Our Unquenchable Appetite for Excellence
By Melissa Morgan Kelley

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in byFaith’s Fall 2017 issue. 

There’s been a notable surge in all things small-batched and handmade in the past decade, with a growing appreciation for everything from locally sourced food to exquisitely rendered studio crafts. The maker movement seems to have crossed all product boundaries, becoming so ubiquitous that it has received the rubber stamp of mainstream success in today’s media-rich environment —  its own genre of YouTube parodies skewering its excesses.

And yet the movement toward craft goods continues to grow. The PBS show “A Craftsman’s Legacy” focuses exclusively on the work of makers and is hosted by corporate -tech-worker-turned-motorcycle-maker Eric Gorges. Gorges seems to savor the slow, quiet pace of the show, which spotlights a different craftsman and craft genre in each episode, ranging a wide spectrum from duck decoy makers to welders using very basic Metal Inert Gas-powered machines.

“If we follow Calvin and Kuyper, beauty and excellence can be seen as ‘radiations of divine light,’ evidences of God continuing with His human creatures, and invitations to imagine a future in God’s presence.”

He offers this explanation for the show’s popularity in an interview with Esquire.com: “I think part of the reason why so many people are coming back to [craftsmanship] these days — is because it’s very pure. Everybody likes making things with their hands.” He has seen firsthand how a steady pursuit of excellence produces fruit. “I grew up around it my whole life and was able to see what happens when you take your time with things and you have patience, and some forethought, and you think things through and develop your skills over time.”

Time, patience, and the sharpening of skills, resulting in mastery. Why does this idea resonate so deeply for so many? Whether it’s a perfectly aged cheese or a flawlessly performed sonata, we stand in awe of work well done. We marvel at it, are moved by it, and aspire to it. Work done well is uncommon, so beholding it can be an emotional, even spiritual experience.

Might this innate longing for beauty and excellence point us toward the Author of all that is beautiful and good? Toward God, our Master Craftsman? Certainly, He cared about craftsmanship in His most holy places, as seen in Exodus 31:1-5. He commissioned artists and craftsmen to work in gold, silver, and bronze not just to construct a dazzling monument, but to reveal the height and breadth of His holiness in a powerfully physical way. The magnificent final product of that labor revealed His character to a watching world.

Today, though few of us work as craftsmen in the traditional sense, we pursue excellence with an eye toward the betterment of our community — whether we are running farms, tending flowers, leading workplace meetings, or caring for children. We long to do work that’s meaningful, to the fullest of our capabilities, and for the good of others. We know God has given us gifts for a purpose. As Olympic athlete Eric Liddell said in “Chariots of Fire,” “When I run I feel His pleasure.”

But how do we pursue excellence in our own call while avoiding pitfalls such as pride and perfectionism? We start with a look at how we were made by the Master Craftsman Himself.

“Hardwired” for Beauty and Excellence 

As human beings, our hearts are drawn to beauty in ways beyond our understanding, according to Covenant Seminary professor and Francis Schaeffer Institute Director Mark Ryan. “By all accounts, our appreciation for beauty and excellence seems to be hardwired. Historically, Christians have seen evidence of our being made in the image of God in this capacity to respond to and produce beautiful things.”

Dr. Richard Winter, Covenant Seminary professor emeritus of counseling, agrees. “It carries something of the Imago Dei. We are made in His image with a deep longing for beauty and creativity: God reflects these things, and when we see it we are drawn to it.” He describes the awe he and his wife recently felt sitting in a 12th-century English cathedral hearing an accomplished violinist performing at the height of his talent. “We were marveling at the lifetime of work it took to perform at that level. And that wonder was magnified by the cathedral’s intricate architecture — created by men for God’s glory.”

This wonder can also come from sources far less grand. Something as unlikely as mathematics can reveal beauty too. A mathematical formula has an aesthetic pleasingness to it, according to Winter. “Things that are true about the world are necessarily also beautiful. So a mathematical formula, if it’s true, is also beautiful. It’s part of the structure of the universe.”

