“We can’t find anything he has done wrong.” Daniel’s employers had examined all of his work to try to turn him in for something, and they could find nothing. Unless it was his prayer life.
Eight hundred years earlier, a young man named Joseph had faced the same situation. Forced into slavery, he had so distinguished himself for his excellence that no matter whether he was a slave to Egyptian nobility or in prison, he always found himself promoted to management. Looking back, he could only describe a life that looked nothing less than devastating and say, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Gen. 41:52).
I have come across some circles of Christianity — and indeed faced the temptation myself – to be apathetic when it comes to work and school because only “real ministry” like evangelism or discipleship matters. But as spiritual as it sounds to “sacrifice” grades or the satisfaction of a job well done, that’s not the attitude we find in the Bible. Instead, we’re commanded “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). So yes, that means not working with the motivation of getting recognized or promoted. But instead, we’re to throw ourselves entirely into whatever God has given us at the moment, knowing that our excellence is a way of glorifying Him.
But what if excellence itself is a means of evangelism?
This lesson really hit home to me when my brother brought home an international student one day. My brother was in engineering school, and he truly loved learning and decided to do his best at whatever subject he was working on. But instead of his desire for excellence getting in the way of evangelism, it actually helped him. This student from Hong Kong had noted how well my brother did in school and reached out for tutoring help. That began a long-term relationship where my brother was able to invite this young man over to our family’s house, share the gospel with him, and eventually have the joy of seeing him join a church and get baptized.
In fact, more and more in our world, we have to earn the right to speak into people’s lives. Coworkers and classmates don’t want to listen to what we have to say about the gospel unless they see there is something different about us. Of course, that difference should reach into every area of our lives, not merely our quality of work. But excellence is certainly a starting point. In Daniel 6, Daniel’s coworkers become jealous because of his promotion. But as they dig deeper into his life, they can only describe him as having an “excellent spirit.” This prompts them to look even deeper than his quality of work to notice that he is careful about the law of God, has a faithful prayer life, and in a word, serves God continually (Dan. 6:16,20). I’m reminded that Paul later exhorts the young men and women of the church to act in such a way that “the word of God may not be reviled” and speak words that “cannot be condemned” (Tit. 2:5,8).
Here are five practical tips that have helped me fight the temptation against apathy and instead strive for excellence:
- Make time with God #1. The first few weeks of this school year I learned the hard way how easy — and devastating — it is to skip my time in the Word and prayer in order to do my best and school and work. A few weeks of too many days skipped convinced me that was a mistake I couldn’t afford to make. Instead, I decided to make the commitment that time with God would be my first priority, even if other things had to go. In a way, it’s given me a hunger to spend time with Him anytime of the day I get a chance, not just at a given “quiet time” in the morning. After all, don’t I want prayer to be the area I have mastered more than anything else in life?
- Read a book on productivity. One of my biggest enemies in striving for excellence are time crunches. I find myself rarely having the time to do my best at a job, and so I let myself do half-hearted work. Time limitations will always be a reality on this side of eternity, so learning how to maximize the time we have is key. My favorite book on a Christian view of productivity is What’s Best Next by Matt Perman. Also, Michael Hyatt’s blog and podcast also has some great resources from a Christian perspective.
- Learn to say no. I am learning that whenever I over-commit myself, I stifle my creativity and ability to do well. It leaves my attention thin and I leave frustrated that even if I have stayed busy, I have accomplished nothing well. I’m learning, the hard way, that recognizing my limitations is the key to both my sanity and the pursuit of excellence.
- Network by showing an eagerness to learn. Excellence requires skill and knowledge, which requires learning. And truly the best way to learn is to tap into those who are excellent at what they do. All of us know people in our lives who have distinguished themselves in an area — be it web design or parenting, music or conversation skills. Be deliberate about asking questions not only helps us learn but enables us to build a network of skilled people to which we can turn.
- Stick with it. The opposite of excellence is quitting when something gets hard. The times when I have done this, like when I quit violin and Latin, resulted not only in loss in the skills I would have gained over time but also losing what I had built up in the first place. Of course, we’re going to have to narrow down at some point and determine what arenas God would have us pursue. But the principle is key: don’t stop when it gets hard. Those are the moments when excellence — and perseverance — are built.
The pursuit of excellence, when viewed as a means to live out our gratitude of gospel grace, is a means rather than the enemy of evangelism. We can continue this pursuit precisely because of Paul’s beautiful promise: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”