Disclaimer: I originally wrote this article with Geeks Under Grace a month after the tour, and as its original author I have republished it here.
Never Settle for Less
Two years ago, in March 2016, my alma mater’s college band went on tour to Carnegie Hall in New York City. For those of you who aren’t musicians, this is a big deal! Carnegie Hall has a rich history of being the venue for the greatest and most talented musicians this world has ever seen such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and The Beatles. As a former professional saxophonist, it was a dream come true. In my entire musical career, I never imagined I would have the once in a lifetime opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, and now with the wind ensemble of a small Christian university whose band is, well, mediocre, my 8-year-old dream came true.
The band at my alma mater, Concordia University-Ann Arbor, is nothing compared to other college bands like the North Texas Wind Symphony, but in my professional opinion, it was our best performance for the entire length of time I was in the ensemble. In fact, the Professor of Music Emeritus at the California Polytechnic State University, William V. Johnson, wrote us a letter saying our performance was “short of stunning and inspirational, as evidenced by the standing ovation you received.” He also commented we performed with “sonorous grandeur” and our band director, Dr. William Perrine, has “developed one of the finest wind bands in the nation.” These are extraordinary words for a small, “mediocre” Christian wind ensemble.
Anyway, in February 2016 whilst we were still preparing our music, Dr. Perrine gave a 5-minute speech about our anticipated tour to Carnegie Hall, which is what prompted me to write this article because he took the words right out of my mouth. We warmed up to a Bach chorale, “Geib, dass ich thu mit Fleiss” (And Grant Me, Lord, To Do), which its lyrics translate to:
And grant me Lord, to do
With ready heart and willing,
Whate’er Thou shalt command,
My calling here fulfilling.
And do it when I ought,
With all my strength, and bless
The work that I have wrought,
For Thou must give success.
These lyrics served as a fitting segue into his concise speech, which is where I got the title of this article: “God is not glorified by mediocrity.” Most of the students in the wind ensemble were there only for the scholarship in participating in the band, so the level of individual musicianship there was low. Hardly anyone practiced and knew how to appropriately play within the context of the ensemble. This is because the majority of the members in the band were not passionate about making music, let alone on their chosen instruments. It was also because they all weren’t musical professionals like I was—everyone there were at completely different levels of musical ability. We had some strong musicians, but there weren’t many. Because of this, our performances were usually pretty mediocre, and it didn’t help that we were at a small Christian university. So, instead of settling for mediocrity, Dr. Perrine encouraged us (as he usually does) to practice our parts so that by the time we were on stage at Carnegie Hall, we would not be worried about all the musical technicalities and could just perform from the heart for the glory of God.
Dr. Perrine’s speech was much needed and I was glad he gave it. As a Millennial, I tend to have a strong dislike for my generation, which many of you reading this may be part of (generally those born between 1986 and 1996). It’s not just because so many people in this generation are falling away from God, wearing pants that expose their underwear, their growing poor taste in music, and whining and protesting just because they don’t get their way. It’s also because this generation seems to settle for mediocrity.
In college, my friends always asked me how I maintained a 3.85 to 4.0 GPA as if I’m a genius or have some secret formula to success. Intelligence might have something to do with it, but it only plays a small role. I told them it’s because I work hard; I didn’t sacrifice homework and studying time to hang out with friends or go on a Netflix binge. “I’m in college,” I would say, “to get an education, not to make friends. Sure, I love making new friends and hanging out with my friends, but my education is not about my friends; it’s about my investment in myself so I can make an honest living.” College is where you’re allowed to be selfish—you’re spending an insane amount of money and going into debt so you can get an education in order to start a career, if that is your desire.
