid-January.
  2. For more on this, I recommend you read the section of the Westminster Larger Catechism that deals with the Ten Commandments.
  3. I believe all these practices are either principles deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence (WCF I.VI) or are explicitly in the book of Proverbs.
Joe Holland

Joe Holland is professor of Christian ministry and academic dean for Grimké College. He also serves as managing editor for Grimké Seminary and College.

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