“Midweek Meditation - A Fourth Arena for Excellence, and Another Path to Pursue”
As we explored the concept of excellence on Sunday morning we discussed three arenas for excellence - work, worship, and relationships and discovered three pathways to pursue it - purpose, persistence, and passion. Today I want to add one more arena and another pathway. So we turn to Second Peter chapter one.
Peter is out of his mind in this text. I don’t know how else to make sense of what he says there. Peter says that we have been called to the glory and excellence of God! Even more than that Peter says that not only has God called us to His excellence, He has promised to make us like Him, and what’s more is that He will do it by His power (2 Pet. 1:3-4)! Peter then lists several qualities that we should pursue, even as God works in us so to speak. First among them, and perhaps a heading over the entire list, is the Greek word Arete. Arete is variously translated, “virtue”, “moral excellence”, or “excellence of character”. We must pursue excellence in the arena of our character and we must do so through purpose, passion, and persistence. We set as our goal partaking of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4; purpose), we apply all diligence to this goal (2 Pet. 1:5; passion) and we are constantly growing and increasing in this (2 Pet. 1:8, persistence). But there is a fourth pathway that we must pursue as well if we want to achieve moral excellence. Before we get there, however, we must meander a bit to consider why we need to walk it in the first place.
It is extraordinarily difficult to persist in moral excellence when we are constantly bombarded by, confronted with, and involved in forces that would weather our moral fortitude. As the wisdom writer aptly asks, “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned?”. The answer, is a resounding and obvious “no” and yet too many of us live like moral pyromaniacs. Our clothes are burned and our hair is singed and of course, nothing smells quite as bad as burnt hair, literally or metaphorically. Sometimes we play with fire intentionally, but most of the time we find ourselves dancing too close to its warmth without ever meaning to fall in. “I didn’t mean to”. The paragon of pardon. The most excellent of excuses. As an older friend of mine often tells his teenager when they utter the revered rationalization, “well, you didn’t mean not to.” Ah. There is the rub. Moral excellence, like staying away from fire, must be intentional. How do we intentionally avoid the flames which lick at the stature of our moral character and threaten to burn the whole edifice down? We must starve the fire. We must remove the fuel source. We must… Get a new metaphor… Not the most eloquent of transitions I know (it is certainly no fire pole).
Jesus, the master teacher picked the most magnificent metaphor here, a truly excellent example. When describing the process of growth to His disciples Jesus spoke of the necessity of pruning (John 15:2). I’m not a master gardener but pruning seems fairly counterintuitive at first glance. “Why would I cut anything off a perfectly healthy plant?” Because Jesus, the master teacher, and master gardener, knew that cutting off certain portions of the plant were entirely necessary if it was going to do more than just survive. If a plant would flourish and thrive it needs careful cultivation and proficient pruning. The same is when it comes to my moral excellence. I may be a healthy enough plant, perhaps I’m even bearing some fruit here and there. I may not commit major sins. I may have buried some real character flaws. I may be a relatively upstanding guy or gal. But I don’t want to settle for healthy enough, or some petty fruit on occasion. Mediocrity and complacency have no place when my purpose is to partake of the divine nature and passion and persistence are the paths down which I walk. I want to thrive in my moral character. Or at least, I ought to want to. And so prune I must, as the Word sheds light on leaves that bear too heavy. Certain relationships and recreational activities need to be rent and gotten rid of, certain pastimes need put away, certain situations need shunned or sidestepped. Sometimes I must prune because the activities, relationships, situations, etc. are harmful. More often though, I must prune because while the things I am involved in are not outright harmful they are not particularly helpful either (1 Cor. 10:23). And when my purpose is glorify God in everything I do (1 Cor. 10:31) and to become like Him (2 Pet. 1:3-4) I need to make sure the things that I am doing are helpful to that end.
And so let us consider our lives, and the ways in which we walk. Let us pursue pruning as a pathway to moral excellence. (Note: while beyond the scope of the present article pruning can also be a valuable tool to pursue excellence in the arenas of work, worship, and relationships as well).