Jeremy W. Johnston
In the last post, we saw that Christians are called to pursue excellence in all areas of life. Pursuing excellence means to effectively steward the gifts and opportunities God has given to you. This brings glory to God—because he made you with certain abilities—and it shows him gratitude for making you the way he did. We also saw that the pursuit of excellence is a powerful way to love others by your excellent service to them. Lastly, pursuing excellence causes you to be more like Jesus, who is excellent in every way. In this post, we will consider some of the ways we can be excellent and some of the warnings about our pursuit of excellence.
How can I be excellent at everything?
The call to excellence may seem like a heavy burden. How can I be excellent in every area of my life? Fortunately, God is not calling us to do what he hasn’t made or empowered us to do. Excellence is working to the best of your ability in the areas and ways God has called you to. Not everyone is equally gifted, nor does everyone have the same responsibilities. Frustration comes when we try to do things we aren’t made for or meant to do. This doesn’t mean we can shirk the responsibilities we don’t like—like changing diapers or shovelling the driveway. Nor does it mean we can avoid tasks we find difficult to do, especially in the areas of the Christian call to proclaim the gospel and make disciples. There are also areas in life that the Lord challenges and stretches us. Nevertheless, God is ultimately calling us to steward the gifts and opportunities he has given specifically to us.
If God is calling us to excellence, then he is also calling us to lean on him to make it happen. In the book of Exodus, for example, the artist Bezalel was called by God to design and create beautiful and functional furnishings for the Tabernacle. The call to make art for worshipping a holy God was a call to excellence. Producing mediocre work was out of the question. God not only calls Bezalel to do excellent work, but he also empowers him to be excellent at it. In Exodus 31:1–6, we read that God filled Bezalel “with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship” for him “to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.” Although Bezalel’s call is unique in the biblical narrative, there is still an important application here for us: God not only makes each of us with specific gifts and abilities, but also empowers us to use them. Humble, prayerful dependence on the Spirit of God should always be the central pillar in your pursuit of excellence.
Not a solo act
As we depend on the Spirit of God, we also need the people of God. The Christian call to excellence is not a solo act. If you are a Christian, then you are connected to the body of Christ in your local church. The “living stones” surrounding you are there to help complement and augment your efforts in the areas you can’t do as well on your own. Married couples know firsthand how true this is! Just as husband and wife complement each other’s gifts and abilities, so too do members of the church. In the church, God provides various gifts and abilities to different people. Each member, like the parts of a human body—the eyes, ears, hands, feet—all complement and support each other. With each member functioning excellently at what they are made and gifted to do, the church can achieve more than what one member could have done on his or her own. In our hyper-individualistic culture, even Christians sometimes forget that God designed his kingdom to go forth through local communities of believers. Spirit-dependent Christians rely on God by relying on his church. God is calling you to be excellent in the areas he has equipped you, whether you are a teacher, a server, an encourager, a musician, an artist, a carpenter, a homemaker, etc.—but none of these jobs can be done in a vacuum. God is not calling you to do it all by yourself!
Excellence isn’t easy
To properly steward your gifts, you need to maximise your potential. This is why excellence isn’t easy. Even if you are gifted in certain areas, the pursuit of excellence requires practice, determination, and focus to hone your skills. Excellence also requires the hard work of designing, creating, building, and doing whatever tasks you are called to do. In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell famously popularized the “ten thousand hour rule,” which—according to several studies—is the length of time it takes for someone to master a skill or talent truly. Gladwell cites famous musicians like Mozart and the Beatles as well as famous innovators like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, all of whom spent ten thousand hours (or more) honing and practicing their craft. Excellence takes time and practice. As important as raw talent is, hard work is the fundamental ingredient for achieving excellence. For example, Gladwell cites a study by a team of psychologists led by K. Anders Ericsson. The team tracked the history and habits of successful violin players at a top music school in Berlin. By studying these musicians, they discovered the key factor that “distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.”Gladwell remarks, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”There are no short cuts to excellence.
