The Definition of Greatness: Excellence
You ever heard of the book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball? I had not either until I was working on this message. Now don’t worry, I’m not going to try to “wax eloquent” on the revolutions you can do around feline fur. No, I’m more interested in what the book said than I am in its title. You see it was written by Gordon Mackenzie. For more than 30 years, Gordon Mackenzie worked at Hallmark, eventually convincing the company to create a special title for him: "creative paradox." Along with challenging corporate normalcy at Hallmark, MacKenzie did a lot of creativity workshops for elementary schools. And those workshops led to a fascinating observation that he shares in his book.
MacKenzie would ask the kids upfront: "How many artists are there in the room?" And he said the pattern of responses never varied.
In the first grade, the entire class waved their arms like maniacs. Every child was an artist. In the second grade, about half of the kids raised their hands. In the third grade, he'd get about 10 out of 30 kids. And by the time he got to the sixth grade, only 1 or 2 kids would tentatively and self-consciously raise their hands.
All the schools he went to seemed to be involved in "the suppression of creative genius." They weren't doing it on purpose, but society's goal is to make us less foolish. As MacKenzie says, "From the cradle to the grave, the pressure is on: Be normal."
I could embellish that. You see, “be normal” really means be like everyone else. Don’t be excellent, just be good enough.
Jim Collins made the saying famous. Three simple words made up the title of his landmark business book. The three words? “Good to Great.” He begins chapter one writing:
Good is the enemy of great.
And that is one of the key reasons why we have to little that becomes great.
We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good governement. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life. The vast majoirity of companies never become great, because the vast majoirty become quite good–and that is their main problem.
And you could apply the same thing to the church. We don’t have great churches because we have good ones. We don’t have great disciples because we have some “good” ones, at least in the way we define good. The bottom line is most people settle for mediocrity in their lives. We sacrifice greatness on the altar of “good enough.”
Know any “good enough” Christians? I bet you do! These are the believers who are in love with religion and not with God. You hear it in their vocabulary. Ask them if they know the Lord and they’ll start talking about going to church. Ask them if they are led by the Spirit, and they’ll start talking about good deeds. Ask them about sacrificial living and sacrificial giving and they’ll start about the $10 they put in the plate every month, or even about the 10 percent they give occasionally. They’re caught up in religion, but they’re not captured by the reality of God. They think they’re good, but they aren’t great. They are good enough Christians.
Know any good enough unbelievers? I know you do! These are the people who think they can get to heaven just because they’re good enough. The Bible very clearly divides humanity into two categories. There are the lost and the saved. There is God’s family and there is the devil’s family. There are those who have God as their Father, spiritually speaking, and there are those who have Satan as their father spiritually speaking. Yet these “good enough” unbelievers want to create a third category. They will say things like, “I know I’m not a sold out Christian, but I’m not a bad person. I’m not in the devil’s family. I’m not great, but I’m good enough.
Now the question today is this: How does a person get out of goodness and into greatness? How do I stop settling as a Christian? How do I stop lying to myself as an unbeliever? How do I go from good to great?
Paul answers that question in Phil 3:7
7 But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. 8 Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; 10 that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, 11 if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Paul, in essence, says, “Good will never be good enough for me. I want to know Christ. That is the excellent thing. That is the great thing and that, my friend, is the one and the only thing that can squeeze the mediocrity out of your life and make you great.
The question is, how do you get to know God like that? How do you come to the place that you move from good to great as a Christian? Well, you have to overcome some obstacles that keep you mediocre. There are some roadblocks to spiritual greatness. Paul discusses them here as he gives his own testimony. The first roadblock is the roadblock of:
DIVISION 1 STATEMENT: RELIGION (YOU CAN BE SPIRITUALLY GREAT WHEN YOU OVERCOME THE ROADBLOCK OF RELIGION.)
