Michael Horton’s book, Ordinary (Zondervan, 2014), is an important conversation partner in our exploration of achievement. Horton sets out to critique the American church’s obsession with the immediate and extraordinary. We want big results—sooner rather than later—and there is an impatience and disdain for the ordinary.
According to Horton, “We’ve forgotten that God showers his extraordinary gifts through ordinary means of grace, loves us through ordinary fellow image bearers, and sends us out into the world to love and serve others in ordinary callings” (14). Horton claims that we have “drifted from the true focus of God’s activity in this world. It is not to be found in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary, the everyday” (18).
He clarifies that “ordinary does not mean mediocre” (28). There is a place for excellence, but “Biblically defined, true excellence has others in mind—first God, and then our neighbor” (29). The problem with excellence is that it becomes warped when we believe it’s all about us. The fruit of excellence is determined by its object. “Being ‘ordinary’ means that we reject the idolatry of pursuing excellence for selfish reasons” (38).
Moreover, people we consider “successful” in life demonstrate “a patient commitment to daily routines, routines that to the outside observer seem dull, trivial, worthless” (32). Achievement and excellence are born out of ordinary, perhaps even boring practices. Paradoxically, people seeking immediate, extraordinary success fall into a classic trap:
We do not find success by trying to be successful or happiness by trying to be happy. Rather, we find these things by attending to the skills, habits, and—to be honest—the often dull routines that make us even modestly successful at anything. If you are always looking for an impact, a legacy, and success, you will not take the time to care for the things that matter (58).
Horton affirms the created goodness of seeking achievement: “if by ambition we mean simply a drive or initiative in setting and reaching goals, there is nothing more natural to us as God’s image-bearers… Our passion for life and achievement and our desire to strive toward a daring goal are essentially hardwired into us by God” (87-88).
The problem, with these things, however, is that they have become corrupted: “What has changed since the fall is the direction of this drive” (88). The created virtue of seeking achievement and striving towards goals has become idolatrous once the goal of such striving becomes our own glory, rather than the glory of God. Horton affirms the importance of gifts, inclination, talents, and opportunities. But these are not only seen as means for success; they are also limiting. “We are not able to become ‘whatever we wish’” (96). But this is a good thing. Our gifts and opportunities are not for our own private advancement, but for the public good. We need each other in society, and we need each other in the church.
Horton’s Ordinary is a much-needed corrective to a church culture obsessed with celebrity pastors, fastest growing megachurches, and the like. The book demonstrates a careful theological approach to achievement and excellence. While Horton acknowledges that we are hardwired to pursue goals, the fall has distorted achievement, making it a self-centered endeavor. But he demonstrates how the gospel reorients achievement to its proper ends. We are to use our gifts for the glory of God and in service of others. We should seek contentment in the gospel and in the ordinary means of grace, rather than trying to become “the Next Big Thing.”