Never Settle for Less
Back in early March, my university band went on tour to Carnegie Hall in New York City. For those of you who aren’t musicians, this is a huge deal! It has a rich history of being the venue for the greatest and most talented musicians this world has ever seen such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and the Beatles. As a former professional saxophonist, it was a dream come true. In my entire musical career, I never imagined that I would have the once in a lifetime opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, and now with the wind ensemble of a small Christian university whose band is, well, mediocre, my 8-year-old dream came true. The band here at Concordia University-Ann Arbor is nothing compared to university bands like the North Texas Wind Symphony, but in my professional opinion, it was our best performance for the entire length of time I’ve been in the ensemble. In fact, the Professor of Music Emeritus at the California Polytechnic State University, William V. Johnson, wrote us a letter saying our performance was “short of stunning and inspirational, as evidenced by the standing ovation you received.” He also commented we performed with “sonorous grandeur” and our band director, Dr. William Perrine, has “developed one of the finest wind bands in the nation.” These are extraordinary words for a small, “mediocre” Christian wind ensemble.
Anyway, back in February our band director gave a 5-minute speech about our anticipated trip to Carnegie Hall, which is what prompted me to write this article because he took the words right out of my mouth. We warmed up to a Bach chorale, “Geib, dass ich thu mit Fleiss,” which its lyrics translate to:
And grant me, Lord, to do
with ready heart and willing,
whate’er Thou shalt command,
my calling here fulfilling.
And do it when I ought,
with all my strength, and bless
the work that I have wrought,
for Thou must give success.
These lyrics served as the perfect segue into his concise speech, which is where I got the title of this article: “God is not glorified by mediocrity.” Most of the students in the wind ensemble are there only for the scholarship, so the level of individual musicianship there is not great. Hardly anyone practices and knows how to appropriately play within the context of the ensemble. This is because the majority of the members in the band aren’t passionate about making music on the instruments they’re playing. It is also because they’re not all musical professionals like I am (or close to)—everyone there is at completely different levels of musical ability. We have some strong musicians, but there aren’t many. Because of this, our performances are usually pretty mediocre, and it doesn’t help we’re at a small Christian university. Instead of settling for mediocrity, he encouraged us even more to practice our parts so by the time we were on stage at Carnegie Hall, we would not be worried about all the musical technicalities and could just perform from the heart for the glory of God.
The director’s speech was much needed and I’m glad he gave it. As a Millennial, I have a strong dislike for my generation, which many of you reading this may be part of (born between 1990-1996). It’s not just because so many people in this generation are falling away from God, wearing pants that show off their underwear, their growing poor taste in music, and whining and protesting just because they don’t get their way. It’s also because this generation seems to settle for mediocrity. In college, my friends always ask me how I maintain a 3.85 to 4.0 GPA as if I’m a genius or have some secret formula to success. Intelligence might have something to do with it, but it only plays a small role. I tell them it’s because I work hard; I don’t sacrifice homework and studying time to hang out with friends or go on a Netflix binge. I’m in college to get an education, not to make friends. Sure, I love making new friends and I love the ones I have dearly, but my education is not about my friends; it’s about my investment in myself so I can make an honest living. College is the time to be selfish. I didn’t get out of the Army to hang out with friends at the expense of my education, but to get an education and be the best I can be at it. Students frequently wait until the last minute to complete an assignment or study for an exam and when they get the exam or assignment back they wonder why they did so poorly. It’s because they were lazy and settled for mediocrity rather than doing their best, failing at their vocation as student.
As a 26-year-old veteran, all I know is hard work. All I’ve been doing since I’ve gotten out is working hard toward my calling to be a pastor. Perhaps it’s because of my time in the Army I have zero tolerance for incompetence. To me, if you’re incompetent and mediocre, why bother to do it at all? That might seem harsh to some of you, but mediocrity doesn’t get you anywhere and when you’re mediocre, you just get in other peoples’ way. This generation seems to settle for mediocre work, mediocre education, mediocre relationships (friendship, family, and romantic), and even mediocre faith.
I’ve spouted enough exposition, so onward to theology! Martin Luther calls our different areas of responsibility in life as “vocations.” For example, I have the vocation of brother, son, friend, academic tutor and pastoral intern (employee), student, and child of God, just to name a few. Regarding vocation, Luther said:
The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship… These [vocations] are the masks of our Lord God, behind which He wants to be hidden and to do all things.