Now here in Philippians 3, Paul, was writing to a group of Christians who were being intimdated by those who claimed that they had to be circumcised in order to be right with God. They were telling the Philippians that the only way to be spiritually great was to submit to a ritual that didn’t even matter anymore. They were urging the Philippians to settle for outward symbolism . . . for religious conformity, if you will, instead of seeking the reality of the presence of Christ. They were doing this because they believed that only through the practice of circumcision could someone really know God.
Paul counters their heresy in these verses. He writes in v 1:
Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. For me to write the same things to you is not tedious, but for you it is safe. Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation! 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh,
Now the great Apostle Paul calls a spade a spade here. He says, “Beware of the dogs.” Not a flattering title! He calls these subversive people dogs who opportunistically prey on the unsuspecting. But he goes further. He calls them “evil workers.” There is no equivocation. He doesn’t hedge his bets nor try to “thread the rhetorical needle.” He calls them evil. Then he says, “beware of the mutilation.” He uses the term mutilation to describe circumcision. He says, “those people who cut themselves simply mutilate their flesh and thinks it makes them great. Let me tell you what real greatness is, and it has nothing to do with knives and foreskins!”
V.3 says, For we are the circumcision. In other words, these people who are wanting you to submit to circumcision aren’t even really circumcised, but we are. And then he goes on to tell you what it means to really be circumcised: He says “We are the circumcision (watch!) Who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.”
Paul says, “Hey, let’s get something straight: Being great spiritually has nothing to do with what you outwardly do to your body. It has nothing to do with outward conformity to a ritual, but it has everything to do with worshiping God from your heart and truly rejoicing in the great grace of Christ and putting absolutely no confidence in your flesh.” That is real spiritual greatness!
Now you and I aren’t confronted with people telling us we have to be circumcised today in order to be right with God. That confusion ended a long time ago. I tell you what we are confronted with, however. We are confronted with people who want us to conform to external religion in order to be accepted by God. We are confronted with people who attempt to lock the gospel in the trappings of religious conformity and remove all reality from our walk with Christ. But, here’s the deal! External religion is simply a roadblock to spiritual reality! It doesn’t lead to greatness. Christians who are only into external religion think that they are good enough believers, but they are just kidding themselves. The truth is they can be very dangerous to your spiritual health.
He made free use of Christian vocabulary. He talked about the blessing of the Almighty and theChristian confessions which would become the pillars of the new government. He assumed theearnestness of a man weighed down by historic responsibility. He handed out pious stories to the press, especially to the church papers. He showed his tattered Bible and declared that he drew the strength for his great work from it as scores of pious people welcomed him as a man sent from God. Indeed, Adolf Hitler was a master of outward religiosity--with no inward reality.
And I am sure that talk of “inner reality” puzzles some of you. You’ve heard about it before, but you’re not sure you know what it is. . . not really. You may, in fact, say: “Rusty, how do I know? How do I know that I’ve got the inner reality of Christ living inside of me. Well, just let me ask you, my friend.
Do you pray? I don’t mean do you make some noise before you eat or go to bed, I mean do you really pray? When you pray do you really believe that God is listening? Is there this conscious awareness of heart and focus of your mind that makes His presence real to you?
What about worship? When you stand and sing “How great is our God” is your mind really on God or do you just recite the words? Do you sing because others around you are singing, or are you really singing to God?
What about your listening? When you hear a sermon, do you just get through it? Do you strategically line up your eyes with your watch so that you can keep an eye on the clock to know when I’m supposed to quit, or do you listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart?
When you sit down with this book, do you read, just so you can check the box that you “had your quiet time,” or are you conscious of the fact that God the Holy Spirit is there speaking to you through His Word. Is your relationships alive?
Here’s what I know: Only living relationships make great Christians. “Good enough” believers can waste years of their lives moping through worship services and leave unchanged. Great Christians have living encounter with a living God. Which are you?