What good does sacrificing good grades for the sake of momentary hangouts do when you’ll be between $80,000-$100,000 in debt? I didn’t get out of the Army to hang out with friends at the expense of my education, but to get an education and be the best I can be at what I will do. Students frequently wait until the last minute to complete an assignment or study for an exam and when they get the exam or assignment back, they wonder why they did so poorly. It’s because they were lazy and settled for mediocrity rather than doing their best, failing at their vocation as student. My view is: if you’re going into a profession, settling for mediocrity now will become a habit that will follow you into your profession. Post-graduation does not mean you’ll suddenly no longer be lazy; mediocrity is a difficult habit to get out of. Not only that, but settling for mediocrity inevitably gives you a low opinion of yourself and you won’t take any risks to do great things!
As a 28-year-old veteran, all I know is hard work. All I’ve been doing since I’ve gotten out is working hard toward my inner calling to be a pastor. Perhaps it’s because of my time in the Army that I have zero tolerance for incompetence. To me, if someone is incompetent and mediocre, why bother doing it at all? I’m probably coming across as harsh, but mediocrity doesn’t get you anywhere and when you’re mediocre, you just get in other peoples’ way. This generation seems to settle for mediocre work, mediocre education, mediocre relationships (friendship, family, and romantic), and even mediocre faith.
I’ve spouted enough exposition, so let’s move on. Martin Luther calls our different areas of responsibility in life “vocations,” from the Latin word vocatio, meaning, “calling.” For example, I have the vocation of brother, son, friend, employee, student, and child of God, just to name a few. Regarding vocation, the Augsburg Confession says:
[E]ach person is obliged to act according to his or her calling—for example, that the father of a family works to support his wife and children and raises them in the fear of God; that the mother of a family bears children and looks after them; that a prince or rulers govern a country; etc. (AC XXVI, 10)
Allow me to explain this further. In Lutheran theological thought, we make a left kingdom and right kingdom distinction—Law and Gospel respectively. They’re both different kingdoms, or realms, but God rules over them both equally, but the way in which He chooses to rule is different from each other. The right kingdom of God is exclusively for Christians, where God forgives sins and how He deals with us as believers (our “vertical” relationship to Him). The left kingdom, where both believers and unbelievers dwell, is how God keeps the world in order as Creator to accomplish His will as well as how we interact with one another (our “horizontal” relationship with our neighbour). God does this through the laws of physics, weather, government, jobs, the Ten Commandments, etc.
Our secular vocations are in the left hand kingdom, where God uses the vocations He has given us to care for creation. For example, He cares for creation through doctors, dentists, marine biologists, taxi drivers, pilots, janitors, soldiers, teachers, garbage truck men, and so on. Luther calls these vocations “masks of God,” behind which God is hidden and the means by which He cares for all creation. So, when we settle for mediocrity, I strongly believe we are dishonouring God in our given vocations by caring for His creation as His stewards with mediocrity. (Contrast Abel’s sacrifice with that of Cain’s, for example. Cain’s offering was mediocre; Abel’s was the best of his fruits.)
Called to Greatness
As Christians, I believe we are called from mediocrity and called to greatness. By this, I don’t mean God expects us to be perfect in every vocation we’re called to. We’re sinful human beings; being perfect is not within our nature. Nevertheless, I believe He desires us to “work heartily.” Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” To fully understand the implication of this text, we need to put our Greek hats on. The Greek word used for “heartily” is the adverbial form of the noun ψυχή (psuchē), meaning “life, inner self, soul,” which is a word indicating something “integral to being a person beyond mere physical function” (Danker, 388)—so literally, in the adverbial sense, “from the soul.”
Whatever we do, then, we ought to do it from the soul—as if it is an integral part of our lives and souls as human beings. We are, therefore, not called to mediocrity, but to greatness—to be the greatest at everything we do to the best of our ability for the glory of the Lord. Again, I emphasise that I do not mean God expects us to be perfect in all we do, but that I believe He desires us to be genuine in our efforts, which brings Him glory.
When I was in the Army Bands, I wasn’t the best saxophonist or the best sharpshooter or the best runner. I was one of their best saxophonists, one of their best sharpshooters, and one of their best runners, but I was never the best. Regardless, I still did my absolute best with my God-given abilities. Even if I wasn’t one of the best, I was still at my best; it doesn’t matter that I was considered among the ranks of one of their best soldiers. What matters is I did my best to be at my best to the glory of God, and I received my award for being genuine in my efforts (e.g. receiving two Army Achievement Medals in my Army career). I would not have glorified God if I just went through the motions and settled for less than what I can actually be.