Whether the appreciation of beauty originates from transcendent performances, mathematical formulas, or handcrafted objects, they all engage the senses and elevate the mind. “We are captivated by beautiful art and the mastery of craftsmen because they frequently leave us with the sense of having received a mysterious gift,” says Ryan. “A gift that seems quite beyond anything we have worked for or necessarily studied and understood.” In essence, grace.

Indeed, beauty and excellence tend to point beyond their human originators back to the God who gives lavishly to believers and unbelievers alike, says Ryan. “If we follow Calvin and Kuyper, beauty and excellence can be seen as ‘radiations of divine light,’ evidences of God continuing with His human creatures, and invitations to imagine a future in God’s presence.”

It is this forward orientation that endows our gifts with meaning here on earth. By pursuing excellence in our God-given gifts — whether they are artistic, athletic, academic, or relational — we point toward a future, more perfect reality than we currently experience. “When we utilize the gifts we’ve been given,” said Ryan, “we join with the Supreme Artist and Master Builder in renewing and restoring the lines of original creation.” We know that God Himself is revealed when we use our gifts and abilities to the full.

Winter described an encounter with a friend who is a percussionist with the St. Louis Symphony. The friend had recently offered a casual, impromptu performance at Winter’s home after lunch one Sunday. Then, shortly after, Winter saw him in an official performance. “He was surrounded by 50 instruments and the rest of the symphony, performing a solo piece written for him. I thought to myself, ‘This is his glory. It was magnificent. He was made for this. It drew something out of him in a wonderful way.’”

These kinds of moments spark to life a foreknowledge of beauty and excellence. “We have a memory of perfection,” Winter says, “and one day we will be made perfect again.”

Perils on the Path of Excellence

The drive toward excellence can have a downside, however, when we pursue mastery as a proxy for self-worth rather than refining our gifts out of gratitude for the One who gave them.

In Winter’s book “Perfecting Ourselves to Death,” he describes the difference between healthy perfectionists and unhealthy perfectionists. Healthy perfectionists are enthusiastic, have a positive self-image, and rarely procrastinate. They are driven by a positive motivation, to achieve, rather than the fear of failure. If they make a mistake, they do not endlessly ruminate about how they should have done better.

But neurotic, unhealthy perfectionists pin their entire self-worth on their performance or productivity. They typically set unrealistically high standards and then endlessly criticize themselves, concluding that they are not good enough.

It’s a subtle line for each person to determine where unhealthy perfectionism begins, says Winter. “One red flag is black-and-white thinking, where a person determines that their work has to be perfect or it is useless and they must throw it away and start all over again. They struggle to find contentment living in an imperfect world.”

“God has promised that our dreams of glory and hopes of perfection will one day be fulfilled when Christ returns. In the meantime, we must hold a desire for excellence and a contentment with who we are and the gifts God has given us in tension.”

In fact, there is a complex set of motives that compel us toward excellence. While some may simply desire to glorify God, many are motivated by a mixture of pride, fear, and shame, which may have roots in past experiences.

“It’s hard to recognize our own motives,” said Winter. “Frequently a life crisis prompts introspection, and we begin to examine why we’re feeling anxious or depressed. Then we see where we are placing our hope.”

He described a teacher he counseled who had invested her whole identity in her work and her students’ lives. After having children, she felt completely out of control of her own schedule and her life, and her marriage suffered to the point of collapse. Only then did she begin to understand that she had placed an unhealthy focus on her work performance. Now, as a “recovering perfectionist,” she’s setting healthy boundaries for her work to protect her time with her children.

This is a lesson we all must learn, according to Winter. That in this life, while we enjoy working toward excellence and striving for beauty, the focus must be more on the process of making and perfecting rather than solely the end product. It is a kinder, gentler way to live. It parallels the lifetime process of sanctification, and it is scriptural. Philippians 3:12 says, “Not that I have already obtained all this or have already arrived at my goal but I press on.”

Winter says that true perfection is found in developing Christlike character. Indeed, when Christ says, “Be perfect,” it is not in relation to performance or appearance, but in relation to maturity in personal development, writes Winter in “Perfecting Ourselves to Death”: “For now, we must increasingly allow the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — to grow in us” (Galatians 5:22-23).

