Every time I hear the word “excellent” I think of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons and it makes me smile. Or, I can go back down memory lane in my mind to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Either way, that word has a way of triggering several nostalgic images in my head. But the word also conveys all my training in marketing and business as well. It seems we are always striving for “excellence.”
But what does it mean? The word comes to us from ancient times and it has always meant something or some situation that is exactly right for its purpose. It has always set a standard for behavior or result that was meant to mean achievement and attention to detail and deep commitment to quality and virtue. Sounds Excellent, doesn’t it? So, is there an excellence standard for faith? And, more importantly, is there a root to life where if I am excellent in that foundational reality it will affect and increase the chances I’ll be excellent in other areas of life?
Look at our lesson today in Philippians 1:8-14:
BRETHREN, God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brethren have been made confident in the Lord because of my imprisonment, and are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear.
St. Paul actually answers our question in this passage by giving us the prerequisites to excellence. He tells us that before I can even recognize excellence I have to embrace a pattern of life that teaches me to know what is excellent and what isn’t!
He tells us that I will be able to recognize excellence if my love is growing “with knowledge and discernment.” Fascinating! Paul insists that love grows through knowledge. In other words, love isn’t a feeling as much as it is a developed choice as my knowledge of God and His faith become a proactive reality in my life! I’m meant to put shoe leather to my faith by actively growing my knowledge of the Faith. I won’t recognize true excellence if I remain ignorant of the truth preserved in the Church. In fact, I’ll miss what is truly excellent because of my lack of knowledge. That means that an applied and active pursuit of knowing God is a prerequisite to growing in love. But that makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? After all, to know Him is to love Him!
And my love will be able to grow as I become more discerning. This is such an ancient Christian notion! To be able to discern is to be able to see something, someone, or some situation, as it really is! Discernment is one of the chief spiritual disciplines that is a direct result of faithfulness and devotion. As I apply myself to my faith, to being diligent in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the grace of God gives me insight into my own heart and even into the hearts of others. There are too many stories to pick just one of the spiritual fathers and mothers in the Church who were so discerning that they could tell someone why they had come for a visit before the visitor even opened their mouths! Their purposeful, spiritual lives had so tuned them into the reality of the world that they could discern needs, motivations, and desires in themselves and others.
Today are you committed to excellence in your business or career? Good! Are you committed to excellence in your home or your household chores? Wonderful! Are you committed to excellence in the education of your children and a focus on encouraging them to strive for excellence in their schoolwork and their career choices? Fantastic! Now, with all these laudable goals, isn’t it time to put at least as much focus on your spiritual lives and working toward excellence in your faith? It’s the only way to be Orthodox on Purpose.