Allow me to explain this further with the parable of the Ten Minas from Luke 19:11-27:
As they heard these things, He proceeded to tell a parable, because He was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘ And you are to be over five cities.’ Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has ten minas.’ And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.”
Two things. First of all, God will be to us what we expect Him to be. We are judged by the God we expect—we expect either a gracious God or a harsh God (v. 22). In verse 22, the nobleman being represented as Jesus was essentially saying, “That’s who you think I am? You think I am severe? So then, I will be severe towards you since that’s how you expect Me to be. Your own words condemn you.” In the broader context, before this pericope we see how God deals with the differing expectations of the parable of Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). In this parable, God deals with them both differently according to their expectations of Him (the Pharisee with judgement due to his judgemental haughtiness and self-righteousness, and the tax collector with forgiveness due to his state of humility and recognition for mercy as well as his trust in God—that is, his contrition for sin and his faith in God’s mercy).
Second, this parable teaches us to be faithful with whatever we have or face the loss of all we have, even if it’s only a little. Each of the servants were given ten minas. The first returned with ten more and the second returned with only five. The second may have returned with less, but he still made a profit regardless—he received his reward equal to his labour. In business terms, they came back with a return on investment—the nobleman invested in them and they returned with more than they started with. The third, however, wanted to avoid risk and didn’t do anything; he simply hid. Unlike him, the other two servants used what they were given to advance the nobleman’s kingdom.
No matter how much or how little resources God gives us, He expects us to use our resources to advance His kingdom. He invests in each of us in our vocations, and no matter how much He invests or how little He invests, He expects a return on investment in the advancement of His kingdom. The world may not want Jesus to reign over them, but He does anyway, and we are sent out to do His business. God gives more to those who use their resources if not on earth, then certainly in Heaven—where our true treasure lies. Those who hide and are lazy and squander their resources will suffer loss. Each vocation we have is just another resource we have to advance God’s kingdom—every relationship we have. If we don’t take advantage of those relationships to be an example of Christ as citizens of His kingdom, we’re just squandering that opportunity to make Him known. By hiding the Gospel in these vocations, we are settling for mediocrity.
I have found there to be three basic characteristics of mediocrity that do not belong to the Christian: procrastination, indolence, and timidity. When we’re lazy, timid, and procrastinate, we fail to reflect who Jesus is. In Jesus’ entire ministry He was neither lazy, timid, nor did he procrastinate. But in our endeavours to bring Christ into the Devil’s kingdom, we often settle for mediocrity.
Every now and then, I’ll procrastinate, whether it’s because I’m sleepy, motivated, low in energy, or even just lazy, and I always regret it when I procrastinate. Procrastination is the willful act of delaying or postponing something. There is no plausible reason for it—not even my sleepiness or lack of motivation. We may give excuses for it, like mine, but there’s a difference between an excuse and an explanation.
Ultimately, procrastination is the epitome of indolence. If there’s anything that’s indicative of Scripture’s practical theology, especially in wisdom literature, it’s that it commends hard work and condemns laziness. “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, whilst the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (Proverbs 13:4). This is an easy verse to pit against indolence, but I’m using it for procrastination because of the word “diligent.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “diligent” as, “characterized by steady, earnest, and energetic effort.” Sure, we might be tired even though it’s only 3:00 in the afternoon, but that’s still no reason to procrastinate. The day is not over. To be diligent, then, is to ignore that temptation to procrastinate—to irresponsibly set things aside—and fall behind as a result. The problem, however, is not that we procrastinate every once in a while, but when it becomes a perpetual habit and we ultimately don’t get anything done. In other words, procrastination can become an addictive habit.
