Several years ago, our youth group partnered with a local church in a tornado-ravaged town to help them clean up a neighborhood that had been particularly devastated by the storms. Arriving onsite, we saw neighborhoods in shambles that were virtually untouched nearly four weeks after the tornados. Many of our students were deeply affected by what they saw and the conversations they had — none more so than Lisa and Nina. That trip marked the end of their junior year of high school, and unlike many students, two months after the trip, Lisa and Nina were still talking about the families they met and the impact they had on their lives. Just a few weeks into their fall semester, the girls approached me and asked if I would be their mentors for their senior projects. Basically, my job was to keep them focused and motivated as the school year wore on. We would meet monthly-ish to talk about their ideas, formulate a plan, and help them make progress throughout the school year. I accepted my responsibility, and I wanted to help them complete their project with excellence.
Have you heard that phrase before: “with excellence”? I’ve used it countless times; it’s my fallback phrase when I want something to be done right. I usually mean, “You need to have a well-thought-out plan, get all your stuff done, and watch your hard work pay off.” I’ve used the phrase as a student and as a professor when talking about an upcoming assignment. I’ve used it as a worship leader and a pastor while encouraging our staff about a Sunday morning worship gathering. And I’ve used it as a youth pastor challenging our youth staff to step up their game. I’ve also used “with excellence” on my students, my church staff, my children, and even my wife. The problem is, who defines “with excellence”? There’s nothing inherently wrong with the phrase, but recently I’ve had a gnawing sense that my usual understanding is not complete; it doesn’t communicate the fullness of what God desires for us.
For example, have you ever hosted a youth event that went off perfectly according to your plan? (I know, it’s a stretch for me too, but play along!) If so, you probably saw God do some pretty cool stuff in the lives of your students. Just like you planned. With excellence. On the other hand, have you ever hosted a youth event that did NOT go according to plan? Unexpected obstacles, miscommunication, or even incompetence seemingly sabotaged your efforts. And you probably saw God do some pretty cool stuff in the lives of your students. In spite of your failed (or thwarted) plans. During an epic fail of un-excellence.
How is it that God does some pretty cool stuff in the lives of your students whether or not you execute “with excellence”? Especially in Christian circles, I’m growing increasingly convicted that when we use the phrase “with excellence,” we’re missing something.
With the best of intentions, I believe many of us use “with excellence” based loosely on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (NLT). Surely that’s a solid motivation for doing things “with excellence,” right? Maybe. But maybe not — especially if we’re using “excellence” to mean something it shouldn’t. Or if we’re limiting “excellence” to something less than it’s full meaning.
- “Excellence” doesn’t mean perfection. This probably goes without saying, but for the perfectionists in the crowd, it’s worth saying anyway. Perfectionism is a personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything less. God doesn’t place this expectation on us, so we shouldn’t place it on ourselves.
- “Excellence” doesn’t simply mean doing your best, or hard work, or giving your all, or making an effort worthy of God. Part of doing something “with excellence” includes these very American concepts, but it’s so much more. If “excellence” is limited to this understanding, we’ve effectively eliminated God from our plans and processes. If all that is required is that I do my best, or I work hard, or I give my all, or even if I make an effort worthy of God, I’ve reduced God to a distant being to be pleased, instead of a loving Father Who desires to be in relationship with His child.
So, what is a biblical understanding of “excellence.”
The literal meaning of “excellence” is “a throwing beyond or above.” In addition to “excellent” and “excellence,” the Hebrew and Greek words are translated as “extraordinary,” “surpassing,” “beyond measure,” “excess.” The Greek word for “excellence” has the same root as our English word “hyperbole.” The gist of the word communicates something “more than,” which I believe leaves room for the supernatural intervention of God. If we limit our understanding of “excellence” to our best human effort, we are NOT leaving room for the “more than” of God’s involvement in our lives.
Back to the Story
During one of my early meetings with Lisa and Nina, about halfway through their senior year, I pressed them a bit about finalizing the specifics of their goals. They decided to raise funds for families who had lost everything in the tornados, and they were fuzzy on how much they wanted to raise. I wanted them to get the project done with excellence, so I encouraged them to make monthly calls to our pastor-contact onsite, keeping him in the loop of the project. I suggested that they begin cataloging their many pictures and journal entries. I asked them to consider making travel arrangements for their return trip to the affected area later in the Spring. They accepted my coaching, but I sensed something in them that was less about their school grade and more about the Kingdom of God. What they lacked in focus and drive, they made up for in passion and desire to make a difference in these families’ lives. But to be honest, I was a little nervous.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a worrier. If anything, I’m regularly accused of not worrying enough! I’m an ENFP to the core, and if I didn’t have a Mac Calendar with reminders, I would likely miss most of my meetings while happily playing HayDay. But I wanted Lisa and Nina to work hard and complete their project with excellence.
