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A Strong Desire Toward Excellence: “Good enough” is not good enough

18 Oct

In keeping with the biblical goal of spiritual growth and greater levels of maturity, we often find in Scripture the call to abound or excel in Christian character, especially in the various ways we can express love to one another. Spiritual maturity is a quest for character for which there will be little progress without the pursuit of excellence.

Without pursuing excellence, life will remain bland, very vanilla, lukewarm at best (see Rev. 3:15-16). The quest for excellence fuels our fire and keeps us from just drifting downstream gathering debris. This focus and need becomes quickly evident from the following verses.

Hebrews 13:5 (230 kb)(Ecclesiastes 9:10)  Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

 (1 Corinthians 10:31)  So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

 (2 Corinthians 8:7)  But just as you excel in everything–in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us –see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

 (Philippians 1:9-10)  And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, {10} so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ,

 (1 Thessalonians 3:12)  May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.

 (1 Thessalonians 4:1)  Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.

 (1 Thessalonians 4:10)  And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.

From these verses, it should be clear that God wants His people to abound or excel in both what they are (inward character) and in what they do (behavior or good deeds). It would seem obvious that there is simply no way one can love God with all his heart (Matt. 23:37) without seeking to do his or her best to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

Since that is so, the pursuit of excellence is both a goal and a mark of spiritual maturity. However, for this to be true, the pursuit of excellence must be motivated by the right values, priorities, and motives. If we go astray here, the pursuit of excellence can quickly become a mark of immaturity and just another result of man’s obsession with his own significance, which, as mentioned previously, is a perilous pursuit.

It is known that Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s interviews were legendary and one of the reasons is he always wanted to cut through the glib and rehearsed answers to get a look at the person underneath. He especially wanted to know how candidates would act under stress. On occasion he had them sit in a chair with the front legs sawed off an inch or two shorter than the back, to keep them off-balance. In his autobiography Why Not the Best?, President Jimmy Carter tells about his Rickover interview.

The admiral asked how he had stood in his class at the NavalAcademy. “I swelled my chest with pride and answered, ‘Sir, I stood 59th in a class of 820!’ I sat back to wait for the congratulations. Instead came the question: ‘Did you do your best?’ I started to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ but I remembered who this was. I gulped and admitted, ‘No, sir, I didn’t always do my best.’ He looked at me for a long time, and then asked one final question, which I have never been able to forget—or to answer. He said, ‘Why not?”[1]

Because of who Christians are in Christ, because of our eternal hope, and because of the enabling grace of God available to all believers in Christ,  seeking to do our best and choosing what is best is part of God’s will and an evidence of genuine spiritual growth and maturity. However, there is one distinction that needs to be stressed up front.

As Edwin Bliss once said, “The pursuit of excellence is gratifying and healthy. The pursuit of perfection is frustrating, neurotic, and a terrible waste of time.”[2] As finite human beings, none of us ever arrive, as they say, and there will always be room for growth and improvement.

(Philippians 3:12-14)  “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. {13} Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, {14} I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

While this reality should never promote negligence or apathy or slothfulness, and while we should seek to grow, mature, and do our best, understanding this reality should help us all relax and rejoice in the Lord.

Pursuing Excellence is not to be a Quest for Superiority

In the first definition in The American Heritage Dictionary, excellence is defined as “The state, quality, or condition of excelling; superiority.[3] The word excel is defined as, “to do or be better than; surpass; to show superiority, surpass others.” Then under the word excel, the following terms are listed and explained as synonyms for excel.

The words excel, surpass, exceed, transcend, outdo, outstrip all suggest the concept of  going beyond a limit or standard.

To excel is to be preeminent (excels at figure skating) or to be or perform at a level higher than that of another or others (excelled her father as a lawyer).

To surpass another is to be superior in performance, quality, or degree: is surpassed by few as a debater; happiness that surpassed description.

Exceed can refer to being superior, as in quality (an invention that exceeds all others in ingenuity), to being greater than another, as in degree or quantity (a salary exceeding 50 thousand dollars a year), and to going beyond a proper limit (exceed one’s authority; exceed a speed limit).

Transcend often implies the attainment of a level so high that comparison is hardly possible: Great art transcends mere rules of composition.

