The Pursuit of Excellence for Christ

The Pursuit of Excellence for Christ

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more.” – I Thessalonians 4:1

If a person has a biblical worldview, then he has an adequate basis for the pursuit of excellence in life. He can define excellence and measure his progress toward it and clarify what is required to achieve it. We want to explore these issues.

But before we proceed to examine this biblically, we should note that modern man, who does not have a biblical worldview as a basis for life, often pursues excellence. His definition of excellence will differ from a Christian’s, and the measurement of it will usually compare men with men rather than men with God’s will and character. But until they lose all hope, human beings pursue achievement. They have been made to admire order, beauty, creativity, innovation, and determination. They have been made in God’s image and that makes them pursuers of excellence. They seek power in this quest, and they gather knowledge to help them.

When I became a Christian at the age of twenty, my first encounter with a local church was a shock, even though it was a fine church. The weak and the poor were there. The place was filled with failures. Here and there were some pursuing excellence, but there was a general attitude of accepting mediocrity, or so it seemed. I was shocked and confused at this first exposure to Christianity as a believer. I struggled to reconcile unconditional acceptance of sinners with their lack, over a reasonable time, of the pursuit of excellence in their lives to the glory of God. God’s wonderful grace to them seemed to be getting a half-hearted response.

The lack of proven character among believers is still appalling to me. The lack of commitment to the truth when it requires sacrifice still shocks me. The overall tolerance and acceptance of mediocrity in the church is, well, unbiblical. Of course we struggle with self-effort and with pride. But what is needed to glorify God in our lives is Christ-like character, biblical wisdom, spiritual power, and the true body life of the church. All of these require work, commitment, and help from others to achieve them. All of these are possible for every person in Christ.

THE BIBLICAL STANDARD OF EXCELLENCE

A few passages will suffice to demonstrate that every believer is expected to pursue and achieve excellence.

And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ.” – Colossians 1:28

Notice that Paul is admonishing every Christian. Every Christian is to pursue completeness in Christ. Where we start is not important, but we have all been given the same goal of maturity in Christ. All of us are to be moving in this direction and helping others toward this goal.

Notice also that Paul says that he admonishes every man. This word means, “to bring to mind.” All of us need to be exhorted and encouraged and challenged and helped to pursue excellence in Christ and to pursue it with all our heart. Paul spent his entire Christian life doing this.

Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” – Acts 20:31

When you see a fellow believer slacking in his or her zeal for the Lord, feeling sorry for himself or herself, or with his or her eyes on the world’s attractions, what do you do? We know what Paul did. We also know what kind of example he was.

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you.” – Philippians 3:14-15

Pressing on to maturity is the right attitude for a Christian. Paul was very open about the fact that he still had a ways to go. God was still working in him and through him to be the best he could be in Christ. But the goal was being pursued; Paul was pressing on toward it. He was pursuing excellence for Christ. This attitude is found in all of his New Testament letters.

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more.” – I Thessalonians 4:1

Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more.” – I Thessalonians 4:9-10

Some regard the believers at Thessalonica as the most mature ones of the early church. They had “become an example to all the believers” for “in every place their faith toward God had gone forth…” (I Thessalonians 1:7-8). Even so, Paul urged them strongly to excel still more. There are no plateaus in the Christian life, no months or years when we can rest from our labors and stop our pursuit of excellence for Christ.

WHY WE TEND TO ACCEPT MEDIOCRITY IN OURSELVES AND OTHER CHRISTIANS

There are at least three reasons for this tendency:

1. WE HAVE BEEN TAUGHT THAT PURSUING GOD’S WILL IN OUR OWN STRENGTH IS SIN.

In attempting to explain the Christian life and our need to adjust to the indwelling Spirit, some Bible teachers have emphasized our tendency to act independently in serving Christ, just as we acted independently before we became Christians. Sometimes we are left with the erroneous idea that the Holy Spirit should do all of the living and that we just need to stop doing anything. “The responsibility for living the Christian life is not mine” is the thinking, and the tenacious pursuit of excellence for Christ is diminished.

But the exhortations of the New Testament are not directed at the Holy Spirit. They are addressed to the believer. We are expected to “fight the good fight,” “run with endurance the race set before us,” “strive against sin,” “be steadfast, immovable,” etc. Striving to do my very best in the pursuit of God’s best for my life is not sin! It is what I have been called to do (I Thessalonians 4:1, 4:9-10, Philippians 3:14-15, Colossians 1:28).

