Excellence Is Better than Success
He was a wise young man—a coal miner who became a lawyer by studying at night school. First he learned shorthand. Then he found work in a law office. Later, when his shorthand improved, he became a court reporter. He attended law school at night and passed his bar exams. Then he received a call from God for missionary service. He even knew the place—Burma.
She was the most popular girl in her class, but never took any of her suitors seriously. She, too, had received a call from God. After high school she enrolled at a newly-founded missionary college in preparation for answering that call.
Each of them might well have been named Most Likely to Succeed” by society’s standards, but they both had other standards in mind. They wanted to serve God above anything else. They met at that missionary college. It was inevitable that they should decide to marry. Together they prayed and looked forward to their missionary service. They were married the day after graduation.
Before their appointment to Burma came through, there was a small complication. He weighed 8 pounds, 4 ounces and was 20 inches long. When finally the appointment was made, her need to recuperate from an extremely difficult labor prompted them to postpone their acceptance for a year. But the next year brought a flu epidemic. It nearly took his life and did claim the life of their little son. The overwhelming medical bills caused another delay. To get out of debt, he became very much involved in his law practice.
The third year brought another baby. The new father, now a successful lawyer, was in the midst of a contested probate where a godly widow had left a huge sum of money to missions. Her ungodly children were using all kinds of legal maneuvers to keep that mission from receiving the funds. He felt he could not leave for Burma until the case was settled. He rationalized that he was fulfilling his call by serving as an attorney for God’s work, and that the delay in going to Burma must have been God’s will. That case took four years.
Once again he applied as a missionary, but this time only half-heartedly. He now had three small children, and with relief he accepted the mission board’s notification: They could not use him on the field. Burma had been closed to missionaries.
His law practice continued to flourish. His monthly donations supported several missionaries. He served on the board of directors for several missions, and through his generosity several churches were started. I attended their 45th wedding anniversary celebration and heard that very attractive older couple declare their happiness and sense of fulfillment and their love for the Lord and one another. They were never to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. She passed on and he became frail in health. One day he told me a shocking secret.
At that time I was a young missionary and greatly discouraged in my ministry, thinking that I might better serve the Lord in some other way. I considered “tentmaking” as Paul had done. The idea had always appealed to me. Because there is an onus on being a missionary to the Jews, it would he so much easier if I could continue to witness but say that I was a shoe salesman, a teacher—anything respectable—anything but a missionary to the Jews, which was not at all “respectable”!
I shared my burden with the elderly lawyer because I knew and respected him greatly. That was when he told me the shocking secret he had kept from even his closest associates. He confided it to me because I needed to hear it, and I have never forgotten it.
He said, “I’ve had a happy life, but not a joyous one. I’ve made and given away a fortune. I have the love and respect of many, but I did not fulfill my destiny. It’s easy to excuse myself by saying that circumstances dictated another call, but only in the last year of my wife’s life could we admit to one another that we had chosen to do the second best. I am not unhappy, but I am not fulfilled.”
Then he added something that helped me overcome my discouragement. He said, “I recognize that you are a man of destiny. You have a call from God. Don’t do anything less than what he has called you to do.”
He died shortly after that. He was a man who taught me many things. He was certainly a godly man. I can testify to that. He was happy and successful, but by his own admission, he had not fulfilled his destiny.
Recently I read Christian Excellence: Alternative to Success by Dr. Jon Johnston, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Discussing our success-oriented evangelical society, Dr. Johnston made a distinction between success and excellence. He described his own efforts to be a super-person, and how he had continually failed and concealed his failings. Then he had read a highly recommended secular book, In Search of Excellence. The book dealt with companies that did things right and made it big. As he read that book, Dr. Johnston realized that it was not describing excellence, but success.
He pointed out the differences. He said that success is cheap. Success might mean enjoying the acclaim of the crowd, having the keys to the executive bathroom and driving a Mercedes, but success does not necessarily last. Excellence, on the other hand, does. Excellence does not gain the applause of the crowd. Excellence does not produce popularity. Excellence demands more than success. Striving toward excellence requires striving to change one’s character.
After reading that, I wondered if Dr. Johnston were not just playing word games. Wasn’t excellence implied in success? If a person did an excellent job, then didn’t he or she succeed? If a person received recognition for being successful, wasn’t that success due to excellence? In our society that seems to be the case. Excellence, success and recognition seem to go hand-in-hand.
Then I realized what Dr. Johnston was saying—an important lesson to me: In the Christian sense, excellence in serving the Lord is quite different. Christian excellence is motivated by a desire to please the Lord and to fulfill his purposes. Such endeavor is an act of worship, not to be applauded by human hands. Christian excellence entails offering one’s best to God. It cannot be snatched away by lack of human praise or augmented by human recognition or earthly reward. It seeks only the Master’s affirmation: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
I know from personal experience that Christian excellence can exist without “success” and without applause or fanfare. If you want to see excellence and godliness, come and sit at our Jews for Jesus mail table and read some of our incoming mail. Sometimes the spelling isn’t correct; sometimes the handwriting is scrawled and shaky and almost illegible. But I look at those pages and see the reflection of a godly person. I see hearts of love and praise to God. I see overcoming strength and victory in the midst of illness, trust in the midst of poverty. That is Christian excellence.
Excellence is better than success. It entails pleasing God—fulfilling one’s destiny as his child—godliness. Godliness does not lead us to strive for success, but to strive for excellence—to strive to accomplish God’s purposes, thus fulfilling our highest calling as his redeemed ones. How we love to quote Romans 8:28: “…all things work together for good…” But we must be careful to remember the rest of the verse: “…to those who are the called according to his purpose.” And if you read the rest of that passage you find that God calls us to be conformed to the image of his Son. We are not all called to be professional missionaries. We are not all called to be preachers. But we are all called to fill and fulfill a definite role within the Body of Christ. As those who have received the Spirit of Christ, we know what God asks of us, and we know when we settle for doing—for giving him—something less.
That godly lawyer knew. He told me, “You are a man of destiny. You have a call.” He didn’t want me to settle for anything less. He exhorted me as one who had not fulfilled his own destiny. I, in turn, want to say to all blood-bought believers in Christ: “You too have a destiny because you have a call, as does every believer in Christ. Your call is to do your part in accomplishing the purposes of our Heavenly Father. Once you realize this, you have the potential of excelling in the fulfillment of your destiny. And fulfilling your destiny will bring unmatched and lasting joy.