Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Better Than Good

It’s all too easy to slip into legalistic thinking.

I don’t mean that I’m likely to find myself imposing an archaic, rigid moral framework on others — there’s not much danger of that sort of legalism. But I tend to default to a very binary view of the will of God. Black and white. On and off. Good and evil. Avoid the bad stuff and you’ve had a good day. And I’m probably not alone in that.

I didn’t get up this morning hoping, praying and planning to express Christ to others in the very best possible way. I should’ve, but I didn’t.

Paul tells the Philippians:
“It is my prayer … that you may approve what is excellent.”
Not just unsinful. Not just passably moral. Not even good. Excellent.

Bigger, Better, More Effective

In Greek, the word “excellent” is diapherō:
  • Excellence implies greater value. “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value [diapherō] than many sparrows.” Nothing wrong with little birds. They’re fine. They have significance and purpose, not to mention beauty and function. God made them. The Father is there observing when they fall to the ground. But we’re worth more.
  • Excellence implies making a distinction between good things. “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs [diapherō] from star in glory.” The sun is glorious. The moon is glorious. The stars are glorious. But if it’s 6 a.m. and thirty below, it’s the sun you want to see, not the moon or the stars. Some things are more appropriate than others in a given situation.
  • Excellence implies maximum impact. “The word of the Lord was spreading [diapherō] throughout the whole region.” This was not some little trickle of information. The entire region around Pisidian Antioch was affected, so much so that the Jews panicked and drove Paul and Barnabas from their district to try to contain the effect of the gospel they preached. To no avail.
Pursuing Excellence

In the Christian life:
  • The pursuit of excellence requires love, and not just a little of it. Lots of things will suffice as motivation, but love exceeds them all. Dutiful people eventually run out of gas. Guilty people spend too much time angsting about the past. Pedantic people get frustrated when things don’t go as they should. But as a motivation, genuine love never fails. “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more,” says the apostle.
  • The pursuit of excellence requires knowledge. The Jews who chased Paul from Antioch had plenty of enthusiasm for God, but “not according to knowledge”. They were flapping away baselessly, ineffectively and counterproductively in their efforts to serve God. Excellence requires that our efforts be based on correct information, not biases, assumptions or misrepresentations. “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge,” says the apostle.
  • The pursuit of excellence requires discernment. Discernment is sometimes complicated. It requires working things through. True discernment reaches the heart and not just the head. People who are merely intellectually knowledgeable may recognize that one course of action is better than another, but a truly discerning person goes down the better road himself. “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,” says the apostle.
The Outcome of Excellence

Paul didn’t seem to think the Christian life was simply about staying out of trouble and not doing anything bad. Rather, he gives the Philippians three reasons he is concerned that they come to approve what is excellent:
“… and so be ¹pure and blameless for the day of Christ, ²filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, ³to the glory and praise of God.”
I’d like to be pure and blameless on the day of Christ, but that requires making excellent choices, not just okay ones. There are all kinds of Christians building on the foundation of Christ with wood, hay and straw. These folks will be saved, but only “as through fire”, their work in this life consumed. Excellence in service requires using the best materials, not just anything that comes to hand.

I’d also like my life right now to be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ”. Fruit is evidence for all to see that what you approve is indeed excellent. “You will recognize them by their fruits,” the Lord said. If we seek after excellent things, the consequences in our lives will be obvious. Jesus said about his Father, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Fruit is the point of the exercise, and excellent choices produce more fruit than poor ones — or even good ones.

Excellence in Action

Most importantly, I’d like my life to be “to the glory and praise of God.” But receiving such an evaluation requires that I consistently approve what is excellent.

Living a life of moderation, decency and common sense might well redound to the praise of me, but excellent choices are sometimes riskier and most often come without praise from men. They involve going places we are not wanted and saying things that are dangerous to say. They involve taking the low place at the table when everyone else is scrambling for the best seats. They involve washing feet when the rest of us are waiting to be served dinner. At least, that seems to be how the apostle Paul defined excellence.

It was certainly the sort of excellence he modeled.

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