Here, I also want to talk a little bit about Colossians 3:23 again: “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men…” We might hate our job, whether it’s an actual career or a minimum wage job, but tough. First, we should be thankful that we have a job because there are plenty of people in America who cannot find one or are unable to work. Second, if we can’t do it for ourselves or for our boss, then we should do it for God to bring Him glory. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for daily bread, and God placing us in a vocational job is how He does that. So, if anything, be grateful to God in spite of your adversity towards your job. I would also recommend you pray that God give you joy and peace in your job.
Isaac Newton’s first law of motion is an object will remain motionless or uniform in motion unless acted upon by an external force. People are a lot like that. Some people, like myself, are naturally ambitious and driven to accomplishments (occasionally, however, I am overcome by laziness). Others, on the other hand, are apathetic and lack the motivation to make accomplishments. When we were younger, my older brother was given the nickname “inertia boy” by our father because he wouldn’t do anything unless he was forced to. Fortunately, he’s no longer like this since he’s grown up since then. Yet there are some today who have that “inertia boy” attitude, who won’t do anything unless they’re absolutely forced to. That’s an extreme when it comes to mediocrity, but it does happen.
Now, I need to make a further distinciton between procrastination and indolence. Procrastination is more like the college student who will sacrifice homework and studying time just to hang out with friends, or putting off a task for later just because he or she doesn’t “feel like” doing it right now. When I talk of indolence, I mean a serious condition in which one literally doesn’t get anywhere… in life. Procrastination is something everybody does—it’s just a form of indolence; and as I said earlier, it only becomes a problem when we literally don’t get anything done. Indolence in itself, when I speak of it, is that state in which the individual exerts no effort to do anything. The procrastinator still goes to work and school; they just put off their tasks. The indolent, however, don’t do anything. This could be in education, getting a job, spreading the Gospel, whatever. The indolent person refuses to seek a job, or has a job and does no work whatsoever (indeed, that job won’t last long). And the indolent person is that Christian whom Greg Groeschel calls a “Christian atheist“—claiming to be Christian but living as if God doesn’t exist.
Proverbs 6:6 says, “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” Scripture considers indolence so serious that it tells the sluggard to look at an ant as an example of diligence and hard work. I mean, why not? They’re hard workers! Pixar’s A Bug’s Life certainly encapsulates this. They work all day and lift things many times their size every single day.
Earlier, I said there’s a difference between an excuse and an explanation. Lazy people are masters at giving excuses and fashioning them into explanations. Believe me, I’ve done it. It actually takes a lot more work to be lazy than it does to be productive! Scripture mocks these people, saying, “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets'” (Proverbs 26:13)! Essentially, this mockery is saying, “But it’s too challenging! I can’t do it!” This is like those people who say they don’t want to go to college because it’s expensive and they don’t want to be in debt. This is illogical because everybody who goes to college is in some amount of debt. Sure, it sucks, but get over it; it’s just an excuse. When people say this, my thought is, “And…?” People get themselves into debt anyway even without going to college! My belief is this: If you refuse to go to college or a trade school to start a career with your sole reason being that you don’t want to be in debt and therefore settle for a mediocre, minimum wage job, don’t complain that you’re not making enough money to live the way you want (i.e. above your means) or buy the things you want. Settling for mediocre living means you cannot afford anything above mediocrity.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying all people who have minimum wage jobs are lazy. After all, I’m a graduate student and I have a minimum wage job because I cannot start my career as a pastor until I graduate seminary and get ordained. My mother has worked multiple minimum wage jobs and she is one of the hardest working people I know! What I am saying is people are lazy when they remain adamant about getting a college education at university or a trade school just because “it’s expensive,” settle for a low paying mediocre minimum wage job, and then proceed to complain about it. Grow up! To them, college becomes that proverbial lion in the middle of the road and they use that challenge—or roadblock—as an excuse not to walk down that path. It’s a mediocre attitude and it’s a mediocre lifestyle.
If someone decides college is not for them and decide to go to a trade school or they actually like their job and they can actually afford their living expenses, good for them! That’s far better than a college graduate who lives richly but is miserable in their job. It’s mediocre, however, when we use future expenses and hard work as an excuse not to go further and do something we’re plenty capable of doing.