To outdo is to excel in doing or performing: didn’t want to be outdone in generosity.

Outstrip is often interchangeable with outdo but strongly suggests leaving another behind, as in a contest: It is a case of the student outstripping the teacher.[4]

Competition or being better than others is a prominent part of the above definitions. But when we think of the pursuit of excellence from a biblical standpoint, is that what is meant? No! As the above terms and their explanations suggest, those who approach or look at life from the viewpoint of the world typically think in terms of competition, of outstripping others, but such is usually done for one’s own glory or significance or for the praise or applause of men.

Brian Harbour picks up on this issue in Rising Above the Crowd: “Success means being the best. Excellence means being your best. Success, to many, means being better than everyone else. Excellence means being better tomorrow than you were yesterday. Success means exceeding the achievements of other people. Excellence means matching your practice with your potential.”[5]

Gene Stallings tells of an incident when he was defensive backfield coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Two All-Pro players, Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris, were sitting in front of their lockers after playing a tough game against the Washington Redskins. They were still in their uniforms, and their heads were bowed in exhaustion. Waters said to Harris, “By the way Cliff, what was the final score?”[6]

As these men illustrate, excellence isn’t determined by comparing our score or performance to someone else’s. The pursuit of excellence comes from doing our best with what we have to God’s glory and with a view to growing and improving, but not with a view to the score or who is watching from man’s standpoint.

So then, biblically speaking, the pursuit of excellence refers to pursuing and doing the best we can with the gifts and abilities God gives, giving our best to the glory of God. But ideally, it is done without the spirit of competition or seeking to excel simply to be better than others.

Excellence includes doing common, everyday things, but in very uncommon ways regardless of whether people are watching. The reality is that God sees our work and rewards us accordingly (1 Corinthians 15:58)  “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”).

Pursuing Excellence Is a Matter of Choosing the Best

The pursuit of excellence is never a matter of simply choosing between what is good or bad, but of choosing what is best or superior because it will better enable us to accomplish what God has designed us to be and do (Ephesians 2:10)  “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

 (Philippians 1:9)  “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,”).

In keeping with the fact that all believers are to abound or excel in the expression of Christian love, the apostle prayed that the Philippians my have greater knowledge and every kind of discernment. But in order to excel in love and wisely express it, they needed to be able “to approve the things that are excellent” (NASB) or choose what is best (my translation).

The term “approve” or “choose” is the Greek dokimazo„, which carries two ideas. First, it means “to put to the test, examine,” and then as a result of the examination or testing, “to approve, make the right choice.” Through the values and priorities that come from the knowledge of God’s Word, we are to examine and test, and then choose accordingly.

What is to be chosen is explained by the words “the things that are excellent” (NASB) or “what is best” (NET). The Greek word here is a present neuter participle from diaphero„, which means in this context, “the things differing, but in accordance with what is best,” i.e., the best or what is excellent.

The pursuit of excellence from a biblical world view is always connected with the issue of God’s values and priorities. This means the pursuit of  excellence must include the elimination of some things even though they may be good and legitimate. The principle is are they the best and will they get in the way or hinder the main objectives of a Christian’s life based on biblical principles and values? If so, they need to be eliminated.

We see this truth in Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify” (see also 1 Cor. 6:12).  Just because they are legitimate does not mean they should be chosen or pursued.

Film-maker Walt Disney was ruthless in cutting anything that got in the way of a story’s pacing. Ward Kimball, one of the animators for Snow White, recalls working 240 days on a 4-1/2 minute sequence in which the dwarfs made soup for Snow White and almost destroyed the kitchen in the process. Disney thought it funny, but he decided the scene stopped the flow of the picture, so out it went.

When the film of our lives is shown, will it be as great as it might be? A lot will depend on the multitude of ‘good’ things we decided to eliminate to make way for the great things God wants to do through us.[8]

 Pursuing Excellence is an All-Inclusive Pursuit

Whatever your hand finds to do, verily, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going (Eccl. 9:10).

Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

Both of these passages point us to the all-inclusive nature of the pursuit of excellence. The words, “whatever your hand finds to do” and “whatever you do” point to the importance of doing our very best in everything we do.

