The pursuit of excellence; it is one of our society’s most undisputed virtues.
We see it in sporting events like the Olympics.
We see it in employee appreciation certificates.
We see it in earned bonuses.
We see it in Nobel prizes.
We see it in “Lifetime Achievement” awards.
Human beings from kindergarten to graduate school see it on their report cards, progressive reports, and transcripts.
When we get “A’s” we’re elated.
When we get “B’s” we’re content.
When we get “C’s” we’re depressed.
When we get “D’s” we think about quitting school.
When we get “F’s” we want to die.
Notice on this scale that we are not even content till we hit “B’s.”
Before that we are best average and at worst a complete failure.
No one wants to be “average”; everyone wants to be “above average.”
The fascinating thing is that “average” is now “above average,” “above average” is now “excellent,” and “excellent” is now “superior,” almost “demi-god” status.
Its no longer enough to make straight “A’s” to stand out.
You have to have community service, be a part of civic organizations, have successfully ended world hunger…
In order to be “excellent” you have to be “successful;” if you are not “successful” you are just “average”.
And no one wants to be “average.”
I can relate.
A lot of my life has been spent pursuing excellence; going above and beyond to get the results as painless and as perfect as possible.
Sometimes I have a lot of success; sometimes I feel like I am “excellent.”
But there have also been plenty of times where I was not “successful” and I did not feel very “excellent.”
These last five years have been a harsh blow to my pursuit of excellence.
Because by the standards of our society, I am not pursuing excellence at all…or at least I do not have the success to back it up.
But the question that must be asked is this: does the pursuit of excellence entail success?
It seems this is true; even in the church world we have bought into this narrative.
How do you know if you have a good pastor or elders?
Are numbers going up?
Is the church more recognized in the community?
Are people putting in a good word to the city council?
Are we being commended as a model church by others in the Christian community?
Are we the envy of other churches in our area; do they wish they were us?
Are we successful in a measurable sense?
These questions sound like a discussion at a corporate board meeting, not a discussion amongst the leaders of God’s church.
So I ask the question again, does the pursuit of excellence entail measurable success?
There is a reason we love competition.
In a competition everyone may get a “participation ribbon,” but only the winners get the trophy.
And only first place gets the gold medal.
We love competitions because they stroke our egos, they make us feel good because of our achievements (or someone else’s if we are achieving vicariously).
Achievement? Hmmm…that sounds eerily familiar.
Is it possible to be successful, to achieve what you want and still not pursue excellence?
I am not even talking about the lucky Cinderella stories that only God can answer for.
I am talking about the people who win, but did not pursue excellence.
Case in point, this guy:
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl last year against the Seattle Seahawks.
But the game before that game, the game that brought on “Deflate Gate” is a game that they did not win by pursuing excellence.
Faced with the Indianapolis Colts, whom they were handily beating, some of the Patriots’ locker room staff, with Tom Brady’s knowledge, deflated some of the footballs.
The Patriots were thumping the Colts; there was no need to cheat.
What’s more disturbing is that this not the first time the Patriots have been caught cheating when they did not need to.
The Patriots are one of, if not the, most successful franchises in NFL history; yet, they do not always play with excellence in those victories.
They have the measurable, successful results (e.g. Super Bowls); yet they would not seem to be playing with the pursuit of excellence in mind.
The type “A” perfectionists in our society have made us idolaters.
We are not really pursuing excellence, for excellence is far more than measurable success, we are pursuing the pride of achievement.
In beginning a new year of ministering to college students I have caught myself a couple of times pursuing achievement.
We want ten new people.
We want our current people passionately engaged.
We want to beat the other churches.
We want to prove to our church that we can be effective while in charge of a ministry.
We want to show that we are genuinely called and worthy of consid…
Pursuing excellence is giving our heart, mind, and soul to God and letting him give out the results.
As Paul puts it in I Corinthians 3:6-7,
“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
There is planting, and there is watering.
But only God can make things grow…and he may not make them grow measurably for many, many years.
And I wish I can say my attitude only comes out in college ministry, but that would not be the case.
It comes out in my work at the Ministry Center.
It comes out in my relationships.
It comes out in my own desire for social respect and standing.
I have said it before, and I will say it again, one of the most powerful idols in my life is the god of achievement.
I do not want to pursue excellence and not achieve.
I play a lot of RPGs (I own most of the ones currently known to man).
I have to be careful that I play these games for enjoyment and hobby, not for the purposes of achievement.
Because like a little dopamine drip in the bloodstream, so it is true whenever I “level up” or beat that boss, or move on to a “better” region, I sometimes feel that “rush.”
Whenever I start finding my self-worth in any form of achievement other than the achievement of Christ crucified and resurrected…I find myself on my knees before that damned idol once more.
So, what is the cure?
How do we pursue excellence without bowing and sacrificing to the insatiable god of achievement?
I am no expert, but I think there are some things that can help us type “A” perfectionists out.
1) Stop caring about winning.
And this does not end with a sporting event or video game.
It also means stop caring about being right.
I am not saying you abandon the truth, we all should care about the truth, but give up your need to be right about the truth all the time.
When you play a competitive game with family or friends (e.g. Scattegories), don’t let that game end those relationships.
In fact, you should occasionally let someone else win. (I know it feels like death doesn’t it; that’s because it is)
2) Stop comparing your life with someone else’s life.
“Keeping up with Jones”” was never a good idea.
Neither is keep up with the “L’Alliers” (friends of mine currently backpacking through Southeast Asia).
God has you where you are at for a reason; it may be great or it may suck.
But comparing your life with someone else’s will only make things worse.
Also, when your life is “better” than someone else’s it causes you to look down on them with a condescending pity.
Oh, what Facebook has brought out of us.
3. Don’t base your success entirely on measurable results.
I say entirely because if you are broke, estranged from your family, sinning against God, and have cancer…you may not be pursuing excellence.
But there are so many people who pursue excellence that do not see the fruit of success immediately, or sometimes at all.
Sometimes it takes God a looooooooong time to grow something.
Sometimes you lead people whining and rebelling through a desert for forty years hoping to get to the Promised Land…then you do one little sin like striking instead speaking to a rock.
And you’re out.
Goodbye Promised Land.
That does not mean that you did not pursue excellence for forty years; it just means you are human.
Pursuing excellence is being faithful to plant and water when nothing is growing.
Its giving up the need to have results, and letting God worry about the increase.
So maybe its time to drop the need for immediate results and let history show the fruit.
What can we do?
How do we stop pursuing achievement and start pursuing excellence?
Join me today in tearing down the God of achievement from our lives, and maybe God will use us to help save our culture from it as well.
Grace and Peace