Pursuing Excellence

Do your best.

My parents didn’t say that to me as a casual encouragement.  They meant it: put in the maximum effort, always, to achieve the best result possible.  Doing homework?  Do your best.  Practicing for a concert?  Do your best.  Doing volunteer work?  Do your best.  Putting everything I had into my work, and treating it with care and attention – whatever my work happened to be – was the prevailing direction that I remember receiving from them.

The marvelous thing was that my parents never defined “best” beyond “your full-hearted effort.”  So if I tried my best and made an A on an essay, great!  But if I tried my best and made a B, that was great, too.  The point was never the outcome, but the process.  I didn’t get scolded for results, but I might get scolded for putting in a half-hearted effort, deliberate carelessness, or hurrying just to get something (that seemed, to me, unimportant) out of the way.

This parenting philosophy of theirs was beneficial to me.  I didn’t feel the pressure some of my peers felt to get As or produce a certain amount of awards or achievements; I never defined myself by them.  If I “did my best,” my parents would be happy – and when my best happened to earn great grades or awards, well, that was icing on the cake.  More importantly, though, it cultivated an attitude in me that colors everything I approach: whatever it is I’m doing, I default to putting in my best effort.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized the distinctly Christian aspects of this approach.

God gives us gifts, and talents, and abilities.  To use them well, to hone them and apply them consistently and with care, is to be a good steward of those gifts.  To shrug off what we can do, to only apply ourselves halfway, to approach whatever we set our hands to as though it’s a hassle or something to be gotten over with – well, that’s bad stewardship.  Doing our best, pursuing excellence, means wisely and intently using everything God has given us to the fullest of our ability.

Additionally, pursuing excellence can have marvelously positive results.  The Christians who achieve amazing earthly victories – in the Olympics or as executives, developing cancer cures or serving as the leaders of powerful ministries – apply quality effort on a consistent basis.  They work hard!  They expect nothing less than their best.  When we give our most to what we are doing, the results – with God’s grace, and to His glory – can be wonderful.

But mostly, pursuing excellence and doing your best is a powerful ministry to non-believers.

I work with someone who has acknowledged an openly critical view of Christianity.  She’s not a huge fan of the religion in either the concrete or the abstract, and she made her feelings clear – to me, directly, knowing that’s my faith.  Although she’s indicated that she likes me, I also had the strong sense when we first met that being a believer was a black mark against me: to her, it made me a little less likeable, a little less intelligent, a little less appealing.

There wasn’t much I could do about it.  So I shrugged it off and did what my parents taught me: I gave the job my best.   And over time, I’ve watched her warm up to me and even become an ally – not because she’s suddenly become a big fan of Christianity, but because whatever she thinks of my faith, she can’t argue with my effort or with the results God has blessed me with.  Doing my best has gained me a sort of credibility with her, a grudging respect.

Here’s the thing: nobody wants to do a group work project with the guy that shows up late or half-finishes his work or who laughs off careless errors.  A non-believer who doesn’t like Christians is going to like them a whole lot less if the only one he knows turns in a work report that was clearly not taken seriously.  When we do our best, we’re honoring God.  And to tell people that we do our best to honor God – and not to get a promotion, or win an award – is something that people aren’t used to hearing or seeing.

So: as Scripture says, whatever you do, do it as working for the Lord, and not for men.  And if you do it as working for the Lord, that means giving 100% to whatever it is at hand: mopping a floor, teaching, writing a report, database administration, whatever.  In a world where effort and works exists mostly for selfish gain, the application of fervent work and the pursuit of excellence to honor God is a striking witness indeed.

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