Let me explain what he means as God being “hidden and to do all things.” There’s this theological thought that we Lutherans call the left and right kingdoms of God—Law and Gospel respectively. They’re both different kingdoms, or realms, but God rules over them both equally. The right kingdom of God is exclusively for Christians, where God forgives sins and how He deals with us as believers (our “vertical” relationship with Him). The left kingdom, where both believers and unbelievers dwell, is how God keeps the world in order as Creator to accomplish His will as well as how we interact with one another (our “horizontal” relationship with our neighbor). God does this through the laws of physics, weather, government, jobs, the Ten Commandments, etc. There is no favoritism with God (Romans 2:11), and He loves both believers and unbelievers alike. Therefore, “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45) because He is a merciful God. One of the ways in which He provides for all people is through the various vocations people have—doctors, dentists, taxi drivers, airplane pilots, janitors, teachers, garbage men, and so on. In all these ways, He is “hidden…to do all things.” As Christians, we are not of the world (John 17:16), but we are still in the world, therefore we still have worldly duties to perform. We don’t belong to the world, but as we temporarily remain in this world each of us has been given certain vocations to fulfill. Our God is not mediocre, so why do we settle for less in the duties we have to perform? When we settle for mediocrity rather than glorifying God, we dishonor Him.
Called to Greatness
As Christians, we are not called to mediocrity; we are called to greatness. By this, I don’t mean God expects you to be an expert in every vocation you’re called to, but He does desire us to “work heartily.” Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men…” Now, put on your Greek hats. The Greek word used for “heartily” is the adverbial form of the noun ψυχή (psu-KAY), meaning “life, inner self, soul,” which is a word indicating something “integral to being a person beyond mere physical function” (Danker, 388)—so literally, “from the soul.” Whatever we do, we ought to do it from the soul—as if it is an integral part of our lives and souls as human beings. We are therefore not called to mediocrity, but to greatness—to be the greatest at everything we do to the best of our ability for the glory of the Lord. Again, I emphasize that I do not mean God expects you to be an absolute expert in all that you do, but He does want you to be your best because it will only aid in your growth as a human being, and doing your best brings glory to God. When I was in the Army, I wasn’t the best saxophonist or the best sharpshooter or the best runner. I was one of their best saxophonists, one of their best expert marksmen, and one of their best runners, but I was never the best. Regardless, I still did my absolute best which is why I was one of the best. Even if I wasn’t one of the best, I was still at my best; it doesn’t matter I was considered among the ranks of one of their best soldiers. What matters is I did my best to be at my best. It does not glorify God when we just go through the motions and settle for less.
I’ll explain this further with the parable of the ten minas from Luke 19:11-27:
As they heard these things, He proceeded to tell a parable, because He was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has ten minas.’ And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.
Two things. First of all, God will be to us what we expect Him to be. We are judged by the God we expect—we expect either a gracious God or a harsh God (v. 22). In verse 22, the nobleman being represented as Jesus was essentially saying, “That’s who you think I am? You think I am severe, so then I’ll be severe towards you since that’s how you expect Me to be. Your own words condemn you.” Before this parable, we see how God deals with the differing expectations of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). He deals with them both differently according to their expectations of Him (the Pharisee in judgement and the tax collector in forgiveness). Second, this parable teaches us to be faithful with whatever we have or face the loss of all we have, even if it’s only a little. Each of the servants were given 10 minas. The first returned with 10 more and the second returned with only five. The second may have returned with less, but he still made a profit regardless. In business, they came back with a return on investment—the nobleman invested in them and they returned with more than they started out with. The third, however, wanted to avoid risk and didn’t do anything; he simply hid. Unlike him, the other two servants used what they had to advance the nobleman’s kingdom. No matter how much or how little resources God gives us, He expects us to use our resources to advance His kingdom. He invests in each of us, and no matter how much He invests He expects a return on investment in the advancement of His kingdom. The world may not want Jesus to reign over them, but He does anyway, and we are sent out to do His business. God gives more to those who use their resources if not on earth, then certainly in Heaven—where our true treasure lies. Those who hide and are lazy and squander their resources will suffer loss. Each vocation we have is just another resource we have to advance God’s kingdom—every relationship we have. If we don’t take advantage of those relationships to be an example of Christ, we’re just squandering that opportunity to make Him known. By hiding the Gospel in these vocations, we are settling for mediocrity.
