I’ve meant to put some of these thoughts into writing for some time now–and thought I should finally put out at least a sketch of my thinking, even if I’m not able to write an eloquent essay. In fact, that this subject should be addressed in this manner is very apposite, as you shall see.
The Call To Excellence
Our topic is ‘The Call to Excellence’, a subject which some may think so blindingly obvious that to waste one’s time discussing it is needless, though I have encountered others who seem of the opinion that this is one of the more important messages that needs to be declared to today’s church. My own take on the matter is that this is an important issue to think through, not because I want to straightforwardly affirm the usual encouragement to strive to be the best you can be for the sake of the glory of God, but precisely because I want to dismantle the simplistic power of such rhetoric.
As Christians we are called to excellence—but in a way that is counterintuitive and quite contrary to the world’s pursuit of it.
We begin by acknowledging the biblical basis of this idea. There’s Paul’s call (1 Timothy 4:12) to Timothy to be exemplary in all of his conduct – and we rightly apply that same exhortation to all Christians. And Paul again tells all believers that whatever they do, they should “do it as unto the Lord” – therefore with all the excellence they can muster.
And then there’s the various biblical heroes of the faith whose lives we are called to imitate, like Daniel who distinguished himself because he had “an excellent spirit” (Dan. 6:3).
Certainly in the environment in which I grew up (specifically, Christian boarding schools), the idea that Christians are called to excellence was a very familiar one. I have been privileged to have been given an education in which I was consistently encouraged to grow in knowledge, skills and understanding, and given opportunities to develop in academic study, sport, and drama. “Study to present yourself approved unto God”, Paul tells Timothy (2 Timothy 2:15), and the same exhortation was applied to us – though whether Paul meant quite the same thing by ‘study’ as did my teachers, I’m not entirely sure.
And I excelled: nine A*s at GCSE, four As at A Level, I was captain of our school football team and we won the interschool tournament twice, I broke most of the athletic records for the track events that I ran, I was named Sportsman of the Year, Scholar of the Year, and Best Actor for my part as Hook in Peter Pan. I applied to Cambridge University, ranked the best university in the world, and I was accepted.
True Excellence is found in Christ Alone
Unfortunately the sorts of achievements that the world might consider ‘brilliant’ and ‘excellent’ are nothing but what the Bible calls ‘confidence in the flesh’. In Philippians 3:5-6, we find Paul’s list of reasons that he might be ‘confident in the flesh’, but he concludes it thus:
“Yet indeed I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish.”
As Christians we affirm the ‘call to excellence’ – if and only if the definition of ‘excellence’ has been narrowed to include only “one thing… the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).
Now, this doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from those who aren’t Christians. From the very beginning of the Bible (Genesis 4:20-22), credit is given to those outside of the family of faith for the cultural and technological advances they achieved.
But what it does is radically shift one’s perspective on the significance of such achievements. What’s the point of being a pioneer in the field of music or metallurgy, if ultimately you will be destroyed by the wrath of God?
Brokenness, Not Brilliance
And particularly in Christian ministry, the implications of this need to be integrated into our practice. Paul says to the Corinthians, “when I came to you, I [deliberately!] did not come with excellence” (2:1), “lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect”.
Paul is speaking of the eloquence of his words, but surely the same applies to the proficiency of a worship band, the impressiveness of church architecture, to so many things that we think are necessary to impress the watching multitudes!
I don’t know quite how hard to press this theme—because, as I began by acknowledging, there is biblical truth in the idea that we are called to excellence. And even as I write about worship bands, I know that someone will point out Psalm 33:3 instruction to “play skilfully”; even as I talk about architecture, I’m sure someone will remind me of the “beauty and glory” of the Tabernacle of Moses.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that our primary task is to let our flaws and our brokenness be visible and unhidden – “that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
Simple Obedience Changes History
This becomes particularly relevant because God is not a distant, silent deity who has merely revealed principles that we must work out how to put into practice, but rather a living, active communicator, who answers us when we call to him, and speaks to us when we listen.
And as we surrender our lives – not just our religious identity, not just a tenth of our income, not just a few hours on a Sunday morning, not just our intellectual assent to some doctrinal propositions – as we surrender our lives to Jesus, He will begin to lead us by His Spirit. And the situations that the Spirit leads us into, may be precisely those situations that our strengths and skills seem least suited to.
Certainly this is not always the case. God has plans to prosper us, not to harm us. And as we delight ourselves in Him, He will give us the desires of our hearts. But the reality is that our ultimate satisfaction is found not in superficial success, but in a growing and deepening revelation of the reality of Jesus Christ.
And this is good news. Because if we are supposed to ‘achieve excellence’, then we all too easily find ourselves locked into the rat-race to be better than everyone else – which is clearly a game that not everyone can win! But when we realise that all the excellence belongs to God, then we are set free to obey whatever he calls us to do, confident in the knowledge that through the power of His excellency, our simple obedience will change the course of history.