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Christian Excellence: The Alternative to Worldly Success: You Don’t Have To Be Less Than The Best

Philippians 1:15-30

If the story is not true, it ought to be…

Herman and Henrietta were touring their brand new house which Henrietta had paid for with her money—a fact of which she often reminded Herman. In each room, she said to her husband: “Herman, if it were not for my money, this house would not be here!” Herman didn’t say a word. Then a furniture truck appeared in the driveway, delivering a load of new furniture for every room in the house. As the new furniture was placed in each room, Henrietta reminded her husband: “Herman, if it were not for my money, this furniture would not be here.” Again, Herman was silent. Late in the afternoon, the interior decorators arrived and proceeded to finish each room beautifully with exquisite draperies and wall hangings and knickknacks. When it was all done, and the house looked like a showplace, Henrietta once more addressed her beleaguered husband: “Herman, if it were not for my money, this magnificent home would not be here.” Whereupon, Herman finally spoke. He said: “Honey, I don’t want to make you feel bad, but if it were not for your money I wouldn’t be here!”

Well you know, one of life’s most basic questions is “Why are we here?” Five billion people live in our world. The vast majority of those people move silently from womb to tomb without making so much as a ripple on the sea of life. But there are some people who stir the waters around them and eventually rise above the crowd. Surrounded by those who are muddling along in mediocrity, these special individuals rise toward excellence in life. Notice, please, that I did not use the word “success”—I used the word “excellence.” You see, I believe that God has given us the gift of life so that we can make a mark, in His name, upon the world. I believe that He calls us not to succeed but to excel.

Catch the difference, please. Success usually brings to mind financial achievement or being number one. People who strive to be successful, more often than not, are like Herman—they think they are here for money, their own or someone else’s. But people who strive for excellence think they are here for a purpose. Success means being the best; excellence means being your best. Success means being better than everyone else; excellence means being better tomorrow than you were yesterday. Success means exceeding the achievements of other people; excellence means matching your practice with your potential. Success encourages expedience and compromise, prompting us to love things and use people; excellence cultivates principles and consistency, prompting us to use things and love people. Excellence does not mean being the best, excellence means being your best. Understanding that difference makes all the difference in the world. Be your best in life, develop yourself, with God’s help, into the best that you can possibly be, and you will experience excellence in your life.

Excellence means you never have to be less than your best—it works in principle.

Paul writes in Philippians: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love being in full accord, and of one mind.” Paul is reminding us that we are to use the magnificent minds God has given us to lift us to excellence in our experience. In other words, our attitude will determine our altitude. We have heard the expression, “You are what you eat.” We can say with equal accuracy, “You are what you think.” The mind is like a videocassette recorder. If in our minds, we play over and over again our failures and our defeats and our shortcomings, then our lives are going to move in the direction of that which we so often rehearse. But if on the other hand, we play the videotapes of our triumphs and our potential and our dreams, then our minds will move us in a more positive direction. In other words, if we bring the laser beam of our consciousness to etch onto the surface of our minds thoughts which are powerful and promising, then our lives will orbit in that direction.

My friends, this is what the Bible calls “being renewed in your mind” or “having the mind of Christ” or “loving God with all of our minds.” You have heard the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy.” S. I. Hayakawa defines a self-fulfilling prophecy as a statement which is either true or false, but which can become true if it is sufficiently believed. Just so, if we strive for excellence in the living of our lives, if we determine that we shall match our practice to our potential, if we set out to do our best in life and to believe that we can make it and etch onto our consciousness the desire to accomplish it, then our lives will move in that direction and will have a lot to do with our attainment of that excellence.

Marcus Aurelius, the greatest of the Roman philosophers, said it like this: “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” Vince Lombardi, the great football coach, said—and his words have often been misquoted—he actually said: “Winning isn’t everything, but the will to win is everything.” Albert Einstein used to say: “My discoveries are what my mind first imagines.” Pablo Picasso, the master artist of our century, said: “I paint what I first see in my mind.” The Book of Proverbs contains this line: “As one thinketh in his heart, so he is.” I would express it all like this: You may not get everything you want out of life, but it’s for sure that you will never get any more out of life than you expect. So focus your mind on being your best in life. That’s principle—and it works!

Now not only does it work in principle, but it works in practice.

Let me give you some specific suggestions in that direction.