So why does mediocrity dishonor God instead of glorifying Him? As Christians, everything we do reflects who God is. As I recently said, we are ambassadors of Christ—we are His representatives. When we unrepentantly live in sin, people think, “Hey, they say God condemns sin but here they are living in sin without forsaking it, so God must not care much about sin as long as I believe in Him. That means I can ask for forgiveness whenever I do something bad and just keep on sinning.” They say this while ignoring the reality of Romans 6:1-4. When radical Christians wrongfully preach God hates homosexuals and soldiers (or anyone else), they think, “Since God is really a god of hate, I want nothing to do with Him.” When we’re rude and unkind, people think, “Sheesh, they claim they’re Christian, but they don’t treat others very well. So why should I care what God thinks I do?” Because we have the label Christian (Christ follower), all eyes are on us. There are three basic characteristics of mediocrity that do not belong to the Christian: procrastination, indolence, and timidity. When we’re lazy, timid, and procrastinate, we fail to reflect who Jesus is. In Jesus’ entire ministry He was neither lazy, timid, nor did he procrastinate. But in our endeavors to be Christlike, we often settle for mediocrity.
Every now and then, I’ll procrastinate, whether it’s because I’m too sleepy to do anything or just plain unmotivated, and I always hate it when I do. But I will never procrastinate at the expense of friends or falling behind on my work. Procrastination is the willful act of delaying or postponing something. There is no plausible reason for it—not even my sleepiness or lack of motivation. We may give excuses for it, like mine, but there’s a difference between an excuse and an explanation. Ultimately, procrastination is the epitome of indolence, so I’ll try not to be redundant when I talk about indolence. If there’s anything that’s indicative of Scripture, especially in the poetic books, it’s that it commends hard work. “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (Proverbs 13:4). This is an easy verse to use against indolence, but I’m using it for procrastination because of the word “diligent.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines diligent as, “characterized by steady, earnest, and energetic effort.” Sure, you might be tired even though it’s only 3:00 in the afternoon, but that’s still no reason to procrastinate. The day’s not over. To be diligent, then, is to ignore that temptation to procrastinate and fall behind as a result. The problem is not that we procrastinate every once in a while, but when it becomes a perpetual habit and we ultimately don’t get anything done.
I want to bring your attention to Colossians 3:23 again: “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men…” You might hate your job, whether it’s an actual career or a minimum wage job, but tough. First of all, be thankful you have a job because there are plenty of people in America who can’t find one or are unable to work. Second of all, if you can’t do it for yourself or for your boss, then do it for God to bring Him glory. God has you there for a reason. What’s the reason? It probably has something to do with earning money so you’ll be able to eat and have a roof over your head and complete whatever your job is in service to for the benefit of your neighbor. Don’t be like the lawyer who wanted a definition of who a neighbor is (Luke 10:25-37). As this parable of the Good Samaritan teaches, instead of trying to discern who your neighbor is, be neighborly towards everybody. If all you do is complain about your job and settle for mediocre work by procrastinating, you’re not glorifying God. In fact, it insults Him. You have God to thank for that job that someone else would gladly take. It may not be a glorifying job, but it’s not about you; it’s all about Jesus Christ. “For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16). In Christ all things are upheld, and all things exist for Him. Therefore, don’t insult Him by being mediocre with what you do by procrastinating all the time.
Isaac Newton’s first law of motion is an object will remain motionless or uniform in motion unless acted upon by an external force. People are a lot like that. Some people, like myself, are naturally ambitious and driven to accomplishments. Others, on the other hand, are apathetic and lack the motivation to make accomplishments. When we were younger, my older brother was given the nickname “inertia boy” by our father because he won’t do anything unless he’s forced to. He has a job and he’s able to live on his own, but he will not clean or bathe until the situation forces him to do so. He refuses to continue his college education because no one’s forcing him to do it. His life consists merely of his minimum wage job and playing video games all evening.