You can be a great Christian, and we can be a great church if we will overcome the roadblock religion. But there’s another road block that stops a Christian’s growth. It’s the roadblock of
DIVISION 2: PERFORMANCE
Evidently the false teachers troubling the Philippians were “one-upping” each other. They were constantly talking about how perfect they were in keeping the law and performing the things they said would please God. Paul interrupts their bragging with the ultmate self-description in v 4. He says, “Hey, you trying to brag about how great a spiritual performer you are? You trying to boast about your flesh? Well two can play that game:
If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; 6 concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
In other words Paul was saying, “You can’t trump me. If you want to play the performance game, I can show you performance. In todays terms it would sound something like this:
I was born a baptist, dedicated to God as a child. I was from the right side of the tracks, I had perfect attendance pens in sunday school, I never missed youth camp, I went to fwbbc or liberty. I could sign the deacon’s integrity statement, I was a tither, I believed in church discipline and in not putting up with spiritual slackness...you couldn’t find fault with me. I was driving myself crazy trying to do good.
But Paul interrupts his performance tirade and includes this amazing statement.
7 But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. 8 Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;
Paul says, “I was perfect in the eyes of many. I had all the right pedigree and I was on my way to the top, but then one day, I was going down the road to Damascus doing something very religious, and a great light knocked me off of my horse. I met the living Christ and for the first time in my life, I knew what life was all about. I knew I was a sinner, in spite of all my performance, and that day I found out what real performance was. It wasn’t what I could do, but what Jesus already did and I accepted His righteousness. And now, all that other stuff that I was doing doesn’t even matter to me anymore.”
You see, Paul never really became a “great” believer until he let go of his own performance. May I just tell you? You’ll never get to know Jesus until you stop trying to please Him. I know that sounds almost heretical to some of you, but if you understand what I’m saying here, you’ll get it: You’ll never get to really know Christ until you stop trying to perform for Him, until you stop trying to please Him. You see, its not about performance, it’s about relationship.
Between my freshman and sophmore years in college, the chairman of the music department changed, and, since I was studying music at the time, I cared! It ended up being good, however. The professor who was there before was one of the godliest men I ever met, but he was also very intimidating. The very first paper I wrote in one of his classes, he trashed pretty good. His criticism was valid, but I just couldn’t relate to him. I was always trying to live up to what I thought he wanted from me, but I never could. I liked him, but I couldn’t get very close to him.
But in my sophmore year, his replacement came. Now, you never had to wonder where this guy stood. It was usually written all over his face. We had a good relationship. He was the kind of guy who didn’t care much for conventional wisdom and was always pushing the envelope. I still remember the day I had to talk to him about something and I was in his office talking and he said “Keep on talking, I have to change my pants, and right there in the middle of the office, he just changed his pants. Now it was private and there was nothing at all inappropriate, but that’s just the kind of guy he was. He was very accepting and very down to earth. I got close to him and, because of that, I worked hard for him.
Now some people relate to God like I related to the first guy. They live their lives either ignoring Him because they think they could never live up to His standards (which, by they way, is true) or they spend their lives trying to perform for Him, but really not being very close to Him. Others, (and these are the believers with genuine joy in their hearts and genuine smiles on their faces), they give up performance and, like Paul, find something so much better. They find a relationship. They stop performing.
And I can hear what some might be saying: “Hey, Rusty, you’re destroying the holiness of God. You’re telling people to stop trying to be holy. Isn’t the reason the church is so worldly today because people have stopped performing.”
Well, I understand your question, but it is based on wrong theology. You see if I say that performance makes me holy, I am diminishing what holiness is. I am taking an exceedingly low view of the holiness of God. When I say that I must stop performing, I am actually making God’s holiness greater. When I try to perform my way into holiness I am saying that God’s standards are so low, I might work hard enough to reach them one day. That is a heretical lie! God’s standard of holiness is so exceedingly perfect that no one can reach them. When I tell you to give up performance, I am not diminishing God’s holiness, I am telling you that it is so great you’ll never beable to achieve it. You can’t perform your way into holiness, it is something God must do. He must declare you holy on the basis of Christ’s finished work on the cross.
