Have I Sinned If I Fall Short of Excellence at Work?
Good Monday morning, everyone, and thank you for listening to the podcast. Well, is it sinful to fall short of excellence in our work? This is a great question, relevant for businessmen, for stay-at-home wives, for volunteers, for students — for all of us. And the question comes to us from a listener named Dylan.
Here’s what he asks: “Pastor John, hello to you, and thank you for taking my question! In Colossians 3:22–24, Paul exhorts his readers to ‘work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.’ Does this mean that any work not done in excellence is sin? How do we apply God’s view of work to cleaning our house, writing a paper for school, or working a nine-to-five job? I have been feeling guilty about the way I handle these things for months now, and I’m not sure if I’m just being self-righteous, or if I am being disobedient to the Lord. Is Paul describing a type of excellence in all that we do?”
Let me begin with an illustration from my ministry from about thirty years ago. We were wrestling at the time in our church with how to think about expectations of excellence in music, in worship services. And there was one group that stressed technical excellence and quoted 2 Samuel 24:24: “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing” — which, being applied in our situation, meant, “I will not offer God any music in our worship services that has not cost me an extraordinary effort of practice so as to make it technically excellent, even flawless.”
Then there was another group, or maybe I should say there was me. I appreciated that commitment to excellence; however, my gentle pushback to this emphasis was that, in the Christian church, God not only cares about whether we are excellent musicians, but also cares about whether we are excellent forgivers. That’s the way I stated it — whether we are excellent in patience, excellent in long-suffering. For example, whether we show patience and forgiveness if someone’s musical effort was not flawless.
“When it comes to excellence in the Christian life, we dare not ever limit it to the way a person does a skill.”
In other words, when it comes to excellence in the Christian life, we dare not ever limit it to the way a person does a skill or the way a person does a craft. We must always take into account excellence in attitudes, excellence in emotions, excellence in relationships. God has lots more to say in his word about whether we are angry in our attitude than he does about whether we’re competent in our skill.
The way we finally worked this out among our people, among our leaders, was to use this phrase as our goal: undistracting excellence. In other words, there is something bigger and deeper and more important going on in this service than the technical quality of music. It’s not unimportant; it’s just not most important. The aim here is to know God, meet God, love God, treasure God, trust God, enjoy God.
Those are all acts of the heart and mind. Everything else is subservient to that in this service, helping people get to that, including the excellence of our performances — whether it’s music or the sound system or lighting or heating or air conditioning or preaching or the clothing that we wear. Everything is to remove obstacles — undistracting — and to serve knowing God, meeting God, loving God, treasuring God, trusting God, enjoying God. We captured that goal by putting the adjective undistracting in front of the word excellence.
It implied that not only might shoddy work distract from meeting God — the person continuing to make mistakes. Everybody’s going to be embarrassed; they’re going to be distracted — that’s not going to work. But also, excessive finesse might distract from the spiritual reality of encountering God. And I’m thinking of this in preaching, not just music. A sermon can be so shoddy in its order and clarity that it doesn’t help. And it can be so rhetorically refined that it distracts and doesn’t help. So the criterion ceased to be an abstract view of technical excellence and became a spiritual goal of removing obstacles from people seeing and savoring Christ.
Working from the Soul
Now, Dylan is asking about Colossians 3:22–24 and how it calls us to excellence. So here’s the text:
Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily [it’s literally ek psyches, “from the soul”], as for of the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
I think Dylan is right to draw principles for all of us from these verses, even though they are directed to slaves and masters. And I say that because Colossians 3:17, just above this paragraph, says, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” And I think Paul is simply applying that global principle for all of us to the slave-master relationship so that all of us can learn from his application. I would point to three things that he says.
First, don’t just try to be outwardly pleasing to people while your heart doesn’t care about the people and doesn’t care really about what quality of work you do, as long as they think it’s good. It’s “eye-service”; that’s man-pleasing. In other words, don’t be a hypocrite.
If you’re going to give the impression outwardly to your boss, or your teacher, or your spouse, or your friend that you are doing something to please them, then do something really to please them. Don’t be a hypocrite. Don’t be a double-tongued or a double-behavior person who outwardly wants to have a sense of being pleased with their eyes, and deep down you haven’t done good work at all, and you’re concealing it from them. That would significantly affect the quality of work you do if you had that mindset. And Paul says, “Don’t have it.”
Work for Jesus
Second, whatever job you have and whomever it is that you are working for as a Christian, always think of Jesus Christ as the one to whom you will give an account for the quality of your work and the quality of your attitudes in the work. Colossians 3:24 says, “You are serving the Lord Christ” — meaning, whomever else you’re serving, you are really serving Christ in serving them. So, whatever quality of attitude and quality of work you would do if Christ were your immediate supervisor, do that work with that attitude.
Look to the Reward
And third, Paul says, “Keep in mind that your reward for the good you do will come from the Lord, even if it doesn’t come from man.”
“Always think of Jesus Christ as the one to whom you will give an account for the quality of your work.”
So clearly, Paul is implying, (1) knowing that we shouldn’t be hypocrites or deceitful men-pleasers, and (2) knowing that ultimately our supervisor for this homework or housework or job work is the Lord Jesus himself, and (3) knowing that our reward comes from him, not primarily from the teachers or spouses or bosses — all of that will exert an influence on the quality of work we do, and the good attitudes with which we do it.
More at Stake Than Excellence
And then Dylan asks, “Does this mean that any work not done in excellence is sin?” And if that question is to be answered with precision, I would say the answer is no, not always. It’s not always sin. It’s not that simple.
For example, if you decide to paint your own bedroom rather than hire a professional painter, because you think God wants you to give the several-hundred dollars you might pay the painter to some missionary friend, and yet you are not a very skilled painter, how will God look upon the exactness of the line between the beige wall and the white ceiling where they meet each other up in the corner?
I’m speaking from experience here. A skilled painter gets a little bead (I’ve seen him do this) of paint on the end of his brush, and he drags it — this perfect little bead — along that line with such amazing precision that the line between the edge, between the beige wall and the white ceiling, is perfect. Now my lines between the beige wall and the white ceiling are wavy. Here’s my answer: God will not view my wavy edges as sin. He won’t, even though they are not technically excellent, like a painter could make them. Bigger things are at stake, in other words.
But if I advertise myself as a painter, with my present skill, and I go into somebody else’s bedroom, and I paint their wall with wavy edges of beige on the wall and white on the ceiling with a wavy line in between, hoping they won’t see it and how shoddy it is compared to what a real painter could do, that will be sin.
Do Your Best
The same thing applies to so many situations. It’s not sin to make a B in algebra class instead of an A if you work hard and do your best. It’s not sin to make five sales this week instead of ten if you’re doing your best.
And I would define “your best” like this: “your best” is defined as a fallible effort to take into account all relevant factors, like sleep (when you sleep) and health and family and my age and energy and gifting and other relationships that need to be attended to. And then, when all is said and done, you entrust yourself to the grace of Christ, who died for you so that you could enjoy his excellent forgiveness.