The last way in which we must not be mediocre is in timidity. Paul writes to Timothy, “…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). Timidity is having a lack of courage or confidence. When we’re afraid to try something new or are lacking confidence, we can rely on the Holy Spirit to overcome such weakness.
It might sound odd, but timidity is a form of idolatry. When we’re timid, we’re afraid of what people might think of us if we fail. We think if we fail, people will think of us differently or our reputation will be damaged. In his explanation of the first commandment, Luther says we should “fear, love, and trust God above all things” (SC, The Ten Commandments, 2). When we fail to fear, love, and trust God and fear—in this case—the opinions of others, their opinions become our idols. We begin to fear, love, and trust what they say about us rather than what God says about us.
I feel this is the case for a lot of us Millennials. Right now, a lot of us are in that stage of life where we are experiencing serious life transitions. The goal in mind is to stand on our own two feet—to support ourselves. We leave home, go to college, get our first jobs, our first apartment, we graduate, start our first career, some are even getting married and having children, and other transitions. It can be intimidating for one who’s not prepared for the coming challenges adulthood brings.
During these transitions, many young adults get timid and are afraid of real life and the real world. I’m fortunate enough not to have experienced such timidity because serving in the Army forced me to grow up; I didn’t have the luxury of taking my time or even to think about the inevitable changes. I had to face them as they came. But I noticed those around me who are younger (not by much) and are timid as they begin college, get their first apartment and have to be responsible for themselves for the first time, get their first job, start their first career after graduation and finally see what the real world is like, and begin their first (and hopefully only) marriage. In each transition, some of us may think, “What if I fail?”
Why is it that we think failure means it’s the end? If you’re a gamer like me, what do we do when we’re playing a video game and we die multiple times? We start over and try again until we succeed (excluding rage quit). If you’re into sports, what do you do when you slip and fall? You get up and try again.
Failure doesn’t mean, “It’s over.” It means, “Try again; do better.” “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe” (Proverbs 29:25). When we’re timid and become afraid of what others will think if we fail or just purely afraid of failure itself, we’re putting ourselves in a snare—it’s a trap! Unless we trust God, there’s no way out. What’s the point of having faith if we don’t trust the One who gave it to us? By faith, we trust God’s promise of salvation, which is an extremely weighty thing to trust Him with. How simple it is, then, to trust Him with every other aspect of our lives.
Don’t settle for mediocre faith by failing to trust in the One who gave it to you. “The heart of a man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). Make your plans and act on them; God will bring you through it. It may not be exactly as you envision it, but He will get you through it all to do what His will for you is.
Procrastination is the failure to remain diligent and work dutifully for the Lord; therefore, such mediocrity fails to glorify God. Indolence is the failure to take it upon ourselves to take action in our lives and make the best of it; therefore, such mediocrity fails to glorify God. Timidity is the failure to fear, love, and trust God above all things; therefore, such mediocre faith fails to glorify God since it places something else as our idol.
The world is apathetic about such mediocrity; therefore, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to remain ever diligent, enthusiastic, and courageous in bringing God all the glory. We sing the song, “How Great is Our God,” whilst at the same time settling for mediocrity in our lives and in our faith. What an insult it is to our great God to ignore the greatness He has called each of us to do! If God accepted mediocrity, He would not have called us to extraordinary faith and action. We’re not called to be like the rest of the world in their mediocre faithlessness. We are called to greatly serve our Lord Jesus Christ and love our neighbour. We fail when we procrastinate and become indolent or timid because in doing so, we fail in our vocations. No worries, however, for Christ in the Spirit lifts us up again to try again and do what He has called us to do.
This does not mean the life of a Christian is without hardship, however. In each of our vocations, we will suffer, we will become unmotivated, we will lose energy—we will fail. But “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). Amen.
Danker, Frederick W., and Kathryn Krug. The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2009.
Kolb, Robert, Timothy J. Wengert, Charles Arand, Eric Gritsch, William Russel, James Schaaf, and Jane Strohl. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000.