Far from throwing a wet blanket on godly passion, the goal of this WHI series is to encourage an orientation and habits that foster deeper growth in grace, more effective outreach, and a more sustainable vision of loving service to others over a lifetime.
But is “ordinary” a cop-out for mediocrity? Is it a call to low expectations, failure, and passivity? On the contrary, it’s a call to sustainable discipleship over the long haul not only throughout an individual’s life but also over generations. It’s not a call to do less, but instead is a call to invest in things that we often give up on when we don’t see an immediate return.
So, in order to get off on the right foot, I want to identify what we don’t meant by “ordinary.” Too often, it’s seen as synonymous with nominal, mediocre, passive, disengaged—a cop-out for just not caring. The very fact that “ordinary” now has these connotations underscores the shift in our cultural imagination. It’s a shift that makes it difficult to nurture those values that actually sustain deep commitments, values that enrich our lives and the lives of those around us.
Many of us had parents who were wind beneath our wings. They encouraged us to aim for the stars. We can all recall a coach or teacher who believed in us when we weren’t so sure of ourselves. People like that are worth their weight in gold. We cannot live without drives, passions, and goals. God wired us that way and pronounced it “good.” Yet everything that the Bible identifies as sin, and that even our nature recognizes as such, is something essentially good gone wrong. Or more precisely, something that God has made that we corrupt. Augustine defined the essence of sin as being curved in on ourselves. Instead of looking up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love, we turn inward. We use God’s good gifts as weapons in the service of our mutiny against him and each other.
A good example of this is the pursuit of excellence. It is going over and beyond the call of duty, with God’s glory and our neighbor’s good as the goal. But this virtue can easily become warped when it is centered on us. Whether due to a lack of confidence or over-confidence, we focus on goals and our own measurable progress rather than on the end toward which we should aim. When this happens, “standards of excellence”—at school, at work, in the church and in family life—become an idol. We have a certain image of ourselves or of the persona that we would like to project and we guard it at all costs.
Obviously, excellence is not the problem; we are. The question is whether by excellence we mean quality or quantity, hype or substance, perpetual novelty or maturity. It has often been said that American Christianity is a thousand miles wide and an inch deep. If we were to measure excellence by God’s standards, the list might seem a little foreign and strange: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22). Not exactly the qualities that are mentioned in job postings for leaders these days.
I have to say—and it will not come as any surprise to anyone involved in ministry—that things don’t often seem different in the church. Love, joy, and peace are often threatened less by doctrinal disputes than by selfish ambition. Tribes gather around a charismatic figure and then the movement that they form exalts itself over other churches or movements that haven’t caught up with the spirit of the age. The mutual submission of members in local churches through the oversight of pastors and elders is seen as a fetter on one’s unique and utterly personal relationship with God. The New Testament vision of local churches (and their leaders) submitting themselves to others in broader assemblies of accountability for doctrine and life surrenders to the atmosphere of the marketplace and political campaigns. Patience is threatened by restless devotion to the latest slogan, the emerging generation, or the newest church growth/personal growth/social transformation program. Kindness and goodness have given way in large measure to a coarse and inhospitable rhetoric that would have been considered sinful by our forebears and socially inappropriate by their contemporaries. Faithfulness is not likely to thrive in an environment of perpetual revolutions, self-expression, and makeovers. And the mature qualities of gentleness and self-control are made subordinate, at least in practice, to the sort of reckless, visceral, and often ill-informed judgments that we once associated with adolescence.
Excellence is still a goal to which we strive. That’s true of anyone who’s driven by a worthy prospect, cause, or calling. But the goal will not only determine the means but also whatever we assume excellence to be in the first place. Since our failures are liberally pardoned by a merciful Father in Christ, we can strive “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” It is life not of fear, but of “endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:10-14).