Number One: Practice accentuating your positives. Jesus said that if the eye of the body is dark then the whole body will be filled with darkness. Therefore, in your life, focus on the things which will bring brightness to your life. You know, on your brain stem, there is a little gland called the reticular activation system, and that small organ cuts off the sensory data your mind does not wish to receive. Have you ever visited someone who lives right under the landing path at the airport? A plane passes just a few hundred feet overhead and you are almost deafened, while they don’t even seem to notice. It’s because they have lived there a long time and the reticular activation system has cut off that negative message to the brain. All right in the same way, we need to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positives in our lives. If you are holding on to hatreds, get rid of them. If you are jealous of what other people are doing or getting, cut it out. If you feel that because somebody you thought should have apologized to you didn’t apologize, get beyond that. If you are harboring secret sinful thoughts, purge them from your mind. If you are angry at God because you don’t feel that He has answered your prayers, or at least He hasn’t answered them in the way you want them answered, lay that aside. Whatever it is that may be befouling or crowding your mind, get rid of it. Focus instead on the positives in your life. Remember how Paul put it in Philippians 4? “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Number Two: Practice concentrating your efforts. Discipline yourself. Renoir, the great impressionist painter, started out a failure. No one liked his pictures. A critic said to him once: “Your work is amusing.” And Renoir replied: “Yes, amusing. That is what I do it for—amusement.” But actually he worked at it very hard—and he worked at it year after year. He concentrated his efforts. And he continued to work at it long after he had become one of the leading artists of his time. Toward the end of his life, when his hands were so twisted with arthritis that he had to wrap rags around them in order to be able to hold his paintbrush, even then he was trying new things and trying to improve his work. Someone asked him: “Why do you paint when it is so painful?” He replied: “The pain passes, but the painting and the pleasure remains.” There it is. In learning to discipline your mind for excellence, there’s going to be some pain. You are going to have to force yourself to concentrate. You are going to have to do some things which you are not used to doing, and which you may not want to do. But the pain will pass and the pleasure will remain.

Number Three: Practice evaluating your expectations. I reject that cheap psychological talk that suggests that if you want something bad enough, you’re bound to get it. That’s rubbish! When God moves in our lives, He doesn’t move that way. He doesn’t provide instant gratification. His people first crawl, then they stumble, then they walk, then they run, and then they fly. It was so with Abraham and Moses and David and Jeremiah and Amos. It was so with Jesus Himself. In Nazareth, He “grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” God did not challenge Him with any more. Then He was led into His baptism experience where He heard God say for the first time: “This is my beloved Son.” Immediately after that He was tested by a time of temptation in the wilderness. Then He was moved by God’s leading to Galilee where He encountered His first opposition. Then He went to Bethany where he confronted death and called Lazarus to life out of death. Then He went into Jerusalem and found out what perfidy is on Palm Sunday. After that was Gethsemane—but only when He was ready for it—and Gethsemane was the preparation for what was to come after it: Calvary. Each step, you see, was leading up to the next step. Not all was accomplished at once. Each hope and promise was built upon each previous promise and hope, one step at a time. That’s why in our own pursuit of excellence, we must evaluate our expectations in light of God’s unfolding will. So as you seek to be your best in life, practice accentuating your positives and concentrating your efforts and evaluating your expectations—it works!

Of course, it not only works in principle and in practice—it works in people.

If power were the answer then Joseph Stalin’s life would have been marked by excellence. Instead, this infamous Soviet premier was afraid to go to bed at night. He had seven different bedrooms. Each could be locked up as tightly as a safe. In order to foil would-be assassins, he slept in a different one each night. So deep-seated were his apprehensions that he employed a servant whose sole task was to monitor and protect his tea bags! Remember that, those who seek power.

If money were the answer, then Howard Hughes’ life would have been marked by excellence. But you know how his distrust of people and his paranoia of germs left him holed up in a hotel in Mexico where he died a lonely death as a cadaverous hermit with a four-foot beard and corkscrew fingernails. Remember that, those who seek money.

If fame were the answer, then John Lennon’s life would have been marked by excellence. His popularity as a singer and songwriter with the Beatles made his name a household word, yet he was miserable. His biographers describe him as a tormented and frightened man, robbed of all joy, unwilling to sleep with the lights off, and afraid to touch anything because of its filth. Remember that, those who seek prestige and popularity.

Now contrast that with the experience of a man whose last name is synonymous with wealth, power, and prestige. His name was William Borden, Jr. His father founded the milk company which bears his name. William Borden, Sr. saw to it that his son had every worldly advantage and designated him as the future head of the company. However, while William Borden, Jr. was in college, some friends introduced him to Jesus Christ. Everything changed, especially his dreams and his sense of purpose in life. He subsequently announced to his father that he would forsake his future with the company and would become a missionary to the Far East. He would give up all of the things so many Americans dream about. His father was stunned and he tried everything he could think of to change his son’s mind. It didn’t work. A couple of years later, William Borden received word that his son had died in the service of Jesus Christ. He was filled with anger, sorrow, and bitterness at his son’s tragic loss—until one day a package arrived in the mail. It was from another missionary who had been William Borden, Jr.’s closest friend. The letter described the extraordinary things young Borden had accomplished and how many lives he had touched. The letter ended with these words: “Mr. Borden, you will find your son’s Bible enclosed. It meant so much to him, and I know it will to you.” The milk magnate then began to thumb through the Book about which he knew so little. His eyes fell upon some words handwritten on the back flyleaf. The date beside corresponded to the week before his son’s death. When he saw what his son had written, he was overwhelmed with emotion: “NO RESERVE. NO RETREAT. NO REGRET.” His son had a dream, a dream with eternal significance. In pursuing that dream, the young man had risked everything. But in so doing, what he gained was immeasurable.


I believe that God in Jesus Christ is calling us to pursue excellence in our lives, for it is He whom we must please and serve and honor and adore. I believe that He is calling us not to be the best, but to be our best. He deserves our very best; nothing more, nothing less, nothing else…

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