“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ.” (Philippians 1:9-10)
Ever read a scripture passage for the umpteenth time and suddenly really notice it for the first time? How was it missed so many times before? I don’t know but there it is and suddenly you realize you don’t have a clue what the verse means. That’s what happened to me when I recently dived into Philippians thinking it would be a short and easy book to fill my morning devotional. I got no further than chapter one, verse ten.
Approve excellence. Hmmm. I see it’s a good thing to do but how do we approve those things that are excellent rather than settle for those things that are mediocre or things that fall short of excellence? After all, the word excellence implies superiority. The best wine, the choicest quality beefsteak, the flawless diamond—but Paul wasn’t talking about the excellence of earthly goods was he? In fact, maybe therein lies a clue to the nature of true excellence.
Things lacking permanence can’t possibly be considered things that are excellent in the full sense that the writer of Philippians was proposing to us. The best wine will go sour over time and a choice steak may go rancid. Even the flawless diamond can be spoiled by an ill devised cut. Right off the bat we have to admit that looking to the material world for spiritual excellence is just like making a bad cut.
“Approve” is the word that gives us hope--excellence is out there, while holding us accountable for finding it. We get a choice; we are in control. Something is presented to us to either approve or decline. We are the quality control department on a conveyer belt of life’s choices.
I can’t help thinking though, that we have a tougher time of it than that early church Paul was writing to. Of course I could be wrong. But has there ever been a time in history when the conveyor belt was more crowded? Constantly shifting fads and fashions—hundreds of cable channels—a technology cornucopia—stimulation overload on every side. Don’t we have to wade through an awful lot of junk to find gems of excellence to approve?
So now we’re back to: how do you do it? If I really think it over I realize that probably 95% of what presents itself to me is not worth approving. It takes being both disciplined and PICKY! It also takes patience. Quick decisions, quick action on our part to accept something frequently yields inferior goods.
Honestly, I’m not naturally very good at that. Like when I’m buying clothes. How many times have I tried something on and rushed and bought it only to bring it home and find flaws like missing buttons or frayed seams? Now I don’t let myself leave the dressing room until I’ve made a thorough inspection of every inch of the garment. I need to be just as thorough for every decision with spiritual consequences.
Consequences. That’s another way to cajole yourself into being as picky and disciplined as is necessary to approve excellence. Think about the consequences for each thing you approve. Remember that the consequences almost never affect just you. We all live within a family context: children, parents, siblings and then there are friends and co-workers and our community.
We may fool ourselves into thinking our choices are solitary but that simply is not true. A mother who picks up garbage entertainment gossip magazines in the grocery store line is laying a foundation for her children’s choices and is preparing them for shallow materialism. A father who peruses pornography is opening a door of filth that will stink up his home and everyone in it.
The consequences of approving the things that are excellent will bear fruit too. It’s worth keeping in mind as choices present themselves. Do you want to “be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ”? That day is fast approaching. Approve excellence!