The Difference Between Excellence and Perfection
Luke Baker | January 11, 2019
It was 10:30 pm, the time I’m usually sitting in my reading chair with a novel and a cup of tea, winding down for the night, but we were still up wrapping our living room walls with Christmas wrapping paper.
Our house of mid-twenties men decided to host a Christmas party, and we wanted to do everything we could to make people feel as if they opened our front door and walked into a winter wonderland. As we were nearing the end of our work and my patience, I misjudged the length of a wall and made a poor cut.
Holding the paper over the wall, I said, “Dang, let’s fold the extra paper back and line it up to the wall the best we can. We’re going for excellence, not perfection.”
“But,” My roommate says, “what’s the difference?”
My first instinct was to say, “Well, one allows me to sleep, and one keeps me up all night.”
This seemingly trivial moment has led me to think through the difference between excellence and perfection. You may or may not believe there is a difference, but I believe how we view these not only affects our work but also influences how we allow or restrict grace to flow through our lives.
On this side of Heaven, there will always be a gap between excellence and perfection, and grace is what fills that gap.
It’s often our misunderstanding of perfection that leads us to blur the line between perfection and excellence. The blurred line could be due to a misinterpretation of Jesus’ famous words from the Sermon on the Mount:
“You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”-Matthew 5:48
One could read this and say, “There it is! Perfection is our standard.” And they would be correct in saying that, but they would still be missing Jesus’ point.
Before Jesus spoke these words, He turned the world’s way of thinking right-side-up by sharing His Father’s standards in regards to anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and loving your enemies. Standards so unattainable by us, that they led Him to culminate His message with “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Perfection is our standard, but who can reach such a measure?
Knowing this is what led Jesus to say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” –Matthew 5:17
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus giving us a new, the true, way of living. A standard we aim for, but could never reach on our own. A standard so unattainable that it makes us depend on someone else to fill the gap between our effort and God’s standard for us.
Jesus fills the gap. If we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, then we must depend on someone else to make that happen for us. Jesus purchased our perfection on the cross and secured it with His resurrection.
How does this truth affect our work?
For starters, it allows us to check and properly align our motivations.
Often, perfection is fueled by fear or pride or both, revolving around an idolization of people’s approval or disapproval of us. “What will they think of me?” is the central question fueling much of our striving for perfection.
Excellence is an attainable standard that is relative to the individual depending on their talent, time, and other resources. To acknowledge excellence is to recognize work well done, but less than perfect, which gives space for the grace of God to show up.
Our imperfections are an invitation for Jesus to make Himself needed and seen.
God’s grace shows itself in excellent work by giving us rest, reflection, and ultimately, freeing us to the full life He has in store for us.
It affords us reflection because to see excellence is to see possible improvements. Perfection claims that there is no space for improvement, ironically stunting your growth towards perfection itself.
And excellence affords us rest because where perfection will keep you up all night, excellence gives space for rest and peace of mind, knowing Jesus has purchased all that is lacking.
If you are not satisfied with anything less than perfection, then you will find yourself imprisoned by your limits of time and talent.
Leonardo da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
What did da Vinci mean by “finished’? Surely he wasn’t defining finished how we define finished. Because he finished many pieces of art, and millions of people have waited in line for hours to get a glimpse of his finished work.
I believe what Leonardo da Vinci was communicating was that we can always improve on our work, but there comes a time when we must move on from working on the thing we’ve been working on.
If Da Vinci never abandoned his painting of The Last Supper, then we would never have been gifted with The Mona Lisa.
Perfection will keep you from moving forward; New Year’s resolutions are a prime example of this truth for many of us. How many goals have you never embarked on because you fear you can’t achieve it perfectly? On the other side of the coin, how many goals have been on your list for years, but you have failed to move towards them because you’re still attempting to perfect the goal you’re working on now?
Perfectionism brings paralysis; excellence brings freedom.
If you are reading this as a high-achieving leader, then you may be feeling as if I am encouraging us to settle for less than our best. Nothing else could be further from the truth. I am saying what Jesus communicated on the Sermon on the Mount- perfection is your standard, but you reach it, and acknowledging that makes way for Jesus to move throughout your life.
The words I long to hear someday are, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Those are the words we work with in mind. If you have been working for the sake of earning the approval of man, then you may have twisted those expectant words to, “Perfectly done, my perfect and faithful servant.”
Perfection is our standard, but we must not run our souls into the ground aiming to achieve it. Jesus has done that for us. Do excellent work and make way for grace to flow.