When I tell you to stop performing, I am making God’s holiness greater and when I tell you to stop performing, I am also making your personal holiness much more likely. Now I want you to really listen to me here: When you and I come into a vital relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ like Paul describes in this chapter, something happens on the inside of us. We are regenerated by the Holy Spirit and something happens. We have a change in our desires. We don’t do good to perform, we do good because God’s Spirit is making us want to do good. And when I want to do good, and I have the Holy Spirit’s help to do good, I begin to achieve things through the Spirit that I never could have achieved through my own performance.
You see, giving up performance for the right reason makes me more holy, not less. Standards come from the pulpit down and emphasize performance. If I get up here today and preach on tithing, some of you may start to give for the wrong reasons. You may start thinking that you don’t want to disappoint me or you’ve got to tithe so you can be considered for a board or to be a Sunday School teacher and your motives get all twisted. Standards come from the pulpit down.
But convictions come from the pew up. When the Holy Spirit is in control of your heart, you start wanting to tithe because the Holy Spirit applies God’s word to your heart and you’ll actually enjoy writing that check each week because what you may have tried to do and failed because you were trying to perform according to a standard has now become a conviction of your heart.
So may I ask you: Why do you do what you do? See when we preach on certain things you may get the wrong message. When you hear me preach on tithing you may think, “Well I’m accepted by God if I give 10%.” When you hear me preach on how you should dress, you may think: “Well I’m accepted by God if my dress is long enough, or if my jeans are loose enough.” When you hear me preach on attending church, you may think: “Well, if I go to church whenever the doors are open, I am accepted by God.”
Just in case any of you are thinking that, I want you to listen to me like you’ve never listened before: There’s only one thing that makes you accepted by God and here it is: IF YOU ARE IN CHRIST; IF YOU REALLY BELONG TO HIM; IF YOU HAVE TRUSTED HIM, YOU ARE ALREADY AS ACCEPTED BY GOD AS YOU WILL EVER BE!! GIVE UP PERFORMANCE. Stop basing your life on your comparison to other people.
You see, performance based Christians will always be “good-enough” Christians. Great Christians have exchanged performance for relationship.
What blocks you from going from good to great as a Christian. Well the first roadblock is religion and the second is performance. The last road block is:
DIVISION 3: SATISFACTION
You see, the great danger of being a “good enough” Christian; the great danger of being a “checklist” believer (you know, having your little checklist of “do’s” and “don’t’s”); the great danger of being a legalist, if I may say it that way is that you eventually get really satisfied. Yes, you get the list down pat. You’re able to perform and you can check all the items off your checklist. And when you get satisfied, you turn from a performer into a judge and you start judging everyone elses performance. You sit back with a self-satisfied smirk, cross your arms, and make sure everyone has to go through the same torture that you go through every day. That’s a self-satisfied, good enough Christian.
You don’t see that attitude in the Apostle Paul. In v 10 he says: “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, 11 if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Now when I read that, I’ve got to tell you that it blows me away. The same Apostle Paul who gave up everything to follow Jesus; the same Apostle Paul who on many occasions came close to death for Jesus; the same Apostle Paul who wrote more books of the New Testament than anybody else; that same Apostle Paul says “I want to know Him.”
Makes me want to say, “But wait a minute Paul! Surely you already know Him. You, yourself said that you were taken to the seventh heaven and shown things much to wonderful to even write. Surely you know Him!” Do you know what He might say to a question like that? “O yes, I know Him, but there’s so much more to know of Him that what I now know is like nothing compared to what there is to learn!” O this great Apostle who forgot more than I could ever learn about God in a lifetime is saying, “I’m still hungry for God!”
Now I want you to listen carefully. I’m going to tell you the primary difference between a “good enough” believer and a great believer. It’s one word: HUNGER! A good enough believer is satisfied. He says, “I’m saved and on my way to heaven, why do I need to give up everything to be a disciple?” She says, “I gave my heart to Christ when I was six years old and I grew up in church, why do I need to go to Life University to learn stuff I already know?” He says, “I know I’m supposed to worship, but the ballgame is so much more interesting to me on a Sunday night.”
