Last spring I decided to start my own garden. I suppose I could have called it “responsible stewardship of resources” or “the new thing to do if you live in the city,” but I believe the idea was truly appealing to me because a garden combines just the right mix of science, art, and the good Lord’s divine grace. I admit I took the project on with more than a little noble idealism, telling my friends that I wanted to use the garden to “teach my girls what it means to make an investment of time and labor, to be patient and practice deferred gratification, to work together on something as a family, and ultimately to depend on the Lord.” I was going to be an amazing father, using tactile metaphor to cultivate virtues in my children while also feeding them with the fruits of our collaborative labor.
Building the raised-beds and filling them with soil was backbreaking work, to be sure, but I can remember thinking, “This is what it feels like to be a man. We should have never left the farm!” If only Wendell Berry had stopped by so we could have imbibed a Kentucky bourbon together and lamented over the invention of the tractor.
The surprisingly low cost of seedling plants made me a little overzealous, and with just two visits to the nursery I had not only filled four 4’x8’ raised beds, but also about ten large pots that I stationed around the periphery. Virtually overnight I had become a legit gardener, or at least it appeared that way. When all the planting was done, I sat back and just admired it all, soaking up that feeling of satisfaction that only comes when you know you’ve worked hard and you’ve created something really good.
As I watched my little slice of Eden grow, it quickly became apparent that I had neglected to consider one significant time-consuming aspect of gardening: pruning. Those cherry tomato vines especially seemed to grow six inches a night, and my over-exuberance with the number of plantings led to an early problem of crowding and tangling of vines. Before long I was adding supports on tops of supports, tying off vines here and there, constantly pruning away enough lower growth to fill a wheelbarrow full of foliage every week. My oldest daughter Alice found this work particularly interesting because it involved scissors, but I did not let her help—maintaining the perfection of this garden had become too important a work for such small hands. (I guess I forgot about the whole virtue cultivation thing.)
As it turned out, all of my hard work finally paid off. For the longest time the plants were just growing taller and bushier, but then over the course of one week fruit appeared everywhere. Cherry tomatoes in abundance, several heirlooms, banana and jalapeño peppers, eggplant already getting large enough to bend over branches . . . I couldn’t believe it; the payoff had come!
I can remember at least two get-togethers that my wife and I hosted at our house over the summer during which several of our guests raved effusively over my garden. “How are your tomato plants so tall?! How were you this successful your first time gardening?? You have to teach me your tricks!” I’m pretty sure that I feigned humility, perhaps saying something like, “Well, I just put the plants in the ground; God did all the rest,” while thinking in my head the whole time, “I did this! I put in the hours of research and building and planting and pruning and what you’re seeing here is the fruit of my labor.” I was extremely proud of the fruit born by my hard work; I had desired an excellent outcome and done what needed to be done to produce that exact outcome. I was an excellent gardener.
* * *
It is common in Christian education to talk about excellence. We exhort our students often with phrases like, “Do everything with excellence.” If asked why, we evoke 1 Corinthians 10:31: “to bring glory to God.”
And I think all of this is true and good . . . except when we become enamored with our own excellence—when we gaze too long (and too longingly) at the beautiful results of human-making, when we forget that every good and perfect gift comes from God.
In the pursuit of excellence in everything we do, we can be tempted to strive merely for the excellence of man for the “glory of God,” rather than to seek the excellence of God for the transformation of man. Too often we either make excellence itself the end goal—at which point it begins to shimmer much like a golden calf—or we choose what is important to us, do it “with excellence,” then ask God to bless our efforts. So, effectively, we glorify ourselves and then give God a high-five.
Because the voices of achievement are so loud, this narrative of misplaced glory is easily and subversively communicated in our schools—even in our Christian schools. We, the teachers, can become complicit in this narrative if we are not intentional about casting and embodying the grander vision of a life lived for God’s glory.
I know what goes through my students’ heads, though: “All this ‘bring glory to God’ talk is great, Mr. Faulkner, but I’ve got to get into a good high school, and that means I’ve got to work as hard as I can for that
excellence A.” Notice the subtle shift from a transcendent virtue to a utilitarian mark. Our attainment of the former depends on the work of the Holy Spirit in us as we reach toward an ultimate embodiment of God Himself; the latter is the manmade invention of a culture that values personal achievement, efficiency, and the quantification of everything.
