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John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

June 23, 2017

The good is the enemy of the best. Or not.

Back in the heyday of the church growth movement in the 1990s, it seemed every pastor with an evangelical bent seemed to be enamored of three authors: the business guru duo Ken Blanchard and the recently deceased Spencer Johnson; and the early 20th century Holiness evangelist Oswald Chambers. They tried to get their lay leaders and parishioners to read them too, and then pushed their congregations into adopting their main principles.

From Blanchard and Johnson and others like them we got “one minute managers” and “management by walking around” in pursuit of “organizational change” that would lead to “empowering leaders” and “high-performing teams” that would bring us “customer-focused, world-class organizations.”

If it was prescribed for business, surely it could be applied to churches, many ambitious pastors thought. Some of them began using titles like “Executive Pastor” and thinking of themselves as CEOs. Suddenly, it seemed those promoting the latest management fads knew more about how churches and congregations should be organized and run than two millennia of experience with the Holy Spirit.

Also about this time, it became common for these same kinds of pastors to tell their congregations, “The good is the enemy of the best,” as a way to spur all kinds of things—increased giving, taking financial risks, prodding more volunteer participation, embarking on building programs. The phrase sounded vaguely biblical and was invoked with similar authority. It resulted in a lot of guilt and worry about one’s commitment to and ultimate judgment by Jesus. It pushed congregations into decisions they would otherwise not have made. And it led to some disastrous outcomes.

The aphorism in question comes from the 1924 book, My Utmost for His Highest, a posthumous collection of devotions by Oswald Chambers. Perennially popular in certain Christian circles, the book enjoyed a revival of sorts beginning in the 1990s. Chambers’ teaching stresses the importance of striving to please God in all aspects of life, denying and disciplining yourself, and never being satisfied with your efforts. There is always more you can do for God.

The advice makes its appearance in the devotion for May 25, which reads in part:

The greatest enemy of the life of faith in God is not sin, but good choices which are not quite good enough. The good is always the enemy of the best.

What is interesting is that an admonition with the opposite meaning, The best is the enemy of the good, had been around since the 1600s. Attributed to Voltaire, the point was that in the pursuit of perfection one could often ruin a good thing. Chambers took the phrase, turned it around and gave it a meaning that fit his theology: “Good” is not good enough. God demands your “best.” Or, “My Utmost for His Highest,” if you prefer.


This combination of grasping for American-style success in the church and “giving 110 (or maybe 200) percent” as one burned brightly for God was appealing to a certain kind of person who was already inclined that way. In the congregations of which I was a part, these tended to be younger, driven men. A lot of pastors of this type believed God wanted them to make a mark on the world, that God had something Big in store for them if they just followed him hard enough, dreamed, took risks and brought their churches and congregations along. It was the time of the book, The Prayer of Jabez, which many congregations read. You heard a lot of sermon examples of how famous business people, pro athletes and successful pastors sacrificed, worked hard and took risks.

Pastors with these agendas attracted other men like them in their congregations. Some already had been influenced by the 1990s Promise Keepers movement, or Christian authors who said church was too feminine, that the women were taking over and there were no frontiers for men anymore. Men I knew who were like this tended to come from traditional families in the working class who were seeing their economic and personal well-being eroding. These men wanted to prove their value and their love, to themselves and especially to Jesus. Pastors who promoted personal and corporate sacrifices and risk taking for God for big church payouts spoke to these concerns.

I was part of several churches where this kind of thinking took hold. In one, the ambitious pastor was so focused on what he’d convinced himself God was leading him to that he missed the obvious signs of resistance in the congregation. He kept pushing, strong-arming, really, for the parishioners to support a building program, change their worship style, and get out and evangelize. He got some “good” results. But he was focused on the “best,” which is where he was convinced God was leading him. Eventually the people rather dramatically rejected him and his goals.

In another church, the pastor actually used the phrase The good is the enemy of the best in board meetings as grounds for urging the leadership to “step out in faith” and hire staff the budget could not support. Leaders were asked to make ongoing sacrificial contributions above their tithes that would make the vision possible. The church had a fairly healthy congregation that was growing slowly and steadily. This was “good.” But the pastor believed God was telling him the church needed to reach for “God’s best” by taking on financially risky initiatives. After a few years, all of these risks failed, and the church eventually had to close.

Both churches would have been fine if their pastors had not gotten caught up in church growth business ideas and Oswald Chambers theology. Their churches already were experiencing growth and were faithful in outreach. But these were the days when lots of pastors thought they could become the next Bill Hybels or Rick Warren.


There is a certain kind of driven Christian who holds up people like Chambers, famous missionaries, saints and martyrs as examples of what we all must be like if we are to please God.

Yet the actions, priorities and choices of some of these examples sometimes were harmful to themselves and those around them. Chambers, for example, died young because he “selflessly” refused an appendectomy, believing he was taking hospital space from potentially more deserving soldiers. Was this a heroic act? Were other lives actually saved? And was this kind of thinking and action what Chambers felt God demanded from all those who follow him?

I would argue “yes” on that last question. I think Chambers did want his adherents to pattern their lives in this way to please God. My Utmost for His Highest is filled with admonitions to self-sacrifice and striving, always pushing full tilt for a God who demands nothing less.

What happened in the last 20 years was a peculiarly American church phenomenon, a blending of the American dream with the mission of the church. It’s work hard and be rewarded, it’s heroic, it’s chase your dreams, take risks and give it your all. We’ve got expectations of success for effort in America, and it is hard to see life in any other way.

I do not think these expectations come from God though. And I don’t think they are helpful. They’re meant to stir people out of their lethargy into productivity, and for a few, from productivity to great feats of soul-winning and church building.

But their downside is that they distort the gospel. Jesus never said, “Build it and they will come,” and he did not promise his followers that they would gain fame or fortune or worldly success. These expectations induce fear and uncertainty and guilt into ordinary Christians’ lives. They take away confidence and rest in God and in one’s salvation. They look down on serving as one is able out of gratitude and a desire for theosis. I believe this harms believers’ lives and makes the church increasingly less attractive to people today.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good… we pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet not really small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?

If we do not give thanks… even when there is no great experience… with much weakness, small faith and difficulty… if we only keep complaining to God… then [the church will not] grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.

We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience and love that has been given to us.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer