What is Excellence?

I’m thinking about excellence these days. Some time ago I posted the opinion over at Charis Connection, which I still hold, that some Christian authors should slow down a little, in order to pay more attention to craftsmanship and creativity, or to put it another way, in order to do more excellent work. This advice applies to every Christian who rushes through life unnecessarily.

The quality of our work reflects on Christ; it’s just that simple.

Paul makes this clear in several places, such as here and here. Our work, like our lives, must be excellent, so unbelievers will see it and praise our Father in heaven.

But excellence in some kinds of work demands speed. In fact, wherever profit is considered, work is usually gauged not only on the elegance or consistency or correctness of our work, but also on how quickly it is done. “Time is money” as they say. Other work must be done quickly because the nature of the work demands split second decisions. This means we can’t say slowing down to pay attention to craftsmanship and creativity is a certain path to excellence. Often excellence is achieved through a proper compromise between quality and other important considerations. So what exactly do we mean by that word, "excellence"?

According to the Bible, the answer has to do with results. More than anything, that is how God judges excellence. We see this in the parable of the talents. We see it in the numerous exhortations to “bear fruit.” When Paul compares a life well lived to an Olympic athlete racing for the prize, it is fair to assume he means first prize. God cares about results.

If a senior pastor of a church felt called to start more new outreaches and ministries than anyone else in town, how would his work be judged? By the effectiveness of those outreaches and ministries, right? Did unbelievers move closer to Christ? Did unbelievers trust in Christ? Did Christians grow in Christ? Those are the kinds of results-oriented questions one would ask to determine if a pastor is doing his work with excellence, or not. As Christians, all of us are called to minister among the people God has placed in our lives just as surely as any pastor ever was, so we should gauge the excellence of our lives by asking similar results-oriented questions.

We are not always allowed to know the results of our lives, but the results still matter to God. There is a famous story about a person who served as a missionary all of his life in a small village somewhere (China, I think) and died, believing he had failed because few if any of the people in his field had trusted Christ. But when his replacement came, people trusted Christ by the hundreds because of the example this “failure” set, both through the excellent way he served as a missionary (which got the people watching) and just as importantly, through the way he died. So while this missionary never knew his excellent work yielded results, it was still measured in results. Again, many of us will never know the full results of our work in this life, but we must still live with the ever-present knowledge that our results will be judged by a Master who has invested a gift in us, who expects a return on His investment, and who knows exactly what our results were. If we grant that idea the serious attention it warrants, we will not fail to do our very best in all that is required of us.

This does not mean God views excellence as a matter of big numbers. He does not. Notice in the parable of the talents that there are two servants who fail to earn as much as the one who gains a five talent return on the Master’s investment, but only the servant who does not put his talent to work is called “wicked”. The other servant, who gained only two talents instead of five, is given exactly the same praise as the one who gained five, because in the Master’s eyes he did just as well. The servant who was given five talents doubled the Master’s investment, and so it was with the servant who was only given two, and whether the gain was five or only two, in the Master’s eyes, both were equally praiseworthy. From this we learn that excellence is defined as getting the best results within the circumstances God has given.

There is another kind of result to consider. That is the result in us. We’ve all seen high profile pastors lately who showed impressive results in terms of the numbers, led thousands to Christ and enriched the spiritual lives of thousands of believers, but ended up as failures spiritually. It’s hard to believe God would call their efforts “excellent.” Imagine how Jesus’ parable would go if we added a fourth servant, who used his talents to return a hundred times the Master’s investment instead of only double, but did that by investing in some dishonest scheme. God expects his people to work the fields for the right reason, and in the right way. Many people care about the excellence of their work mainly because they want bragging rights. God wants us to care because of Him, and Him alone. Then He will have the bragging rights, about us. This means another hallmark of excellence in God’s eyes is the spiritual growth and prosperity of those who do the work, because in God’s eyes, we too are a result.

So…should some of us slow down to do better work, or not? It seems very possible God wants many Christians to give more conscious attention to the craftsmanship and creativity in what we do, be it a job, a life role as a parent or spouse, or even just while enjoying a hobby. But if so, surely it is not for the sake of craftsmanship or creativity, since those are merely means to an end, and are not results in themselves. The real issue when we think about the pursuit of excellence in any part of our lives is better addressed by prayerful reflection on questions like these:

  • Have I balanced this thing I want to do properly to accommodate my other obligations?
  • Have I balanced my other obligations properly to accommodate this thing I must do?
  • Am I focused on delivering the kind of results the Lord demands from me in particular?
  • Have I fully used every gift and resource God has given me in pursuit of the results He demands?
  • Does this part of life draw me closer to the Lord, or push me further away?
  • And above all: am I focused on results for the Lord’s sake, alone?
I am convinced to the extent that we can answer “Yes” to each of these questions, our work, and our lives, will be deemed excellent by God.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:56 AM  

4 comments:

Jennifer L. Griffith said... September 27, 2007 at 10:13 PM  

Nice post. I agree, I agree!!

Blessings on your journey for excellence.

Kay said... September 29, 2007 at 7:18 AM  

You are talking about something God has been talking to me about. It is hard to excell at anything you are not intentional about.
I can parent by the seat of my pants. Or I can be intentional in how I parent.
Same with my spiritual walk, writing, reading, anything really.

gb said... September 29, 2007 at 8:02 AM  

Wonderfully explored.

I frequently challenge artists of all mediums to "Create Intentionally". Developing a sense of clearly defined purposefullness seems to focus one's attention on the quality of the process and the final product... and to the degree possible, helps to determine whether an objective has been effectively achieved. Creating with intention takes us from the realm of frivolous or careless or even repetitious manufacturing of "something" (work product) to having to actually think about the "why's" of what it is we are doing or attempting. Once we define that, then only the best we have within us is sufficient; makes it worth the effort.

This issue of excellance also brings us back to the age old issues of Freedom and Form and requires of us, high attention to both.

Thanks, Athol.
Gary

Athol Dickson said... September 29, 2007 at 12:15 PM  

Kay and Gary, I love your perspectives on being intentional as that relates to excellence in Christian living. It seems to me behind what you're saying is a reminder that we are to love the Lord our God with all of our minds, which means our minds cannot be put in neutral when we enter church, a Bible study, or whatever. God LOVES an honest question.
Great thoughts. Thanks!

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