The Religion of Excellence

“If it’s Christian it ought to be better.” -Jerry Falwell, Sr.

Undergirded by moral excellence and godly character, all of our work should be performed with distinction and excellence. -Andreas Köstenberger

“We are saved by grace no doubt, but if there’s anything the grace of God should result in, it’s to inspire us to work harder…” -Christianity Today

I want to hit this one as bluntly as I can. God did not call you to be excellent. He called you to Himself. His goal is not your success, but your abiding. His heart is not for your fulfillment in a job position, but to know you and be known by you. He desires your surrender, not your sacrifices of excellent effort.

I am not sure when this started in the church but I have grown up with this religion of excellence trying to be forced down my throat almost my whole life. The idea is that if you are a Christian, people will see that in your excellence and be drawn to Him. No! That’s not true and it has been the misguiding advice that has confused and distracted so many young people, including me. Excellence in scripture means “valor,” or “moral virtue” and only twice refers to an excelling spirit, which is given to individuals (Daniel 5:12, 6:3 note that this is a gift from God in both cases).

To be Christian means that we are becoming like Christ by abiding with Him not by trying to impress Him and others. Please stop so that you do not waste your life. If God can only use things that are “excellent” in standard, then that makes the majority of humanity completely useless.

It is a misguiding principle that “If it’s Christian, it ought to be better.” First, “it” cannot be Christian. People are the only things that can be Christian. You cannot have a Christian school, a Christian business, a Christian nation, or even Christian music. I understand how the labels are convenient in that they espouse Christian values. But only a person individually can be a Christian. What happens is that when people die to self individually and start being the global church together with other believers, God rules in that Kingdom created within them exactly as He will on earth one day. Let me suggest an alternative slogan.

“If we are Christian, we ought to be like Christ.” Here’s what that would emphasize. We would walk completely empty of any of our own power and instead in the humble power of God because we recognize our need for Him and are unified with Him, completely yielded to the will of the Father, able to hear and do what the Father is saying, able to operate in the power of the Spirit, moved to extended times of prayer and fasting, bearing the fruits of the Spirit out of our yielded, humble, meek lives in all seasons–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If we are Christian, we will be Christ-like. We will go lower, not higher in humility and service, we will bear crosses, not accolades. We will accept the beating and bruising of our egos and the embracing of our weakness so Christ’s power can be made evident in and through us, like a fresh spring welling up and pouring out constantly (John 7:38-39).

The things we produce are not the point. The question is, will we have the fragrance of Christ that comes from being in His presence. That’s what draws people. And will we be able to choose His presence and priorities even if our productivity or product suffers?

To say that God wants our “excellence” breeds perfectionism, self-centeredness, idolatry, arrogance and self-hate simultaneously, and rejection of those with “not-excellent offerings.” I think we can all agree that God desires the worship of every single human. If your gift is not perfect, He will not turn you away. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice provided for you! The gift of a willing, broken, and contrite Spirit, God loves to have (Psalm 51:16-17). In fact, those are the people He loved being around (Mark 2:17, Matthew 21:32-33).

But, you might say, aren’t we supposed to be diligent and serve God in everything we do and every place we are? Of course. But diligence is not excellence. It is persistence.

What are we diligent in? Everything we do. And what do we do? What Jesus did.

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” John 5:19

So what do you see your father doing? That is what we should be doing!

But you might say, doesn’t scripture say to be holy as God is holy? And to be perfect as He is perfect? Yes, but to be “holy” means to be “set apart” in our hearts so that we obey Him and are only used for His purposes. And to be “perfect” means to be “whole, complete, as one with integrity”-so that we are not divided in our hearts and minds in allegiance or focus. Not of those have anything to do with excellence in terms of “being your best ‘you'” or trying to reach a standard of performance in our lives.

Stop trying to spiritualize our tendencies to perfectionism and our lust for recognition, success, power, platform and influence. Those things have to die before the Spirit and power of God can take you over. Then the church will influence society, not from places of power, but from places of service and love.

Jesus never sought to be integrated with the cultural systems of politics or education or economy in order to change them. He was separated and He called us to come away and follow Him. He modeled the way we should live (1 John 2:6). There were times He inserted His messengers into political contexts (Daniel, Esther, Ezekiel), 1) but GOD placed them, they did not seek or work their way into positions of influence and 2) the systems they were in were not “saved,” that was not the point. The point was the message. God used servants and foreigners to speak to kings. While God can certainly promote His people to places of cultural influence to affect systemic change, have you considered that most of those biblical examples were promoted from a place of service to another place of service or even just as a temporary advisor? Are we blind to how power and sin corrupted even David, the man after Gods own heart?

Come away and seek God, not your own excellence. He doesn’t want a shout-out in your fifteen minutes of fame. He wants your whole life. Your gifts, your personality, your future plans, your family, your money, your professional career, your artistry–all laid on the altar, consumed by the fire of His Spirit, and offered up as a solemn, holy sacrifice to Him (Romans 12:1). All of you.

That is the purpose of the cross, the gift of the Holy Spirit, obedience to the Holy Spirit–it’s all SO THAT we can be one with HIM. That’s what He wants (John 17:20-23, Jeremiah 9:24). To know you and be known–to love you and to be loved. And He won’t be satisfied with less that that. Don’t simply stop at repentance. Receive His Spirit (John 20:22, Acts 2). Don’t simply receive His Spirit, move onto love-driven obedience (Matthew 28:18-20, John 14:15). Don’t simply stop at obedience, pursue love-driven unity with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 14:23).

Most of us think God will empower us, and equip us, and then use us and that will make Him pleased with us. I am finding God is most pleased with me in secret places of devotion with Him–when I come away. I also find He empowers and equips me most when I cry out from places of great humbling, exhaustion, and embarrassment (Moses, Elijah), in places of great sorrow and anguish (David, Jesus), in places of long suffering and heartache (Ruth, Paul). And then I realize I am walking in the way Jesus walked. It’s much more joyful and rewarding than I thought it would be or than it seems like it should be because complete obedience to the Holy Spirit causes problems. It brings a sword into my relationships that cuts to peoples hearts and makes them frustrated with me, it creates an intense loneliness in bearing my cross. It creates in me a fellowship of sharing in His sufferings and a becoming like Him in self-death. This way of life is joyful because it creates an intense longing for His return. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus.

Have you considered that what looks like your success, your promotion, or God’s blessing may be the thing keeping you away from full repentance and surrender? When we are used from a position of lowliness, we have nothing to lose, so we lose all fear of man. He delights to use the weak, the ugly, the powerless, the broken, the repentant sinner, the foolish to shame the wise and show His glory. The question is are you willing to be any of THOSE things so He can actually show His power in you?



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2 thoughts on “The Religion of Excellence”

  1. Thank you, Katherine, for these encouraging words that challenge much of today’s Christian thinking! Peace, Todd


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