In Pursuit of Excellence: “Why We Need to Be Excellent” Part 1

Posted by: Jeremy W. Johnston

God is exceedingly excellent in every way. His character is excellent, his Word is excellent—everything he does is excellent! Surely this is why the Psalmist calls us to “praise him according to his excellent greatness” (Psalm 150:2). But if God is excellent, and Christians are called to “be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1), doesn’t that mean we should strive to be excellent at everything we do? At first glance this might seem like a terrifying thought; after all, most of us certainly aren’t excellent at everything. It shouldn’t be terrifying, however, when we realize that the pursuit of excellence is ultimately about using the gifts and opportunities God has already given to us.

Does God Really Care About Excellence in Everything We Do?

We tend to divide our lives into two spheres. There are the “spiritual concerns”—our church responsibilities, our prayer lives, our personal devotions, and our family worship. And then there are the “earthly concerns”—our jobs, our finances, our household chores, and how we use our skills and artistic talents. Too often, we are tempted to think that God is only interested in the so-called “spiritual matters.” But excellence must be pursued not only in this (very important) area of our lives, but also in our everyday relationships, how we use our talents, how we work, and even how we cut the grass. If whatever we’re doing is worth doing, it ought to be done well. 

Paul tells the Corinthians that “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Similarly, he tells the Colossians, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (Colossians 3:17). When Paul says, “whatever you do,” this includes everything God has called you to do. But how can God be glorified by the excellent filing you do at work? Or by how hard you work on your end-of-term essay? Or by the care you put into your soup for the church luncheon? The problem with this line of thinking is that it suggests that the bigger things we do are more worthy of God. But God is bigger than we can ever imagine! Throwing a ticker tape parade is no more worthy of God than humble service in the kitchen, classroom, or workplace. God is glorified whenever we pursue excellence wherever we happen to be. Christ’s likeness in us becomes plainly evident to all by the way we work in the world. 

A couple of prominent Old Testament examples underscore how God glorifies himself through excellent work—both great and small—and how he uses “excellence on the job” for his purposes. Imagine if Joseph in Egypt had done shoddy work while serving in Potiphar’s household, or while serving in prison, or as second-in-command of all of Egypt (Genesis 39–46)? Imagine if Daniel had slacked off while serving in captivity in Babylon (Daniel 2:48; 6:3)? God used the excellent work of these men to glorify himself and advance his kingdom. The same could be said about New Testament labourers like the fishing disciples (John 21:1–14), tent-making Paul (Acts 18:1–4), or entrepreneurial Lydia, the seller of purple cloth (Acts 16:14–15).

The Gospel brings the lordship of Jesus Christ over all aspects of our lives, wherever and whenever we are. Paul writes, “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him” (1 Corinthians 8:6). Jesus is Lord of all things. The Dutch apologist, Abraham Kuyper, famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole realm of human existence over which Christ does not cry, ‘That is mine!’”[1] We are called to be stewards of the time, opportunities, and abilities God has presented to us. 

Excellence and Showing the Gospel

Paul exhorts the Philippians to “let [their] manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). The immediate application Paul gives is that such a manner of life will strengthen unity among the saints. But “manner of life” encompasses every area of life. We not only ought to live godly lives before each other in the church, but also before a watching world as living testimonies of gospel-transformed people. Pursuing excellence in all we do is a testimony to the world that God is doing a mighty work in us. 

Peter urges Christians to “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles” (1 Peter 2:12, NASB). Why? “So that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Completing your tasks with excellence at the workplace glorifies God to your co-workers; caring for your gardens and lawns with excellence glorifies God to your neighbours; baking excellent cookies for a church luncheon glorifies God both to the church and to unbelieving visitors; “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). In his divine wisdom and grace, God has given us opportunities in all of our endeavours to demonstrate his gospel-transforming work in us to a watching world. He gets the glory because he made us and is continually sanctifying us by his grace. 

Serving with Excellence, Loving with Excellence, Living like Jesus

Andreas Köstenberger notes that “as committed Christian disciples, we are now expected to serve God with distinction—not because we have to, but because we want to. God is more than worthy of us giving him everything we’ve got, rather than just presuming on his grace and being satisfied with mediocrity.”[2] Paul makes this plainly clear in Colossians 3:23–24 when he writes, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” In whatever capacity we serve, if we do so with excellence, we are serving the Lord. 

Jesus is our prime example of this sort of service. In fact, serving God “with distinction” by “giving him everything we’ve got” is exactly how the New Testament describes him. For example, Jesus didn’t turn water into mediocre wine, but rather excellent wine (John 2:10). Yes, there is more here than just Jesus making excellent wine. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Jesus actually made real wine that was truly excellent. There is also a sense of excellence in the way Jesus organizes the crowds into groups (Luke 9:14), or crafts masterful sermons (Matthew 5–7), or tells compelling stories (Luke 15:11–32), or even when he neatly folds the burial shroud in the empty tomb (John 20:7). Jesus does all things well. 

Mediocrity isn’t a Virtue

It’s one thing for Jesus to be excellent in all areas of life, but isn’t the pursuit of excellence dangerous for people like us? Shouldn’t we avoid striving for excellence so we don’t fall into the prideful pursuit of man-centred praise for a “job well done”? 

The Bible does say we should be concerned about prideful and self-serving motives (Philippians 2:3; Jeremiah 9:23). It also says we should be mindful of the temptation to be people-pleasers rather than God-pleasers (Galatians 1:10; Colossians 3:22–23; Matthew 6:1). However, the way to avoid pride and people-pleasing isn’t to do a lousy job so that we have nothing to be proud of. Mediocrity is not a virtue.

Remember Jesus’ parable of the talents? What happens when the master discovers one of his servants buried his single talent out of fear. The master calls him “wicked and slothful” and “a worthless servant,” and orders that he be cast “into the outer darkness” where, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:14–30). As always, there is more going on in this parable than a mere warning to slothful workers. Nevertheless, these are still sobering words for those who, in the name of fearful mediocrity, seek to neglect the abilities and opportunities God presents. We, like the servants in Jesus’ parable, have not just been given many spiritual resources (books, blogs, and commentaries), but every other physical resource, skill, ability, and opportunity God has placed in our lives. 

Peter remind us in 2 Peter 1:3 that God has, in “his divine power. . .granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” When we neglect the gifts he has given to us we are not only robbing our Creator of the glory that is due him, but we are also demonstrating our ungratefulness to our Maker. Using our gifts with excellence is one of the best ways to thank God for all that he has bestowed upon us.

So Why Should We Be Excellent?

In conclusion, there are four main reasons why we should work towards excellence in all areas of our lives. The first is that the Creator is glorified when, with excellence, we use the gifts and abilities he has given to us. The second is that working with excellence demonstrates gratitude to our Maker for how he made us and for the opportunities he presents to us. The third reason to pursue excellence is to show love to others by serving them in the best way we can. Lastly, pursuing excellence causes us to be more like Jesus, who is excellent in every way. 

Is God calling you to bury your gifts in the sand? Or is he calling you to live up to your created potential, living as a faithful and excellent steward of his gifts to you.

Next post: In Pursuit of Excellence: Part 2 “How We Can Be Excellent”

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[1] Abraham Kuyper, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

[2] Justin Taylor, “5 Questions with Andreas Köstenberger on Excellence,” The Gospel Coalition, October 29, 2017.

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