I need to distinguish procrastination from indolence. Procrastination is more like the college student who will sacrifice homework and studying time just to hang out with friends, or putting off a task for later just because he or she doesn’t “feel like” doing it right now. When I talk of indolence, I mean a serious condition in which you literally don’t get anywhere…in life. Procrastination is something everybody does—it’s just a form of indolence; and as I said earlier, it only becomes a problem when we don’t get anything done. Indolence in itself, when I speak of it, is that state in which the individual exerts no effort to do anything. The procrastinator still goes to work or school; they just put their tasks off. The indolent, however, doesn’t do anything. This could be in education, getting a job, spreading the Gospel, whatever. The indolent person seeks no education, or perhaps is in college or high school but does no schoolwork whatsoever. The indolent person refuses to seek a job, or has a job and does no work whatsoever (indeed, that job won’t last long). And the indolent person is that Christian who Greg Groeschel calls a “Christian atheist”—claiming to be Christian but living as if God doesn’t exist.
Proverbs 6:6 says, “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” Scripture considers indolence so serious that it tells the sluggard to look at an ant as an example. Why not? They’re hard workers! Pixar’s A Bug’s Life certainly encapsulates this. They work all day and lift things many times their size every single day. Earlier I said there’s a difference between an excuse and an explanation. Lazy people are masters at giving excuses and passing them off as explanations. Scripture mocks them, saying, “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets!'” (Proverbs 26:13). Essentially, this mockery is saying, “But it’s too challenging! I can’t do it!” This is like those people who say they don’t want to go to college because it’s expensive and they don’t want to be in debt. Guess what? You won’t be the only college graduate in debt! Sure, it sucks, but get over it; you’re just giving an excuse. It’s sheer indolence. If you refuse to go to college to start a career just because you don’t want to be in debt and therefore settle for a mediocre, minimum wage job, don’t complain you’re not making enough to live or buy the things you want. You put yourself in that situation. Scripture gives a warning, “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Proverbs 10:4). In indolence, you will probably end up being poor. You make less than the college graduate with a career not because minimum wage is unfair pay (in fact, it’s quite fair), but because you weren’t diligent enough to get a college education and therefore a better job that pays significantly more. A mediocre job means you’ll receive mediocre pay and benefits. A minimum wage worker doesn’t deserve a 40,000-dollar income—flipping burgers or working in retail doesn’t justify making the same salary as someone who works as, say, an accountant at a reputable business. So unless you stop being lazy, get off your butt, and work hard to do better and be better, you’ll always be poor. What you earn is what you deserve; it wasn’t designed to oppress the middle class but, in fact, to be a starting point to lead to a better life. That may be poor in comparison to someone with a salary job, or in literal poverty. (As an American with a minimum wage job is considered rich in comparison to a person living in a third world country, so an American with a salary-based job is considered rich in comparison to someone with a minimum wage job.)
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying all people who have minimum wage jobs are lazy. After all, I’m a college student and I have several minimum wage jobs because I don’t have the credentials (education) to have better jobs. What I am saying is people are lazy when they remain adamant about getting a college education just because “it’s expensive,” settle for a low paying mediocre minimum wage job, and then proceed to complain about it. To them, college becomes that lion in the middle of the road and they use that challenge as an excuse not to walk down that path. It’s a mediocre attitude and it’s a mediocre lifestyle. If you decide college is not for you and you actually like the job you have and don’t have a problem buying food and paying your bills, then of course that’s perfectly fine because you’re remaining diligent with what you’re doing. It’s mediocre, however, when you use future expenses and hard work as an excuse not to go further and do something you’re plenty capable of doing.
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” This comes right after Paul saying we are saved by grace through faith (vv. 8-9). The Greek word for “workmanship” is ποιήμα (poy-AY-mah), which literally means, “a thing made to work.” We were made for good works, not that they save us, but because by faith we are able to produce good works. Without faith, good works are impossible. For the Christian, good works are like breathing. Why do we breathe? Not because we choose to breathe and keep ourselves alive by our own doing, but it is because we’re alive that we can’t help but breathe. Likewise, as Christians, we do good works not that we may save ourselves, but because since we are made alive in Christ (Romans 6:11), we can’t help but do good works. God made us for good works, but we can only do good works in faith—that is, because we are saved, we are able to do good works, not the other way around. Our purpose on this earth, therefore, is to do what God put us here to do. Coming up with excuses and settling for mediocrity is not fulfilling that duty.