And so, if we are not very careful, we can establish in our schools—in our Christian schools—a metaphor for a nominal, compartmentalized Christian life in which the desires of man are sought, students are “equipped” so that these desires can be achieved by their own hard work, and perhaps God is tacked on at the end of this journey so we can “give Him the glory.” No wonder so many students become disenchanted and disillusioned when they become old enough to see through the all-too-often spiritualized exhortations to otherwise secular ends.
Striving under our own power merely for the excellence of man can lead to the lie of self-sufficiency and the establishment of success as an unfulfilling idol and relentless taskmaster. Alternatively, when we seek first the excellence of God, we are graciously brought into God’s will, and we are necessarily transformed because our own efforts are always found wanting. Striving for the excellence—or, we could say, perfection—of God necessarily leads to Jesus.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
I don’t think Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount in this way to frustrate his audience with an impossible commandment. Nor do I think He intends for everyone to leave after his talk and simply set out to make the best chariots possible (although, if that is their vocation, they most certainly should!). I think He is inviting them (us!) to a state of perfection—a state of excellence, a state of completion (the Greek here, teleioi, which is often translated “perfect” can also be translated “complete” or “full grown”)—a state that only his death and resurrection can satisfy. In short, Jesus is calling his audience to humility and repentance—repentance that postures us for the ultimate transformation into truly excellent humans.
* * *
By early August, just a few weeks after I had marveled at my hidden talent for gardening, I found myself throwing hundreds of discolored tomatoes away while tearing out the entire crop by the root. Blight had descended upon my garden, destroying every tomato plant and beginning to take over my peppers as well. As if coordinating a two-pronged attack, slugs and some other insect I have yet to identify made doilies out of my basil. The birds and squirrels evidently felt emboldened by the successful campaigns against the tomatoes, peppers, and basil, so they followed suit and consumed my entire yield of blueberries and kale. What had looked like a display from the Atlanta Botanical Gardens just a few weeks prior now resembled a long forgotten, sparsely planted garden in the backyard of an abandoned house.
Perhaps my first foray into gardening was simply a story of dumb luck followed by a fate not uncommon even among seasoned gardeners. Or perhaps I stood too proudly by my cherry tomato plants that day, allowing my adoring gaze to last several seconds longer than the polite observations of my guests.
For weeks after the death of my garden, I was compelled to reflect on Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians:
“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
* * *
I write all of this not to suggest that we should stop exhorting our students toward excellence, academic or otherwise. There is certainly nothing inherently wrong in striving for an A in algebra (or working hard on what might become a beautiful, fruitful garden). Excellent work is a very good thing when it is done “heartily, as for the Lord.”
But we would be remiss not to acknowledge the potential dangers that accompany this idea of excellence. In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis reminds us that the beautiful things of this world “are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.” Excellence is no different, and its pursuit in our schools can—perhaps unwittingly—“break the hearts” of our students, especially if an idolization of worldly excellence pays off in top tier schools, high-paying jobs, and nice houses, while robbing them of true meaning and joy and peace.
If I am going to model for my students what it means to do excellent work for God’s glory, I must guard against an unhealthy posture toward excellence in my own life. To that end, I think it may be helpful to ask myself a few questions. First, is the excellence in my work characterized by humility? That is, when I do excellent work, am I conformed more into the likeness of Christ, or do I bask in and seek more fervently the praises of men? Second, do I hold on loosely to my accomplishments, or does achievement lead me toward a false sense of self-sufficiency? And finally, when I do excellent work but do not end up with an excellent result, how do I respond? Does hard work make me feel entitled to a bountiful harvest, or do I truly believe that it is God who makes things grow?
Spring is just around the corner. Pretty soon it will be time to turn the beds over and mix in some compost. It will be easy to forget these questions as visions of a perfect garden begin to take root once again in my imagination. But maybe the most excellent work—the work that will bring the most glory to God—has little to do with soil and seedlings. Maybe the most excellent work requires that I set achievement aside . . . allow a bountiful garden to teach me more about gratitude . . . find the patience to let my girls help out with the pruning.
Maybe the most excellent work is what God intends to do in me.