Righteousness on a Curve: When Better Isn’t Good Enough

“This class will be graded on a curve.”

During my time as a student, these were the eight most beautiful words in the English language. It didn’t matter what teacher; it didn’t matter what subject—those eight simple words broadcast one unmistakable message:

“You can stop trying so hard.”

That’s the beautiful thing about the curve. Typically, a final grade is a reflection of how well a student met the objectives of the class in question. Answer all the questions right, you get an A. Complete a project according the rubric, you get an A. But the bell curve changes all that. It says, “Look, what matters most isn’t how well the students do—what matters most is how well the students do in relation to each other.”

Image courtesy of Alberto G.
Image taken by Alberto G.

Suddenly it’s not about getting all the questions right—it’s about getting more questions right than the people around you. It’s not so much about meeting the project requirements; it’s about being the student who came closest to meeting those requirements. The bell curve can transform a B into an A+, so long as the B is the highest grade in the room.

How does God grade righteousness, do you think?

Because it’s easy to be better than the world. It’s really, really easy to be one of the best students in the room, if only because most of your classmates think the textbook is a worthless joke. The contrast is so stark that honest, sincere Christians are going to stand out from among the pack simply because of the things we don’t do. We don’t lie. We don’t steal. We don’t cheat. We don’t do the things much the world finds excusable under the right circumstances. Morally, we stand head and shoulders above the world simply by doing nothing.

Is that what God is looking for?

Is our Creator pleased to see His people marginally outperforming a world that doesn’t know or doesn’t care to do any better?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Consider two airplanes, both plummeting toward the ground at breakneck speeds. The passengers in the first plane are clearly oblivious to their fate, while the passengers on the second plane, having maintained a slightly higher altitude, are occasionally glancing out their windows at the first plane in order to shake their heads and mutter, “Those poor fools have no idea where they’re headed.”

Tell me, which plane would you rather be on?

It hardly makes any difference, does it? Both planes are going down. The fact that one remains slightly higher than the other only matters when comes to the slightly different times at which they hit the ground and explode.

Better doesn’t cut it. Better isn’t good enough—because when we compare ourselves to a plummeting benchmark, “better” just ensures we’ll hit the ground a little later. It’s easy to be better than the world, but we weren’t called to be better than the world. We were called to live up to the unchanging standards of God Almighty, regardless of what the people around us are doing.

To the Philippians, Paul wrote, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).

The upward calling. Not the “better than the world” calling. Not even the “better than your brethren” calling. The upward call of God in Christ Jesus. It’s too easy to be on that second airplane, shaking our heads in disdain and failing to realize that there is no crown for being “not as bad” as the people around you. The crown is for those who push themselves to rise to the high standards of the word of God—for the people who do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8). There are men and women of action, diligent to present themselves approved to God, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). They know that faith without works is dead (James 2:20), that the faith of a mustard seed is enough to move a mountain (Matthew 17:20), and that the love of God is relentless (Romans 5:8), unquenchable (1 Corinthians 13:8), and life-changing (John 3:16).

They are the people we need to be.

Paul had his eye on that crown. He told the Philippians that he pressed toward it. That he sought to lay hold of it. That he was reaching forward and refused to stop until it was within his grasp.

And that’s exactly what he did. At the end of his life, Paul was confident enough to tell Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Righteousness isn’t graded on a curve. God’s standards don’t drop just because other people do a poor job of meeting them. They remain constant and unchanging while the world plunges deeper and deeper into a moral abyss. If we want to meet those standards, “better than” will never be good enough.

Therefore, brethren, since we have not yet apprehended, “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead,” let us “press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

The crown awaits.

Until next time,
Jeremy

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