The preacher of Ecclesiastes teaches us that apart from faith in God and living one’s life for Him, life is empty and futile. But this does not mean that men should therefore have a supine attitude by which one simply drifts along since nothing really matters because it does. Life is full of opportunities and there is work to be done.

This means that the strength and abilities we have are to be used to take advantage of the opportunities God gives us as they lie in the scope of our gifts, strength, His leading, and our responsibilities.

Besides encouraging his readers to enjoy life as God enabled them, Solomon also encouraged them to work diligently. The idiom whatever your hand finds to do means “whatever you are able to do” (cf. 1 Sam. 10:7).[9]

If it is a task worth doing, it is a task worth doing right and diligently.

Perhaps it might be worthwhile to make a list of as many areas as we can think of where the pursuit of excellence should touch and change our lives. Be specific! Are there any areas or tasks that I have not really taken seriously and I need to work on? Scripture says, “whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). This would mean our occupation, ministries, family, hobbies, recreation, etc.

Pursuing Excellence Is a Matter of a Whole-Hearted Endeavor

Whatever your hand finds to do, verily, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going (Eccl. 9:10).

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!  “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deut. 6:4-5).

Jesus said to him, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment (Matt. 23:37-38).

These three passages also point us to the importance of whole-hearted endeavor in whatever we do as Christians. But even more basic than that, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Matthew 23:37 teach us that pursuing excellence is a matter of the heart, of the inner person and proceeds from a inner faith/relationship with God. Scripture clearly teaches the real issues of life are spiritual and are really matters of the heart, the inner man.

Maybe it’s for this reason the word “heart” is found 802 times in the NASB, 830 in the KJV, 837 in the NKJV and 570 in the NIV. Heart is one of the most commonly used words of the Bible and  most of these occurrences are used metaphorically of the inner person.

When so used, they refer to either the mind, the emotions, the will, to the sinful nature, or inclusively to the total inner person. Thus, the term heart speaks of the inner person and the spiritual life as the seat and center of all that proceeds from a person’s life. Like the physical pump, the spiritual heart is central and vital to who we are and how we live.

Both Solomon and the Lord Jesus teach us that the issues of life proceed from the heart (Pr. 4:23; Matt. 6:21; 12:34; 15:18). What we do in word and deed is first of all a product of what we are on the inside from the standpoint of what we truly believe and how we think.

This is easily illustrated by the Lord Jesus in His teaching in the sermon on the mount. There He spoke strongly against the mere external and performance-oriented hypocrisy of the religious Pharisees. Importantly, in Matthew 5:17-48, no less than six times, He contrasted the external teaching of the Pharisees with His own teaching which stressed the inner life. Note the following statements:

· “You have heard … but I say to you …” (vss. 21-22)

· “You have heard … but I say to you …” (vss. 27-28)

· “It was said … but I say to you …” (vss. 31-32)

·  “You have heard … but I say to you …” (vss. 33-34)

·         “You have heard … but I say to you …” (vss. 38-38)

·         “You have heard … but I say to you …” (vss. 43-44)

What was the Lord seeking to communicate? He was reminding the people of the moral precepts they had been taught by their religious leaders for years, precepts which often had their source in the Old Testament Scriptures.

But then, with the words, “but I say to you,” He addressed those same issues again as being first and foremost matters of the heart. This and only this is authentic Christianity and reveals an intimate walk with God by faith. Anything else is nothing more than religious hypocrisy and will fail to pursue excellence, at least from the right motives.

Because of the central place and importance of the heart in all we do, which naturally includes the pursuit of excellence, it would be well to think a moment about some issues concerning the heart as it applies to doing our best for the glory of the Lord.[10] By itself, the heart is not a safe haven. It needs guarding or protection from invasion by the world system around us and from the sinful nature that dwells within us.

In Proverbs 4:23, Solomon wrote, “More than any act of guarding, guard your heart, for from it are the sources of life” (NET).

The heart needs special care because the heart, which includes the mind, the emotions, and will, is the place where we deposit the knowledge of God or biblical wisdom; it is the place of our values (Matt. 6:21) and priorities and where vital choices are made. Thus, it becomes the wellspring, the source of whatever affects life and character (see Mt 12:35; 15:19).