He charts the metamorphosis of Paul, who began as a Pharisee obsessed with performing and impressing, and after his encounter with Christ became deeply concerned about his relationship with God and the people around him.

Though not all of us have been gifted to perform breathtaking concertos or create high-end design, we reflect God’s beauty and excellence through yielding our hearts to Him and faithfully expressing the gifts He has given us. We find contentment in letting go of control, accepting His grace, and acknowledging that He is making something beautiful in us that we will one day see.

“God has promised that our dreams of glory and hopes of perfection will one day be fulfilled when Christ returns,” writes Winter. “In the meantime, we must hold a desire for excellence and a contentment with who we are and the gifts God has given us in tension.”

Jeremiah: Challenged to Excellence

If Paul strayed toward hyperperformance and overconfidence in his own abilities, the prophet Jeremiah perhaps strayed in the opposite direction. In Eugene Peterson’s book “Run with the Horses,” he describes Jeremiah’s transformation from cautiousness to boldness.

Jeremiah had succumbed to opposition and self-pity, and he was close to abandoning God’s call on his life. Then God challenged him in Jeremiah 12:5: “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have worn you out, how will you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?”

Jeremiah learned that there is a huge gap between our comfort level and what God calls us to do, writes Peterson. After Jeremiah refused God’s call to become a prophet, God told him, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you” (Jeremiah 1:7-8).

God called Jeremiah out of his complacency and caution to pursue righteousness and excellence, writes Peterson. And then Jeremiah weighed the options and counted the cost. “The response when it came was not verbal but biographical. His life became his answer: ‘I’ll run with the horses,’” wrote Peterson.

This process of transformation fascinated Peterson and inspired him to learn more about Jeremiah’s life. He describes Jeremiah’s captivating qualities as his goodness, virtue, and excellence. “There is not a trace of smugness or complacency or naiveté in Jeremiah,” he writes. “Every muscle in his body was stretched to the limits by fatigue, every thought in his mind subjected to rejection, every feeling in his heart put through fires of ridicule. Goodness in Jeremiah was not ‘being nice.’ It was something more like prowess.”

It is a worthy calling, to yield our gifts and abilities to the Lord as we seek prowess in our respective endeavors. It is not hard to imagine how the world would thrive when filled with a people pressing forward in their calling, being blessed and blessing in return. It looks and feels like shalom.

Flourishing for the Kingdom

Theologian Frederick Buechner notably wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And Ephesians 2:10 underscores this thought: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

These truths reveal an innate desire to steward our gifts well not only for our own benefit but also for the greater good. There is a name for this, according to Anne Bradley, vice president of economic initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. It is the concept of flourishing.

“Flourishing begins with the work of redemption God undertakes in our souls,” she writes. “When we figure out what God made us for and how we fit into His big picture of restoration, that’s when we truly flourish.”

But that isn’t the end goal. Knowing that God is glorified when His creation flourishes, we work for the flourishing of others out of gratitude and a desire to spread His glory throughout the earth, she says.

“When we serve other people with our God-given gifts, talents, time, and resources, we help them flourish. Flourishing means becoming everything we were created to be,” says Bradley.

Is it possible to advance the flourishing of a community through the steady pursuit of excellence in our calling? Does the beauty we contribute, and receive from others, enhance the experience of all? Even if it takes a lifetime?

Eric Gorges thinks so. He notes that the craftsmen he interviews on his show have spent the better part of their lives becoming great at one thing, and now they’re willing to share that knowledge with everyone.

“A lot of times, I think they do it so that it doesn’t die,” said Gorges. “So that other people see it. It’s part of their responsibility as craftsmen.”

They have all made significant sacrifices to pursue their passion over decades, but in the end they see the value in passing forward their expertise to keep the craft alive. They see the craft as greater than the craftsman, and they know that its life must prevail.

It’s an unbelievable picture of the Potter sacrificing everything He has to spare the clay, that it might survive — and flourish.

Melissa Morgan Kelley sits up and takes notice when she encounters excellence, eager to glimpse the glory behind it. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and children. 

Scroll to Top