Here’s an excerpt from my personal blog, Sheep of Christ, from the entry We Work this Life, Then We Work Some More, regarding our duty to work:
Even before the Fall, Adam worked. Adam’s job was “to work and keep” the garden (Genesis 2:15). Bonhoeffer said, “Even after the Fall labour remains a mandate of divine discipline and grace (Gen. 3:17-19)” (206). Bonhoeffer continues, saying, “Through the divine mandate of labour there is to come into being a world which, knowingly or not, is waiting for Christ, is designed for Christ, is open to Christ, serves Him and glorifies Him. But it is the race of Cain that is to fulfil this mandate, and that is what casts the darkest shadow over all human labour” (206). God has given man work as divine discipline…Work is a blessed thing in which we get to use those resources to advance God’s kingdom.
How, then, do we glorify God and advance His kingdom to the best of our ability if we’re indolent and make up excuses not to be our best for His glory?
The last way in which we must not be mediocre is in timidity. Paul writes to Timothy, “…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). Timidity is having a lack of courage or confidence. When we’re afraid to try something new or are lacking confidence, we can rely on the Holy Spirit to overcome such weakness. It might sound odd, but timidity is a form of pride. When we’re timid, we’re afraid of what people will think of us if we fail. We think if we fail, people will think of us differently or our reputation will be damaged. Scripture tells us to obey our “earthly masters” (or bosses) “with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man” (Ephesians 6:6-7). You’re not doing this new thing for man. You might even be doing it for yourself, but ultimately you should be doing it for God—to bring Him the glory.
I feel this is the case for a lot of young adults—those between 18 and 24 years of age. During these years we experience serious life transitions. The goal in mind is to stand on our own two feet—to support ourselves. We leave home, go to college, get our first jobs, our first apartment, graduate, start our first career, and several other new experiences. It can be intimidating for one who’s not prepared for the coming challenges adulthood brings. During these transitions, many young adults get timid and are afraid of real life and the real world. I never experienced such timidity because serving in the Army forced me to grow up; I didn’t have the luxury of taking my time or even to think about the inevitable changes. But I do notice those around me who are younger (not by much) and are timid as freshmen, as they try to get their first apartment, get their first job, and when they graduate and finally experience what the world is really like. In each transition, some of us may think, “What if I fail?”
Why is it we think failure means it’s the end? What do we do when we’re playing a video game and we die multiple times? We start over and try again until we succeed. Unless we rage quit, that is. Please don’t rage quit life. Failure doesn’t mean, “It’s over.” It means, “Try again; do better.” “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe” (Proverbs 29:25). When we’re timid and become afraid of what others will think if we fail or just purely afraid of failure itself, we’re putting ourselves in a snare—it’s a trap! Unless we trust in God, there’s no way out. What’s the point of having faith if we don’t trust the very one who gave it to us? By faith, we trust God’s promise of salvation, which is an extremely serious thing to trust Him with. How simple it is, then, to trust Him with every other aspect of our lives. Don’t settle for mediocre faith by failing to trust in the very one who gave it to you. “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). Make your plans and act on them; God will bring you through it. It may not be exactly as you envision it, but He will get you through it all to do what His will for you is.
Procrastination is the failure to remain diligent and work dutifully for the Lord, therefore such mediocrity fails to glorify God. Indolence is the failure to take it upon yourself to take action in your life and make the best of it, therefore such mediocrity fails to glorify God. Timidity is the failure to trust God with all aspects of our lives, therefore such mediocre faith fails to glorify God. The world is apathetic about such mediocrity, therefore we must rely on the Holy Spirit to remain ever diligent, enthusiastic, and courageous in bringing God all the glory. We sing the song, “How Great is Our God,” while at the same time settling for mediocrity in our lives and in our faith. What an insult it is to our great God to ignore the greatness He has called each of us to! If God accepted mediocrity, He wouldn’t call us to extraordinary faith and action. We’re not called to be like the rest of the world in their mediocre faithlessness. We are called to greatly serve our Lord Jesus Christ and love our neighbor. We fail when we procrastinate and become indolent or timid because in doing so, we fail in our vocations, which is to fail as Christ’s workmanship. Therefore, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ethics. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1955.
Frederick W. Danker, Kathryn Krug. The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2009.