I remember when I went back for music lessons when I was in seminary. I went to my teacher and said, “I want to learn how to play Chopin.” She said, “You’re not ready to play Chopin.” I said, “I don’t care; I want to play Chopin.” She said, “OK.” So, she gave me some pieces that had all these runs up and down the scale, and I said, “I can’t do that.” She said to me: “Here’s what you do. Figure out how that goes and start with your left hand, really slowly, and then add the right hand. Do that ten times until you can go very slowly without making a mistake. Then turn the metronome up a little bit. Do it slowly, over and over again, and gradually increase the speed.” After a couple of weeks of that, a person can sit down at the piano and go up and down the scale without ever missing, but the discipline it takes to train your fingers to do that is simply tedious. It’s laborious.
We hear men like Van Cliburn, who is very expressive and has mastery over his instrument, and we understand that it is not until you master those discipline areas that you have the freedom to do anything you want with the piano. The more you master the details, the more freedom you have to be creative. Do you want to be a creative painter? You better learn the basics first. You better learn all those laborious steps in order to do it. Most of us don’t want to pay the price.
What happens is that we have people in our secular culture who are more motivated than we are. You can’t tell me that God, all of a sudden, quit giving gifts to His people in this century. You can’t say that the secularists have all the talent, that the Christian community is working hard but they don’t have any talent. No, the secular man is out-motivating the Christian person. The Christian person is not motivated to excellence. I don’t understand that. How can that be? How can you have any understanding of what God has done for you and have no motivation to return your gifts, which He gives you, to Him?
Diligence, Laziness, and Love
Do you love Christ? Is love a strong motivation? It’s one of the strongest motivating forces in the world. If you love Christ, you are called to give yourself as a living sacrifice to Christ. It’s your reasonable service. It means you are called to work, to labor diligently. I defy you to go through the New Testament and count how many times the word diligence appears. It occurs over and over and over again. The Christian community by and large, it seems, is slothful. It’s lazy. It’s sloppy. It doesn’t want to be challenged. It doesn’t want to have to work hard for things. We’re turning out a whole culture of unmotivated people who want to drop out and take it easy.
I talked to a Christian student not too long ago who was graduating from college. I asked, “What are you going to do with your life?” The student responded to me: “I don’t know yet. I think what I’m going to do this next year is take the year off, go trucking through Europe, and have the experience of having some fun. I’ve been working in college for four years. I’m tired of going to school, and I don’t want to go to work yet, so I’m going to spend a year trucking through Europe.”
I wanted to tell the student: “Hey, there’s a war going on. People are dying all over the world, and you haven’t even started into the ministry. You haven’t even begun to pay your dues, and you want a year’s vacation right now?” Where is the Christian community that is willing to give their best to the Master, as the old song says?
The Old Testament principle of the firstfruits relates to this issue. What were the firstfruits? A man goes out, plants his field, and sees that part of his crop perfectly cultivated. The fruit is lush and firm and beautiful, so he goes through that crop and picks it. In those days, the Jewish man would go through the selection process and say: “I want the finest 10 percent of that fruit. We’re not going to put that in the market. We’re giving that to God.” Today, we take the finest we have, which isn’t very fine, and sell it for as much as we can get. Then, we come down to the stuff that’s withering and dying on the vine, take that, and throw it to God like slop to hogs.
Listen to part of the Sermon on the Mount: “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick” (Matt. 5:13–15, KJV).
That’s simple enough. You take a candle and put it on a candle stand. You don’t put it under a bushel. Christ calls you to be the light of the world. Is He going to put you under a bushel? That’s not His way of doing things. He wants to put you on a lampstand. The only person who will put a bushel over your light is you.
The light that is on the candlestick gives light to everyone that is in the house. If you give a gift back to God that He has given to you, not only does it honor God, but it enriches God’s people. It becomes a blessing and an inspiration to everyone around you.
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16, KJV). That is the Christian impetus for excellence—the mandate of Jesus, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works.” Your good works are supposed to be visible. You are supposed to be a light that can be seen. You are not supposed to be a closet Christian but a visible Christian whose gifts bring illumination and light to this world. Let it shine so that men can see it, as Jesus says, so that they see good works to the glory of God the Father.
Let me finish this by saying that one theologian made this observation: the essence of theology is grace. If you don’t understand grace, you can’t understand theology. The essence of ethics is gratitude. That’s the motivation for excellence.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on February 9, 2021.