Chuck Swindoll has a good word here: ”Relentlessly, we struggle for survival, knowing that any one of those strikes can hit the target and spread poison that can immobilize and paralyze, rendering us ineffective. And what exactly is that target? The heart. That’s what the Bible calls it. Our inner person. Down deep, where hope is born, where decisions are made, where commitment is strengthened, where truth is stored, mainly where character (the stuff that gives us depth and makes us wise) is formed. . .

“The quest for character requires that certain things be kept in the heart as well as kept from the heart. An unguarded heart spells disaster. A well-guarded heart means survival. If you hope to survive the jungle, overcoming each treacherous attack, you’ll have to guard your heart.”[11]

Indeed, the heart needs guarding. We need to place a sentinel over the heart because it is the storehouse for the treasures that lead to the formation of Christ-like character. But these treasure can be stolen by the variegated deceptions and temptations of Satan who seeks to seduce us to pursue the lust patterns of destruction like power, prestige, pleasure, possessions, fortune and fame and always at the expense of the pursuit of excellence and godly character.

In keeping with the idea of excelling, the pursuit of excellence naturally works against a half-hearted, drift along or go-with-the-flow kind of mentality. As Ecclesiastes 9:10 shows, to do our best requires doing it with all our might.

In keeping with the rest of Scripture, this means “with all the ability and strength that God gives us.” And, as Matthew 23:37 and Deuteronomy 6:5 teach us, pursuing excellence is a matter of giving the whole heart. But this does not mean there is no place for leisure or rest and relaxation.

A certain amount of rest and relaxation is essential to our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. It is not only okay to relax, but it is essential as long as it is kept in the scheme of its purpose and not used as an excuse for laziness and irresponsibility. The goal is to enhance our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Strangely, however, in our workaholic society many people, and this include a lot of Christians, get their sense of identity and significance from work and a busy schedule. They often give their all, but for selfish reasons—the pursuit of position, praise, or significance. Some Christians even promote the idea that you really aren’t living for the Lord unless your are “overcommitted, hassled, grim-faced, tight-lipped believers… plowing through responsibilities like an overloaded freight train under a full head of steam…”[12]

Some would view such behavior as a sign of pursuing excellence when in reality, it can become a hindrance because of the debilitating impact on one’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing.

Swindoll writes: ”Strangely, the one thing we need is often the last thing we consider. We’ve been programmed to think that fatigue is next to godliness. That the more exhausted we are (and look!), the more committed we are to spiritual things and the more we earn God’s smile of approval. We bury all thoughts of enjoying…for those who are genuinely dedicated Christians are those who work, work, work. And preferably, with great intensity. As a result, we have become a generation of people who worship our work… who work at our play… and who play at our worship.

Hold it! Who wrote that rule? Why have we bought that philosophy? Whatever possessed someone to make such a statement? How did we ever get caught in that maddening undertow?

I challenge you to support it from the Scriptures…

According to Mark 6:30-34, Jesus purposely sought relief from the hurried pace of ministering to others and advised his apostles to do the same.[13]

The pursuit of excellence will mean hard work and diligence which may take on various forms—research, study, time, sweat, planning, brainstorming for ideas, etc. It may well mean swimming against the stream and sometimes navigating the rocky and swift rapids of life. It will often be exhausting and bring us up against that which is really beyond us.

Thus, in keeping with our own shortcomings and weaknesses, the pursuit of excellence in the execution of our daily routine or special projects is something that must be pursued by God’s strength. Such a mentality can be seen in the attitude and actions of the apostle Paul.  As one totally committed to God’s purpose for his life, Paul gave his all to be all God wanted him to be in seeking to bring men to maturity in Christ, but he did so by God’s enablement rather than by his own strength.

 Colossians 1:25-29: “I became a servant of the church according to the stewardship of the grace of God—given to me for you—in order to complete the word of God,  26 that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to his saints. 27 God wanted to make known to them the glorious riches of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 We proclaim him by instructing and teaching all men with all wisdom so that we may present every man mature in Christ. 29 Toward this goal I also labor, struggling according to his power that powerfully works in me”

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2018 in Church, Encouragement

 

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