We live in a culture that habitually, even casually, assumes that excellence is a noble and worthy value. The famous CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, told us, “We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life.” The great football coach Vince Lombardi advised, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” The well-known pastor Chuck Swindoll explained, “The secret of living a life of excellence is merely a matter of thinking thoughts of excellence.”
As wise as these words might be, I would suggest to you that our cultural and personal devotion to excellence is a distraction from the ultimate priority of faithful love. Excellence is not the goal, but a byproduct, of a well-lived life.
Let’s examine a few reasons why we need to cautiously guard against a naive appreciation for excellence.
Excellence Is Often Sustained By Pride
Ask yourself: Why do you want to be excellent?
My guess is that our motivation for excellence is often to impress others, to achieve career success, or to earn more money. For some, it can serve as an attempt to improve your self-image.
The reason is easy enough: we live in the midst of a culture that cherishes excellence. This places enormous, almost invisible pressure on each of us to be excellent. When you apply a filter in Instagram to make the resulting photo more ‘excellent’, do you feel the pressure to present a picture of a better you? Or is it just normal, natural, the way things are?
Sometimes, “excellence” can serve as a virtuous label to conveniently repackage selfishness, ambition, and ego as something good.
Excellence Is Often An Expression Of Fear
On the flip side, sometimes we are just trying to keep up with everyone else. If our work isn’t excellent, perhaps we will get demoted or fired. If our grades fall short of excellence, our pathway to college, graduate school, or a job may be closed. If our restaurant isn’t excellent, the negative reviews will pile up online, and we will be out of business.
In a culture that loves excellence, we are afraid of the consequences of choosing a different value system. Swimming against the tide can be exhausting, lonely, and confusing. It might mean living with fewer resources or different friends. Giving up excellence can feel risky.
Afraid and worried, we push ourselves to look fantastic and do outstanding work. But is an anxious, fearful life an excellent one?
Excellence Is Less Excellent Than Faithful Love
The Apostle Paul offered a prophetic rebuke to the culture of excellence in his now famous words in 1 Corinthians 13:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
What a reversal! The most excellent demonstration of spiritual gifts, knowledge, and service is nothing apart from love.
Too often, I think we agree-but-disagree. We say, “Yes, love is most important, but…
- I still want to be incredibly successful
- I still want to be the best Bible study leader at my church
- I still want to have the most likes on my Facebook page
- I still want to be known as a great business leader
- I still want to be the most amazing mom
Today, decide to go the other direction. “Yes, I want to do an excellent job on this project, but it is more important that I love God and love others as I get the work done.”
A moment’s reflection makes clear the supremacy of love. For instance: would you rather know someone who is trying to be an ‘excellent’ friend or would you prefer a friend who wants to love you?
Fulfilling Our Purpose
The pursuit of excellence as our ultimate goal, whenever it is sustained by the twin motivations of pride and fear, is likely to make us increasingly proud and afraid. But self-love is a weak basis for sustained excellence. Ironically, the pursuit of excellence as our highest value is one of the surest ways to eventually undermine our own desire for excellence. A proud and fearful person is more likely to stagnate in his career, do the bare minimum, cut corners when he can get away with it, retire early if possible, or wear himself out with late nights and poor habits.
But we are made for eternal love. Our destiny, if we are trusting in Jesus, is to forever know the Triune God of love in a community of love. If our ultimate end is the fulfillment of love for God and love for neighbor, then it only makes sense to give our greatest attention to faithfully loving others now.
The Gift of Excellence
As it turns out, God is too good to us. We can never out-give God.
If the ultimate goal of your life is faithful love for God and others, you will often end up doing excellent work. The wholehearted desire to serve God with your talent and meet the needs of those around you inevitably generates creative, heartfelt work that is incredibly useful, appreciated, and yes, excellent.
In this way, excellence becomes a gift from God that we can receive with gratitude. Our attention has been absorbed with serving God and meeting the needs of others. We are being transformed, from the inside out, into people who are genuinely and consistently loving. And yet, this process means that we will eventually find ourselves doing truly excellent work.
The Choice Is Yours
Are you distracted by excellence?
Do you feel trapped by the need to perform, to impress, to be great?
There is another way. Invite the Triune God of love into the midst of your imperfect attempt at an excellent life. As the recipient of unmerited and unending love, openly confess the motivations and fears of your heart. Resolve to prioritize the love of God and neighbor. Embrace the moral courage that the path of love is a worthy one, even when it means that you fail to be excellent. However your circumstances change, press on to love well. It is who you were made to be. And in the long run, you will find that excellence is nothing more than the gracious byproduct of a life filled with love for God and your neighbor.