2008 was a tough year.

When a dean retired at one of our colleges, I was asked to fill in temporarily. This was in addition to my own full-time position. At the same time, I was trying to finish my doctoral dissertation, serving as vice-chair of my local church board, and spearheading an anti-poverty group. Oh, and I was trying my best to be a good husband and father.

It wasn’t too long before I was at my wits end. But I soon recalled sage advice from a former professor. Years prior, he kindly suggested I needed to practice “holy ruthlessness.”

A clarifying question is at the center: What had God called me to do? Not what I wanted to do, but what was God leading me to do? That is the “holy” part. If God calls me to something, it is sacred. That means it has priority. For me, my family and dissertation were those things. The whirlwind of my jobs was there, but finishing my dissertation was paramount to my vocational calling.

So what was the “ruthless” part? Once I identified the sacred, I did everything in my power to protect God’s calling. Something had to give. I made hard choices. I stepped down from extra leadership responsibilities and anything that was not immediately necessary to my calling. But not everyone understood my choices—and that was ruthless.

It felt like I was being ruthless, uncaring, and self-centered with others. I worried someone would be irritated or inconvenienced when I said no and set boundaries. That did happen. But I learned it didn’t matter; I was focused on what God had called me to do in that particular season. It is holy because it is a sacred task; it is ruthless because others may not understand. This gave me freedom to finish my most sacred tasks.

Is God calling you to practice holy ruthlessness? What should you relinquish control of that will allow you to focus on what God has called you to do? If God has called you, he will provide a way through. But you may need to make some difficult choices.