2. WE HAVE BEEN TAUGHT TO UNCONDITIONALLY ACCEPT ONE ANOTHER JUST AS CHRIST HAS ACCEPTED US.

Does this mean that “mediocrity” is to be accepted and tolerated in the fellowship of believers? The answer to this dilemma comes by noting that God places no conditions on us to become His children. He invites us to come to Christ for salvation just as we are.

However, once we are His children, He asks us to live like it, and everything we need to do so is abundantly supplies to us. We are to pursue His glory with zeal and achieve it.

Recently, a man with a temper and a drinking problem came to a Bible study. He had abandoned his marriage and young children and was spending his life in frivolous pursuits and sin. Not a single one of these issues was focused upon during the initial weeks of contact. Instead, he was assured that God would forgive his sins in Christ and accept him as His son.

However, he was warned that to become a Christian was not only to find a Savior; it was also to find a sovereign God to whom he was personally accountable. It was also to find a boss, a master, a lord. He was told that when a person becomes a Christian he or she is expected to love God with all of his or her heart. He was told that becoming a follower of Christ would mean living life to the glory of God. He was told that God has opinions about sexual conduct. He would, as a Christian, be expected to excel in illustrating God’s opinions through his own life. He was told that Jesus Christ would be his Savior unconditionally—and his Lord unconditionally.

3. WE HAVE BEEN TAUGHT THAT ANOTHER CHRISTIAN’S LIFESTYLE AND COMMITMENTS ARE NONE OF OUR BUSINESS.

After graduate school, I was hired by a large corporation and soon was the manager of about sixty employees. That first year on the job, I let several employees find work elsewhere. They were incompetent and incorrigible. They were takers, not givers. They contributed far less to the company than they took in wages, time, and energy. To tolerate such relationships is standard operating procedure in government work, unions, socialistic and communistic countries, and, usually, in the church.

What do we do with Christians who never proceed toward maturity? It is one thing to change a child’s diapers for two or three years, but the goal is to have them go on to maturity. If we are still changing diapers at the age of eight, something is wrong. Why do we tolerate Christians who are still takers after ten years? They need to be challenged to press on to maturity, and if they will not, they need to be taking someone else’s time and energy and resources. I am not saying that we should stop serving and loving the weak and poor. What I am saying is that we must not enable the lazy and selfish to stay lazy and selfish. Every Christian can grow in character and wisdom and spiritual power with the love and help of the rest of the body. Every Christian can excel for Christ (Ephesians 2:10, John 15:6-7, 16).

DEFINING SUCCESS FOR A CHRISTIAN

The following three concepts about success as a disciple of Christ are important. Please consider them carefully.

1. Success is achieved when I have done my best in the pursuit of God’s best for my life.
2. Success is measured by comparing what I am to what I could be.
3. Success requires that I possess the inward character, biblical wisdom, and spiritual power available to me in Christ.

Was Jesus Christ successful in life? Yes, He was. He did His best in the singular pursuit of God’s best for His life.

For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” – John 6:38

And behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”’ – Matthew 3:17

These things Jesus spoke; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son, that the Son may glorify Thee. I glorified Thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou has given Me to do. And now, glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I ever had with Thee before the world was.”’ – John 17:1, 4-5

He could not have been more successful, because He did His best for the Father’s best. We can say this with assurance even though Christ died at an early age, penniless, condemned as a criminal, without children, never writing a book, never holding an office, and never building an organization.

THREE TRUTHS

There are a number of related truths that we must grasp regarding success in life as a follower of Christ. First:

1. WE ARE CAUTIONED NOT TO COMPARE OURSELVES WITH OTHERS.

For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding. But we will not boast beyond our measure, but within the measure of the sphere which God apportioned to us as a measure, to reach even as far as you. For we are not overextending ourselves, as if we did not reach to you, for we were the first to come even as far as you in the gospel of Christ; not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors, but with the hope that as your faith grows, we will be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you, so as to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you, and not to boast [d]in what has been accomplished in the sphere of another. But he who boasts, let him boast in the Lord. For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends.” – II Corinthians 10:12-18

God has a plan for each of us, and it is that plan that is His best for us, not His plan for someone else. We naturally look at the achievements of another person and compare ourselves to what they have done for Christ. We must be careful here.

