In my book The Hunger for Significance I explored the desire commonly found among us to find some basis for dignity, for value, for worth in our lives. I wrote at that time: “Modern man has an aching void. The emptiness we feel cannot be relieved by a new car, a better job, a bigger house. It can only be filled by understanding that each human life is significant. Our lives cannot be reduced to meaninglessness.”
The modern quest for significance and human dignity is often prompted by the overwhelming aura of despair that penetrates the cultural worldview in which we live. We are repeatedly told that we are cosmic accidents who have oozed fortuitously from the slime. Our origins are meaningless and our destiny is annihilation. Yet in the midst of those two poles of despair, the search for significance and dignity is one that is often attended by a sense of urgency.
In this issue of Tabletalk, we’re exploring the quest for excellence, which in many cases is inseparably related to our fundamental aspiration for significance. There can be different and at times conflicting motives for the search for excellence. That search can be based simply upon a desire to excel at something in which we are engaged. On the one hand, the motive for this kind of excelling can be one of competitive dominance. Historically, we’ve defined our humanness via the term Homo sapiens. Friedrich Nietzsche, the nihilistic philosopher of the nineteenth century argued that what most defines human existence is not our wisdom (sapiens), but our will to power, our will to conquer. The lust for power that drives tyrants and dictators is something that we characteristically see as evil, but Nietzsche regarded it as virtue. For him, the super-man (übermensch) is one who above all else is a conqueror. He is the one who allows his inherent will to power to go not only unchecked but to be fed lustfully by every means available. In the world in which we live, the will to power is often seen as a desire to climb the corporate ladder, to reach the peak of authority and power, so that we can dominate other people. In this regard, the competitive desire for domination by which we can exercise sovereignty over weaker people is a manifestation, not of inherent humanness, but of inherent human fallenness. It is a manifestation of the depths of corruption that lurks in the heart of each one of us.
On the other hand, a strong desire to excel may be motivated by an attempt to reach goals of achievement. The aspiration to significance that is inherent in every human being is, in and of itself, not a sinful appetite. The aspiration to significance is given to us, I believe, by our Creator. As His creatures, made in His image, we know that the dignity we possess is not intrinsic but extrinsic. That is, it is a dignity assigned to us by God. We have value and worth, because God declares us valuable. It is God who calls us to labor to the highest level of excellence and achievement of which we are capable. It is by His hand that we receive gifts to use in this world. The faithful exercise of those gifts is what should drive our desire to excel. In and of itself, aspiration to significance is not a bad thing, but, indeed, such worthy desires that beat in the human heart can run amuck. The aspiration to significance, if not checked by godly ethics, can easily transform itself into the Nietzschian will to power.
The legitimate motive for excellence is to seek achievement for the end to glorify God. That is the chief purpose for which we are created, to bear witness to His glory. One thing that does not bear witness to the glory of God is a human addiction to mediocrity, a smug satisfaction with the status quo. Rather, the Scriptures call us to seek a high calling—the high calling that is ours in Christ Jesus. Such a high calling cannot be achieved when we wallow in sloth. Slothfulness and laziness are twin vices that are roundly and soundly condemned by sacred Scripture. The biggest reason we fail to achieve excellence is that we are unwilling to work to such an extent that excellence can be achieved. No one achieves excellence in any worthy enterprise without diligent and disciplined labor. The enemy of achievement in this sense is sloth. On the other hand, even with the most sanctified human heart, the quest for excellence will always be tainted with a corrupt sense of pride. If we were to achieve the highest goals possible in this world, to scale the heights of human achievement in unprecedented manners, we would still be at best, unprofitable servants who have no right to boast in anything but in the glory of God and the precious redemption that is ours in Christ Jesus.
Let us therefore seek to excel, let us push ourselves to the highest limits of endurance to achieve the highest possible level of excellence in all that we do, while at the same time watching ever vigilantly for the evil impulse of pride to vitiate any value to our labor. Let us work hard, let us excel to God’s glory. Soli Deo gloria.