Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw have provided the Christian with a very helpful distinction of commitments.1 The best way to understand it is to think of an example:
To be a great athlete, a competitor must make two kinds of commitments. The first kind of commitment involves the attainment of certain quantifiable goals, which demand a set of actions that are calculated ahead of time. For example, he may adopt a weightlifting regimen that will allow him to, with time, be able to bench press a certain weight. When he commits to being able to lift a certain amount of weight, he can calculate roughly how much work it will take to achieve the goal. A brief consultation with a strength and conditioning trainer could tell him all this. He knows what he’s in for.
But someone who makes the general commitment to being athletic is also choosing an ideal the attainment of which demands incalculable effort. When one commits to athleticism, he is committing to a certain kind of lifestyle, not to a particular calculation of effort. Instead, the athletic ideal shapes his life in unpredictable ways. While the athletic life involves a bunch of calculable goals (lifting more weight, running the 40-yard-dash in a shorter time, etc.), there’s no moment when the athlete can say, “I’ve completed all the tasks required to be a great athlete, and so now I’m done.” If he said something like this, he would be withdrawing from the pursuit of the ideal to which he has committed himself.
And, as Grisez and Shaw helpfully point out, this distinction between two different kinds of goals is applicable for all areas of life. Consider an example of theirs:
Marriage provides one of the very best examples of commitment. People often say jokingly—or not so jokingly—of marriage, “I didn’t know what I was getting into.” Joking aside, however, they are entirely right. No one does know what he is getting into when he makes such a commitment, for the simple but profound reason that it is absolutely impossible to foresee (that is, to calculate) all the actions that will be required in living out and living up to the commitment. No one can know what, in practical terms, the experience will be until he has gone through it.2
Like marriage, one’s commitment to Christ certainly falls into the second category of commitment. Surely this is why our relationship to Christ is compared to a marriage (Ephesians 5:22-33; Revelation 21:2, 9-10), and why we are called living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2). We are to be willing to give up absolutely everything for the Lord, even if we don’t actually have to sacrifice everything (Revelation 2:10). (In a sense we do give up everything, as we detach ourselves from selfish dependence on our resources and dedicate them to the Lord’s use.)
Children must be trained to make open-ended, incalculable commitments. We must help them see the long view of commitments to education, service, obedience, and virtue. My experience suggests that young people are accustomed primarily to the first kind of commitments, i.e., those associated with task-oriented, short-term projects. As they complete such tasks, they must become accustomed to thinking of their lives as a collection of long-term commitments that involve becoming a certain kind of person, and are all subordinated to the primary objective of pleasing God.