“A” is for excellence. We live in a society that adores excellence. Valedictorians rule, as do Super Bowl winners, Nobel prize winners, state champions, Academy award winners, billionaires, and so on. These are the cream of the crop. Excellence, of course, has many levels. An excellent first-grade swimmer is no Michael Phelps, nor is a local class valedictorian an Einstein.
Excellence brings with it many virtues. An excellent nurse gives premium service to her patients and an excellent musician is a joy to our ears. Excellence has also opened many doors for human advancement in fields like medicine, psychology, nutrition, and technology – advances from which we all benefit.
So you may be surprised to hear what I’m going to say next: despite all the advantages of excellence, it also has a down-side. The downside is not the excellence itself. God Himself is excellent beyond all excellence. My purpose is in this article/broadcast is not to discourage excellence, but to help us keep it in healthy perspective. If it is misused, excellence, like any of God’s good gifts, can actually become a hindrance to our spiritual life rather than an aid.
How can we misuse the concept of excellence?
1. We misuse excellence when we bestow exaggerated value on the elite few
The word “excellence” has in it the word “excel”. What this means is that, in order to be excellent, one must be better at something than the great majority of others who pursue the same activity. In other words, only a few will end up being labelled “excellent”, otherwise the concept loses its basic meaning. That’s fine, in itself, but it often leads to giving exaggerated affirmation and value to the top few, the “stars” while treating those who are more normal as less important, less valued people. Is that actually true, though? Is a top student or athlete instrinsically a more worthwhile person than an average one?
2. We misuse excellence when we exalt certain types of excellence over others
Who gets more praise and honor, the school’s star quarterback or the kindest kid in the school? The billionaire or an excellent mother? Certain categories matter far more in our society than others. Should they? Are we exalting the most important areas of achievement or playing them down? More on that in a moment.
3. We misuse excellence when we emphasize giftedness over effort
While it’s great to be born with special abilities, whether athletic, intellectual, musical, etc., this is just a gift of God’s genetic lottery. Others may struggle to do what comes easily to us. If our natural giftedness is over-emphasized there may be two negative consequences. First, we may feel pride for that for which we don’t deserve credit, that is, our raw God-given abilities, and second, we may be content with a half-effort, since that’s all it takes to get praise. We can exceed others without really trying. That’s sad, since, in the end, we may settle for merely being good when we have the potential to be great.
4. We misuse excellence when we allow excellence in one area to overshadow our mediocrity in others
Is it worth being top-notch in your field if you’re gone so much that your marriage falls apart or your children seldom see you? Is it worth getting rich if you sacrifice your morals to do it or neglect your relationship with God? Does getting an “A” in one area justify getting “D’s” or “F’s” in others? Often, this is what excellence requires, even demands. A balanced life may be nearly impossible to reach the highest levels. Is it worth it? The world around us sees only our excellence, but usually has little idea what it might have cost us and others to achieve it.
5. We misuse excellence when we fail to appreciate anything less
It’s one thing appreciate excellence, it’s another thing to make it a requirement for our appreciation. Our children will not all get straight “A’s” or make the varsity or play the piano extremely well. Can we still enjoy them and praise them for their efforts? What about the average people we encounter every day? Can we savor them as they are or are we unmoved by anything that’s not up to our high standards? I’ve sometimes struggled with this as a preacher when I listen to another preacher, critiquing him, and losing the blessing because he didn’t do everything right in my opinion.
6. We misuse excellence when we make it a requirement standard in our churches
While I realize that some giftedness and skills are required for various ministries – don’t have a tone-deaf person sing solos – it’s also easy to turn church into show-time; to set a very high performance standard. Only the best need apply. This is especially true in mega-churches. First of all, this isn’t realistic in many smaller churches. We must choose the best we have even if they’re not excellent. Second, the Spirit of God can, and often does use less than excellent efforts. The original disciples were unpolished, but powerful in the Spirit. They knew Jesus and that’s what mattered. This leads to my last, and actually most important point:
7. We misuse excellence when we mistake it for God’s universal standard
When God judges our lives someday, will the best musicians receive more reward than the lesser ones? Will the most brilliant Bible scholars gain greater approval than the average ones? In other words, is excellence God’s top standard for approval? The answer is “No”. While the Bible may occasionally note excellence, in passing, (Solomon’s genius, for example), nowhere is excellence particularly exalted. In His wisdom, God does not dole out giftedness equally, nor provide each person the optimal circumstances for developing those gifts. Some are naturally bright, while others are not. Some have the money, time, and encouragement to develop their gifts, while others must put all their effort into subsistence living. Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “7 For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”
What God is primarily looking for is not excellence of result. What He rewards most is excellence of effort; in other words, doing our best with what we have. We’re told, in Colossians 3:23: “23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men,” Notice also that our best effort is meant to be combined with the proper motivation – “as working for the Lord, not for men”. This means that we’re seeking to glorify God and accomplish His will and not simply to achieve our potential. What an exciting standard! It allows any of us to be excellent in God’s sight. A Down’s syndrome person may, in the end, be more excellent to God than a first-level genius. A modestly gifted musician may please God more than a Grammy award winner. All it takes is all we have. Let’s explore what that might mean next time.