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Sometimes something worth doing is worth doing poorly

Many years ago when I was in seminary, I had a visit from a friend who—as soon as I opened the door—could tell that I was stressed. The normal pressures of dealing with a full-time ministry job, a wife and two kids (at the time), a house that desperately needed to be renovated, and the inevitable deadlines that came from being a full-time student, on top of everything else, were beginning to take their toll. The friend at the door took one look at my face and said something that I have never forgotten. It wasn’t original with him. He got it from a professor in Edinburgh, Scotland, whom we both knew well and with whom we both had the privilege of studying. What he said was this: “Sometimes something worth doing is worth doing poorly.”

As someone who has perfectionist tendencies, I found this idea to be incredibly life-giving. I was juggling too many things in my life and striving to do my best with them all, and I was beginning to discover that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do the kind of job that I knew I was capable of doing and still keep my family, my health, and my sanity intact. This phrase, shared at just the right time, gave me permission to let some things go. It reminded me that it wasn’t necessarily wrong for me to give less than my best to certain projects, to do them more “poorly” than I might otherwise if I had all the time in the world at my disposal.

But, you may ask, doesn’t this run contrary to passages like 1 Corinthians 10:31, which tell us that we are to “do all [things] to the glory of God”? I readily admit that it is hard to see how doing something poorly could still give God glory and thus fulfill the call of 1 Corinthians 10:31. But we need to remember that 1 Corinthians 10:31 doesn’t call us to be perfect, because that is impossible for every human being (who is not also divine) living on this side of Adam and Eve. If 1 Corinthians 10:31 was calling us to be perfect, then none of us could ever achieve it. This passage is, instead, calling us to do our best at everything we put our hand to. But—and here is where the abovementioned phrase comes in—sometimes our best on any given day is not the absolute best we are capable of doing. Sometimes we have off-days when we just aren’t able to produce peak performance. At other times, we have too much going on in our lives, and we simply don’t have the time to do our absolute best on everything. We must settle for a “poorer” job than we would be able to do if there was only one thing on our plate.

I don’t think 1 Corinthians 10:31 is saying that we should only take on one task at a time in order to ensure that we can always do our absolute best. It can’t be saying this, because, as I said previously, we may not always be capable of our absolute best. Circumstances, fluctuations in our physical capacities, and a variety of other factors affect whether or not we will be able to operate at our peak. But, what is more, Ephesians 5:16 calls us to “make…the best use of the time” that we have been given “because the days are evil,” and it is hard to see how limiting the number of tasks we accomplish to what we know we can do well is able to satisfy this command. So, 1 Corinthians 10:31 must be saying that we should do all things to the best of our ability at the moment.

I would also argue that doing only what we know we can do well is to run the risk of committing the sin of the third servant in Jesus’s Parable of the Talents and burying our talent(s) in the ground (see Matt. 25:14-30). The first two servants in this story were given 5 talents and 2 talents respectively. They immediately went out and put all that they were given to work on behalf of their master. But what would have happened if the first servant had put only 3 of his 5 talents to work and buried the other 2 in the ground? And what would have happened if the second servant had put only 1 of his 2 talents to work and buried the other? Would they still have been commended by their master? I don’t think so, and the reason is because the whole point of the parable is that God’s servants are to take everything He has given to us and to put it to work on His behalf. We are to step out in faith risking everything he has bestowed upon us. If we only do what we know we can do well, we are necessarily limiting what we do. We are investing only a portion of the talents that God has given us.

The better option would appear to involve us taking everything we have been given and putting it to work in service of our King. It would appear to involve stretching ourselves to do as much as we possibly can with what God has given us, because—as Paul says—“the days are evil.” The Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond once put it like this: “Unless a man [or a woman] undertakes more than he can possibly do, he will never do all that he can.” Perfectionism generally keeps us from doing all that we can, because we get so hung up on doing our absolute best that we don’t do everything that we could if we only learned that “sometimes something worth doing is worth doing poorly.”

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