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The Principle of Christian Excellencies

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Aristotle’s Principle of Human Excellencies looks for the “excellencies” or “virtues” proper to life.  Human artifacts, he explains, have distinctive purposes.  A pen, for example, is for writing; a lamp, for lighting; a knife, for cutting.  And when you know the purpose of any artifact, you also know how to tell whether it is a good or bad one.  A knife with a strong blade is better than one with a weak blade.  So is a knife with a handle that gives us a sure, comfortable grip better than one with a handle that does not.  You could call a strong blade and a sure grip “excellencies” proper to a knife.

Aristotle asked, “What is the purpose of a human being?”  He believed this was something called eudaimonia, a Greek work usually translated  “happiness” but better understood as total well-being.  To Aristotle, eudaimonia is what all of us are striving for.  Therefore, he defined things such as a well-ordered life not given to extremes, loyalty, generosity, honesty, kindness, and anything else that might lead to total well-being as “excellencies” or “virtues.”

What is the purpose of a human being from a Christian point of view?  Ephesians 2:10 reads, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  According to Paul, we were renewed in Christ to walk in good works.  Christians were put on earth to make it a better place.  We are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Mt. 5:13-16).  Like our Master, we came not to be served but to serve (Mt. 20:26-28).  Every day we should be using our talents and opportunities to improve the quality of others’ lives.  Ultimately this means sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  What good does it do to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and comfort the bereaved if we do not help them find salvation in Christ?  Everything takes a back seat to the soul.

Taking a cue from Aristotle, we ask, “What qualities should Christians be cultivating in their lives?”  In other words, what are some excellencies or virtues proper to Christian life?  Peter gives this sample list:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.  (2 Peter 1:5-7)

Where did Peter come up with that list?  These attributes are nothing more than virtues proper to Christian life.  Things like self-control and brotherly affection are virtuous for Christians because they help us fulfill our purpose of walking in good works.  Peter continues, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).  Christians cannot be truly fruitful unless they grow in the virtues Peter lists.  A pen without ink is not a good pen.  A lamp without a bulb is not a good lamp.  A knife with a dull blade is not a good knife.  And a Christian who does not possess things like compassion, love, and forbearance is not a good Christian.  Call it the Principle of Christian Excellencies.

A lot of the things that consume our time in our churches and in our homes are good things, but they do not cultivate virtues proper to our role as Christians.  We need to prioritize.  Of first importance are those things that will help us become better at fulfilling our purpose as the workmanship of God.  The hundreds of other good things we like to do have a place, but they should never come first.  We must never forget why we’re here.

Striving for Excellence

Friday, January 16th, 2009

Pearl S. Buck said, “The secret of joy in work is contained in one word–Shovelexcellence.  To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.”

It’s easy to get burned out when you feel incapable of doing your job well.  Everybody knows the drudgery of being the square peg in a round hole.  On the other hand, it feels good to do something well.  We can see the truth of Buck’s statement.  The difference between those who enjoy their work and those who don’t is excellence.

Excellence is far more attainable than most people realize.  The reason why we often fail to achieve it is that many of us have never paused to consider what it involves.  Excellence requires four ingredients:

1.  Knowledge. It is impossible to do anything well without knowledge.  Mechanics have to know cars, executives must be competent in business, doctors have to study medicine, cab drivers have to learn the city streets, etc.

When it comes to matters of faith, it is impossible to serve God without an understanding of his will (Eph. 5:17).  Many believers have taken on huge projects in the name of religion without first learning what it is that God really wants them to do for him.  These works may be impressive, but that doesn’t mean they are pleasing to God.

Consider what God said to his people through the prophet Amos:

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen (Amos 5:21-23).

We are stunned when we read that God did not accept the worship of his own people.  But the explanation is quite simple.  They were not worshiping with excellence.  That is, they took action without considering what God wanted.

2.  Diligence.  The most common word translated “diligence” in the New Testament is spoodah, which means “speed, eagerness, earnestness, energy, or promptness.”  Basically it means, “Do it now, do it right, do it well.”

It is important to know how to do the work–as I just said, knowledge is the first ingredient of excellence.  But if we lack spoodah, the work is never going to get done.  Along with competence, excellence involves the willingness to take action with eagerness, energy, and speed.

3.  Efficiency.  Some know what is to be done and have the energy to do it, but they have not paused to consider what is the best way to do it.  Sometimes it’s not how hard you work, it’s how smart you work.

4.  Scrutiny.  This may be the hardest ingredient to digest.  Once we learn God’s will and are enthusiastic about doing it and have set out to do it in an efficient manner, we must be courageous enough to examine it to see if there is room for improvement.

Too often we’re distracted by the flaws in others to see our own mistakes.  Paul said, “But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor” (Gal. 6:4).  Have you ever felt pleasure at someone’s failure?  This is what Paul condemned.  It is fine to “boast” (the concept of boasting in the New Testament is similar to rejoicing), but let that boasting come from improvements in your own work, not feeling good because your work isn’t as bad as someone else’s.

Strive for excellence.  Work is a blessing when it is done right.