On Sacrifice: Effort, Investment and Excellence

In The Slavery of Death I talk about how idolatry manifests as service to the principalities and powers. Mixing Ernest Becker with William Stringfellow, I talk about how we achieve self-esteem by service to an institution or organization. Success within the "hero system" of the institution--generally your employer--becomes your route to meaning and significance.

This service to institutions often becomes a form of slavery when the institution demands greater and greater loyalty, commitment and sacrifice, often couched in calls for "excellence."

The point I make in The Slavery of Death is that these calls for excellence are often euphemisms for the word sacrifice. Specifically, we are finite creatures with limited time, energy and resources. We can't keep getting more and more excellent without a significant reallocation of time, energy and resources. Something has to be sacrificed. More time at work, for example, means less time with family, friends or church.

And yet, since success within the institution is how we achieve self-esteem, we are tempted to make these sacrifices. This is the cycle--self-esteem fueled sacrifice--that creates our idolatrous relationship with the Powers.

That said, I occasionally get push back about how we should think about excellence. Shouldn't we strive to be excellent? Isn't it a display of good Christian stewardship to do and give our very best?

To help get this sorted out, let's dig down into what is involved in a call for "excellence."

Let me suggest that excellence is comprised of two ingredients, effort and investment. Simply:
Effort + Investment = Excellence
Sometimes the call to excellence is simply a call for effort. For example, people at work might not be giving it 100% effort. They might be doing shoddy work to spend time surfing the Internet while at the office. A call to excellence, when it's aimed at effort, is aimed at laziness, goofing off, and mailing it in.

So in this sense--an appeal to do your job and do it well--the call to excellence isn't really about idolatry. "Excellence," in this view, is something we should all aspire to. We should give and do our best, whatever the task or job might be. We should work, as the Bible says, as for the Lord.

But let's say you are giving maximal effort. In that instance the call to excellence shifts from effort to investment. If you're working to the max the call to excellence means that you have to invest more. Usually by putting in more hours. It's this aspect of the equation that I'm calling out when I say "excellence is a euphemism for sacrifice."

To be clear, sometimes sacrifice--increasing investment--is good and necessary. Maybe you're covering for a sick co-worker. Maybe it's a busy season at the office. And maybe it's what you have to do to keep your job. I wouldn't call any of these increases in investment forms of idolatry. They are sacrifices, to be sure, but they aren't idolatry.

But there are times when these calls for greater investment, and our desire to respond to them, do qualify as idolatry, as sacrifices we make on the altar of significance and self-esteem.

These ego-driven sacrifices--in Henri Nouwen's phrasing, the desire to be relevant, powerful and spectacular--are the ones I'm calling out in The Slavery of Death.

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