2. WE ARE TAUGHT NOT TO PURSUE OUR PLANS AND DESIRES FOR OUR LIFE BUT TO SUBMIT TO GOD’S PLANS AS WE COME TO KNOW THEM.

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” – II Corinthians 12:7-9

From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” – Matthew 16:21-25

We must know God’s will for our life if we are to give our best in the pursuit of it.

3. WE MUST ACCEPT THAT DOING OUR BEST IS OFTEN NOT A TEAM EFFORT

By this, I do not mean that others do not contribute to our success or that success can be achieved without others. Neither of these is true. What I mean, rather, is that pursuing God’s best for our life will often require that we stand alone or that we run the race alone for a ways, even in the face of stiff opposition from friends.

Let me illustrate: Many years ago, God gave me a heart for my children and a desire to see them excel for Christ. I committed myself to helping them succeed in this. Perhaps the greatest influences in a child’s life are the teachers and friends they associate with all day at school for fifteen to twenty years. As I considered the impact of these influences on my children, I concluded that the options available to me would not be of much help. On the contrary, I believed that these influences would work against our pursuit of excellence for Christ. I tried sending my oldest child to a Christian school. I then tried starting my own school. Finally, the idea of home-based training caught my attention. After a time, I was convinced that this was God’s best for my family.

Unfortunately, no one else agreed with me. My wife, correctly visualizing the cost over the next thirty years, reminded me that we did not even know another couple who was attempting this foolishness. My children cried, convinced that somehow I was trying to ruin their lives. My church leaders saw such thinking as a threat to their method of ministry and their future, and they determined to oppose it. The government had criminalized such behavior in several states, and the threat of losing our children was a real one. My pocketbook counseled me that, regardless of all these opinions, it just wasn’t practical financially and probably not even possible. My parents wisely cautioned me that however difficult it seemed here at the beginning, if we pursued this course, it would get worse. “What about college?” they asked. “What about getting a job?”

Well, you get the picture. Sometimes, doing your best in pursuit of God’s best for your life will require that you pursue it alone for a time.

MEASURING SUCCESS

So, we have defined success for a Christian as “Doing my best in the pursuit of God’s best for my life.” But how is this to be measured? Success is measured by comparing what I am to what I could be. United States President Jimmy Carter graduated very high in his class at the Naval Academy. He excelled there when compared with the other cadets. But when he took his first job after graduation, he found himself as an aide to Admiral Rickover.

“Lieutenant,” said the Admiral, “You did very well at the Academy.”

“Thank you, sir,” Carter replied.

“Did you do your best there, son? That’s what I want to know. Was it your best?”

Carter hung his head. “No, sir, I could have done better.”

“If that is the case, Lieutenant, I have another question. Is that what we can expect from you here—something less than your best?”

God does not measure our success in life by what we are or what we have accomplished. Neither does He measure our success by comparing us with others. He measures our success by comparing what we are to what we could be in Christ.

Our success as Christians is also measured by comparing what we have given our best for to what we could have given our best for. Great investments of time and energy are required to do our best in any endeavor. But some investments will not pay dividends for the Kingdom of God. We must be careful to do our best for God’s best, not just something.

“The greatest enemies of the best things are the good things.” I heard this quote many years ago, and it has been a great help to establish and prioritize God’s goals for my life on a daily basis so that I can concentrate on giving my best to God’s best. Since hearing this quote, I have kept a list of the things I must do on a yellow pad. Sometimes my “to do” list runs two pages, but usually not. Every day, I consider what must be dome and what should be done and prayerfully prioritize the items on the list. The things at the top get done before I focus on something else. Of course there are interruptions and changes, but tenaciously saying no to the “good” things that seek to replace the “best” things has allowed the best things to get done. I should also note that most of the things at the bottom of my lists never got done. I only had time enough for the best things.

THE REQUIREMENTS FOR SUCCESS

We have defined success and clarified how God measures it. But how is it achieved? What is required to give my best for God’s best? There are three elements, and we must excel in all of them. To do our best in pursuit of God’s best for our life requires that we:

1. Develop inward character,

2. Acquire biblical wisdom, and

3. Avail ourselves of spiritual power.

Our ability to do our best for Christ depends on growing in the knowledge and practical application of these three elements. This is what we focus on at Heritage Bible Church.