Some words of caution: doing too much
Excellence also requires you to do less so that you can do it better. Remove the distractions. Focus your energy on the priorities God has called you to do. What are your priorities? Out of pride, we sometimes believe that God has called us to something greater than he actually has. A central call on a Christian’s life, however, is “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Too often, we feel that “ordinary” is not enough, so we neglect the simple callings in life to pursue “excellence” in grandiose ways. Our pursuit of excellence, however, should not come at the expense of excellence in our day jobs, or our marriages, or our friendships, or the small but vital areas of life, or whatever situation God has called you to. When you prioritise excellence in “impressive” areas, you reveal your true motives. Why are you doing what you are doing? Is it an idol? Are you seeking praise and glory for yourself? Are you trying to earn God’s favour? Your motive for excellence ought to be your desire to love and serve the saints and bring glory to God who made you. Writing an excellent essay at school, or teaching an excellent lesson at church, or painting an excellent portrait, or composing an excellent hymn, or cooking an excellent casserole, or cultivating an excellent garden… whatever you do, be sure your motives are focused on the right goals: bring glory to God, showing gratitude to him, offering loving service to others, and striving to be more like Christ.
John Piper has often said that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. One way we show this satisfaction is by accepting the ordinary call on our lives and being excellent in the things God has placed in our path. One of the great biblical truths recovered in the Reformation is that there is value in God’s economy for everyday work. Whatever we are doing—whether big or small—we ought to do well for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). Martin Luther especially elevated the work of ordinary people in their ordinary lives, arguing that grand service in the church is no more righteous or holy than work that is done wherever God has called you to serve. He also notes that “the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic labourer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone.”
Perfectionism versus the Most Excellent Way
Sometimes, in our pursuit of excellence, we may be tempted to strive for perfectionism—and its close cousin, idealism. We raise the standards so high that no one can do the job. We are disappointed in ourselves and others. This sort of perfectionism is rooted in pride. You think you know the best way, the only way, and you believe that “no one else can do the job right.” Paul warns that we should “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Remember that Paul also tells us that love is the most excellent way (1 Corinthians 12:31). So the pursuit of excellence is not an opportunity for “open-season” as you criticise the work of others in your church, family, school, or workplace. We ought to spur one another on in love, not nit-pick over how things could be done a lot better. Prideful perfectionism also leads to idolatry and legalism. We want to be validated by our perfect accomplishments, and we want to control the outcome. But God calls us to be validated by him alone, and he calls us to trust in him for the outcome.
Comparing yourself to others
The pursuit of excellence may also tempt us to slip into envy. The call to excellence isn’t a call to be someone else or to be better than others; it is a call to be a better you. When we envy the gifts of others, we are showing a lack of confidence in God, the one who made us the way we are. When we envy others, we are also prone to seek after roles and responsibilities we are not truly gifted or called to do. Consider the young man who aspires to be a preacher, yet he is not able to preach or teach well. It takes a very wise and loving saint to honestly tell this young man that he is not gifted in this way. Although having a desire to serve in pastoral ministry is a prerequisite, it is not the sole criterion (1Timothy 3:1–7; Titus 1:6–9). By trying to be what you are not, you will end up neglecting the areas God has actually called you to pursue excellence in. Envying other’s giftedness can put us and those close to us in a very awkward situation. Worse still, envy is a sin that we need to repent of.
Excellence for our brief sojourn
The book of Job reminds us that life is fleeting: “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not” (Job 14:1–2). There is a temptation to behave as though this life doesn’t matter at all. Why bother striving for excellence? On the contrary, the writer of Ecclesiastes argues that “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). The time we have on earth is short, and so we are called to be good stewards of this precious time given to us. All humanity will be held accountable for the brief life we lived; those who lived excellent lives in the power and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ will be honoured with robes of righteousness (Revelations 19:8) and told “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21; 1 Corinthians 4:2; Hebrews 3:5). This life matters to God, and he is interested in all the details of your life; remember that he made you and he called you to “do all to the glory of God” (Colossians 3:17).
Get Jeremy’s book, All Things New: Essays on Christianity, culture & the arts.
 Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little Brown & Company, 2008), 40
 Gladwell, Outliers, 39.
 Gladwell, Outliers, 42.
 Martin Luther, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” Three Treatises (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 202–203.