Now the problem with each one of these problems is this: A lack of hunger. These people have become satisfied Christians and satisfied Christians are always “good enough” believers. Great Christians are hungry Christians: they are hungry for God! Are you?
I’ll never remember my first date with Kathy. We were supposed to go to a ballgame together and she stood me up. I’ll never forget going to the ballfield with such great anticipation and walking back to my dorm room . . . Mad! Praise the Lord, I got some wise counsel from a good friend and I asked her out again. We really hit it off. I would almost say that, from the first date, I just knew she at least might be God’s one for me.
We never broke up and for three years we dated. One of those years we had to date long distance. Now this was before cell phones. We only got to talk to one another about once per week, so the rest of the time we could just think of one another. But absence really did make our hearts grow fonder and in June of 1980 we were married. You know, on that day, I thought I really loved my wife, and I suppose I did.
But then came our first illness. Kathy had a very significant back problem our first couple of months of marriage, then I got deathly sick a few weeks later. We lived in a roach infested apartment with just a few sticks of furniture and hardly had two pennies to rub together. Then there was graduate school, 5 or 6 job changes, 10 moves, a baby girl, a miscarriage, and all the things we shared just getting through life.
You know, through it all, I have thought I loved my wife. But when I look at how I feel about her today and compare it to how I felt about her on June 11, 1980, I’m not even sure I knew what love was then. After all we’ve been through, we have gotten to really know one another.
Now you want to know something? You can come up and run me down and criticize me all you want, and God may give me the grace to forgive you and pray for you or listen and learn from what you say. But you best not come and run down Kathy to me. You see, no one has to stand over me with a stick and say, “Now Rusty you better stand up for your wife.” They don’t have to. Why? Because our relationship is so close that I want to stand up for her.
Do you get what I’m illustrating here? When I have a hunger to know God, I follow hard after Him and when I follow hard after Him I get to know Him better and better, so much so that when I get down the road and look back at that day I was saved, I wonder if I ever really knew Him at all, but I hunger to know Him more and more. And no one has to stand over me with a rule book telling me how I’m supposed to behave because I love Him and I don’t want to hurt Him.
Now here’s the tragedy: Self-satisfied, good enough Christians have no hunger, and because they have no hunger, they really have no love, and because they have no love, they have to have rules.
So how’s your hunger? Do you desire to know Him? Do you want to know Christ? Is there anything that’s hindering you right now? Is there some habit, or sin, or unsurrendered decision that’s killing your hunger for God? You will never be a “Great” Christian until you are hungry for Him.
In February 2001, John Oros spoke to an audience at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary about his experience as a church leader in Romania during the Communist era:
During communism, many of us preached?and people came at the end of a service, and they said, "I have decided to become a Christian."
We told them, "It is good that you want to become a Christian, but we would like to tell you that there is a price to be paid. Why don't you reconsider what you want to do, because many things can happen to you. You can lose, and you can lose big."
A high percentage of these people chose to take part in a three-month catechism class. At the end of this period, many participants declared their desire to be baptized. Typically, I would respond, "It is really nice that you want to become a Christian, but when you give your testimony?there will be informers here who will jot down your name. Tomorrow the problems will start. Count the cost. Christianity is not easy. It's not cheap. You can be demoted. You can lose your job. You can lose your friends. You can lose your neighbors. You can lose your kids who are climbing the social ladder. You can lose even your life."
Let me tell you my joy?when we looked into their eyes, and their eyes were in tears, and they told us, "If I lose everything but my personal relationship with my Lord Jesus Christ, it is still worth it."
That’s hunger! That’s much more than “good enough” Christianity! That’s going from good to great!
So where are you in all of this? Are you pursuing religion or reality? Are you into performance or relationship? Are you satisfied or are you hungry?