Question: What’s your aim in life—excellence or obedience?
What’s the difference? To aim for obedience is to aim for perfection, not for “excellence,” which is actually something less.
“Wait a minute!” you reply. “I thought excellence and perfection were the same thing.”
Sometimes they appear to be. But mere excellence allows room for a mixture. In most arenas, excellence is not a fixed standard at all. It’s a mixed standard.
* I was the perfect example of someone who wasn’t shooting for God’s fixed standard of obedience. I was teaching classes at church, chairing activities groups, and attending discipleship classes. My church attendance was exemplary, and I spoke the Christian language. Like the businessman seeking the best business practices, I was asking myself, How far can I go and still be called a Christian? The question I should have been asking was, How holy can I be?
Let me demonstrate the difference between excellence and obedience through a couple of stories from my premarriage class. When each seven-week session begins, I ask the students what they desire in marriage. During a recent class, all six couples declared that they wanted to build their relationships upon God’s principles. Then I
asked this question: Is it all right to modify the truth to avoid unpleasantness in the home?
Each answered no, unanimously agreeing that modifying the truth was lying and that none of them would do that in their homes.
“Really?” I asked. “Then what about this? Brenda has had four children, and through the years her weight has slid between four different wardrobe sizes. [Much laughter usually follows this comment.] During transitions between sizes, she often hoped to wear something from the smaller-size wardrobe to church. Squeezing into it, she’d ask me, ‘Is this too tight?’ She wanted to know whether the dress fit or whether it would draw attention to her weight. Often it was a close call, and I would have to choose between modifying the truth or hurting her feelings and discouraging her.
“Was it okay for me to modify the truth to avoid this unpleasantness? It’s a small thing, after all, and I love her. If I told the truth, it would hurt her feelings, and I don’t like to hurt her feelings.
“What would you do? Would you modify the truth?”
Amazingly, only moments after declaring that they would never modify the truth in their home, five out of the six couples now said they would indeed modify the truth to avoid this particular unpleasantness.
They can speak the Christian language, and they certainly sound excellent. But can they live Christian truth?
With excellence we try to cover our disobedient tracks. Pete and Mary attended my premarriage class, and Pete impressed me from day one. He lapped up anything I said, nodding in assent at even the most difficult teachings regarding the husband’s responsibilities (such as servanthood).
At the end of the seventh week, Pete and Mary stopped me after class. “Your discussion on sexual purity really hit home last week,” Pete began, “especially when you said that viewing pornography and X-rated movies won’t strengthen your sex life. My first wife used to rent X-rated movies for me, and we would watch them together before going to bed. In the end, it hurt us.” Then he added, “Mary and I will not do this in our marriage.” So far, so good.
But Mary, stepping in, said, “We’ve been having an ongoing struggle over what we watch together. We’ll often rent a movie to watch at my apartment, but you know how it is. Most of the popular movies have some pretty racy scenes, and I’m feeling more and more uncomfortable with this. When it gets steamy, I tell Pete we need to turn it off, but he gets angry, arguing that we’ve invested good money in the rental and it’s a waste of money to shut it off. So I go off into the kitchen to do some work while he finishes watching.”
She got a tear in her eye and looked down. “I don’t feel these movies are good for us,” she said. “I’ve asked him to stop for my sake, but he won’t. We make it a practice to pray together before he goes home, but after these movies, I often feel dirty and cheap. I feel these movies are coming between us.”
Of course, Pete was embarrassed. Was he in search of excellence or obedience? At least in this area he had stopped short. By the standards of his peers, he knew he could watch popular movies with racy sexual situations and still “seem” Christian. That’s all he needed.
To his credit, Pete asked me what he should do. I told him to follow Mary’s lead and not watch the sexy videos, and he agreed to do so.
So often there’s no challenging voice like Mary’s calling us to obedience and perfection. Satisfied with mere excellence, we stop short of God’s standards. We move nearer our peers only to find distance from God.
In so many areas, we’re often sitting together on the middle ground of excellence, a good distance from God. When challenged by His higher standards, we’re comforted that we don’t look too different from these around us. Trouble is, we don’t look much different from non-Christians either.
From the book: EVERY MAN’S BATTLE