Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Bill's not-so-excellent adventure

The other day I listened to a Christian speaker develop the topic of "excellence." Though the speaker was a likeable man with passion and charisma, my heart sank as he spoke. He defined Christian excellence almost exclusively in terms of achieving high-quality performance in every area of life.

One illustration was particularly revealing... He mentioned visiting people's homes and seeing the doors to so many rooms of the house closed. He concluded that this indicated a lack of "excellence" in cleaning the house, in which every room should be clean and spotless. What can I say? It reminded me of a close friend of mine who once had a church leader judge her spiritual maturity on the basis of whether she detailed her car every week.

Admittedly, I'm not exactly a paragon of excellence in these respects. One need look no further than my own lackluster 1994 Buick with the gaping hole in the front right fender for evidence of a certain lack of, uh, excellence in automotive upkeep. And you'll probably find some doors closed in my house when you come to visit, if I can just get the kids to remember to keep them that way.

And yet, to be honest, sloth is not exactly my besetting sin. If anything, I am more likely to make an idol of excellence, to let my contentment on a given day be determined by how much I get done, how clean the house is, how well my children behave, how well I'm feeling, and so forth. Indeed, I consider it something of a victory that I'm more willing these days to let certain areas of my life be less than excellent in order to focus on things that are more important.

Even this doesn't get at the heart of the matter, though. Surely there is room for exhortations to excellence in the body of Christ, even if some of us are working more on being less perfectionistic and demanding. What really disturbed me was the utter absence of the gospel from this presentation. No references to creation or the fall, to redemption or restoration. No references to the cross and the resurrection. No reflection on the ways in which any of these revealed truths should motivate, affect, redefine, or empower 'excellence' in our lives.

I write all this only because I am convinced that a distinctively Christian approach to a thing must consider it in the light of the cross and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (themselves answering or announcing creation, fall, redemption, and restoration) and our present position between the ages. This is true of "excellence"; it is also true of suffering, politics, sexuality, apologetics, hermeneutics, environmentalism, business, and every other aspect of life or thought.

Let's call each other to God-honoring, Christ-centered, Spirit-dependent excellence in that pursuit. And I probably need to wax the car at some point too.

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At 7:05 PM, Anonymous Melissa said...

So, what you are saying is if you and Nicolien come over and play cards, I don't have to vacuum up the dog hair or pick up the kids toys??? (By the way, WHEN are you guys coming over????) What a relief to my frustration with not having a clean house all the time!! It's about relationships not vacuum cleaners!!

At 10:28 PM, Blogger Wayne said...

Great post, Dr. Wilder. Excellence without the cross is a Homeric virtue (i.e., it's pagan).

At 11:04 PM, Blogger Mark Traphagen said...

I believe we're the ones you're referring to as the friends whose church leadership judged our spiritual condition by how clean our car was. Believe me, none of you want to be in a church like that.

The good news is that that experience has turned me into a jealous guardian of the gospel of grace.

And Bill, this post is another great example (albeit sadly a negative one) of how your insights about the Kingdom and the Cross have very real application in our lives.

At 5:40 PM, Anonymous Beth Mack said...

What a joy to see the comments of other dear friends above...maybe we should all have a "house tour" and promise not to clean. But seriously, I am very challenged by your thoughts Bill. I do think it is a gift to Dave and our guests not to have them enter a pigsty, but it can easily become an idol. Regardless of how the house looks, I long to be available for whomever God delights to bring into our little shelter from the storm. I always want our home to be a place where people feel loved, accepted, heard and valued. How humbling to remember the friends who have felt the need to apologize when I've entered their homes, because my is "always so neat." What my flesh sees as a compliment to worship, my spirit mourns as a barrier to vulnerability. I am thankful for God's gift to expose my heart through your post. See you at GCF tomorrow night.

At 8:58 AM, Anonymous Mythopoesis said...

Bill, thank you--not only for the reflections but for the example. Last evening at GCF, a grad student pointed me to this after I shared my conflict between trying to organize a particularly recalcitrant bit of Lewisiana for Monday night, and the call to clean and tidy up our home in preparation for the first visit ever of my sister-in-law whose home is always immaculate and uncluttered. Ours looks not only lived-in but neglected--as if I mentally live elsewhere, which I do, much of the time. It's not that I don't care, and I hope I'm not lazy, it's just that something else--having to do with eternal souls--always seems more important. Gotta stop writing, tho' and go dust. I guess a pleasing environment also blesses eternal souls.

At 8:12 PM, Anonymous Karyn said...

I think that the excellence (of God) that we seek to reflect in our lives must be obtained (and applied) through the lens of biblical Wisdom. Only through the application of wisdom will we know when to prioritize a project or a person. Wisdom often is purchased through "expensive" experience. But once you have bought some, you should definitely get your money's worth and utilize it in your life!

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Andy said...

Hi, Bill.

I'm not quite sure how I stumbled across your blog, but your article on excellence struck a chord with me. When I was a kid, my mom taught special needs children. If God requires excellence of us, they were sunk. But he doesn't.

I work in a ministry that has a list of guiding principles, one of which maintains that excellence is required of us as Christians. The verse used to support this is Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” Can you see excellence mentioned in that verse? I can’t. Hard work, yes. Excellence? It’s just not there. Those special needs kids Mom worked with could work hard, but achieving excellence was largely outside of their grasp.

True, God used skilled workmen to build the covenant, and he gave Daniel and his friends learning and wisdom, but he did not issue a decree demanding those attributes of those people. He gave then those abilities. Any demand placed on believers to achieve standards of excellence in anything other than their devotional lives (where we are already told we have the Spirit at work in us) is a wholly unreasonable request.

I’m in the middle of a Masters in Theology right now. This quarter my work is anything but excellent. Life has been insanely hectic. I wish I had more time to put into my studies, but I don’t. I have a wife and kids and a fulltime job. I will work hard, but if excellence comes, let it be from God and not from me. Do I really believe I could produce something excellent enough to impress God, anyway? He looks at the heart, and I can only please him by faith.



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