How do we balance our hard-working human effort with the “more than” God invites us to enjoy? I believe Jesus’ words in John 15 can shed some insight.
[Jesus said,] Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father. (John 15:4-5, 8 NLT)
Jesus is pretty clear that in order to bear fruit, our central task as His followers is to stay connected to Him. Not simply to work hard, do our best, or give a worthy effort. We must stay connected with Him, and we will bear fruit. Apparently, God is the One who produces fruit in us and through us. Perhaps He uses our hard work and best efforts to make it happen (and Simon Peter indicated the need for us to work hard in 1 Peter), but Jesus’ words here are pretty clear: stay connected to me and you will bear fruit, disconnect from me and you will not. I believe this truth is what we are often missing in our thoughts about “excellence.”
We may feel compelled to define “excellence” in natural terms, but God defines excellence in supernatural, “more than” terms. God pushes our questions back to our relationship with Jesus. Instead of only asking about our human effort, perhaps God wants us to consider a few additional questions:
- Are you connected to the Vine?
- Can you allow God’s strength to be made perfect in your weakness?
- Do you trust God completely?
Asking these questions allows room for God to be the “more than” we need in our lives. And when we give God the space to be involved in our “excellence,” God receives the glory (see John 15:8).
Big, Hairy Caveat
Please hear me: I am not arguing that our understanding of “excellence” is all wrong. It just seems incomplete. We should acknowledge that there are some dangers that exist if we allow the “excellence” pendulum to swing too far in either direction. As I’m attempting to describe in this article, one direction leads us to perfectionism. But too far in the “more than” direction is dangerous too. If we misunderstand the fullness of what God wants from us, we easily could become irresponsible. And if we allow ourselves to stay in this misunderstanding, we could become lazy. Either extreme understanding of “excellence” misses out on the beauty of God’s invitation to remain intimately connected with Him.
The Rest of the Story
On the day of Lisa and Nina’s senior project presentation, I sat with the judges and watched the girls struggle through the hour as things failed to go according to plan. Please enjoy a short sample of the glitches with the presentation:
- Their music cable had a short in it, and instead of hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” we only heard static.
- Their Prezi was out of order, so they were continually asking the tech person to go backward or skip to the next part.
- As they walked through their presentation, their attention increasingly was fixed on the screen behind them instead of on the audience.
- They forgot to mention many of the details of their project.
- One of girls turned her microphone off to cough and never turned it back on.
I think you get the point: lots of problems.
One might argue that the girls’ presentation was not executed “with excellence.” One might be wrong. Their Prezi probably was not up to the standards of adults who regularly work with visual presentations. Their organization probably was not up to the standards of adults who regularly manage projects and reports. Their lack of eye contact was probably not up to the standards of adults who regularly speak to crowds with supporting visual aids.
But how do you measure the “more than” elements of their project presentation?
I experienced a little “more than” when Lisa got a little choked up as she described her prayers for the families affected by the tornados. I experienced a little “more than” when Nina challenged her peers to open their eyes to the hurt around them and stop focusing on their own needs while others are suffering. I experienced a little “more than” when the girls shared how the project meant more to them than a grade, but that the lessons they learned about sacrifice and service, about listening to others’ stories, and about praying for those who are hurting have forever changed their lives. And I experienced a little “more than” as I watched a long line of the girls’ peers — many with tears in their own eyes — congratulate Lisa and Nina on their hard work. Lisa and Nina’s project and presentation were done with excellence, and God was a little “more than” in their midst.
So relax. The next time you are feeling the stress of an upcoming retreat or camp or lesson – regardless if it’s self-inflicted stress or not – relax. Breathe in deeply the “more than” nature of God, and allow Him to fill you with peace, rest, and maybe even a little joy in the midst of the journey. Remember, excellence is not about you, it’s about God’s invitation to stay connected to Him and watch Him produce fruit in and through your life. And He is excellent at it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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Wow. I am so glad I took time to read this tonight. This is so encouraging Tim. Thank you for sharing it. Its very challenging too. I definitely lean in the direction of the “I work” and perfectionism. I love the definition of excellence as “more than.” Never heard that before. Its like our efforts create a an opportunity for his more than to happen. Need them both, and can’t swing too out of balance either way. I like it. Thank you!