I have been working my way through a book of Winston Churchill quotes. There are lots of good ones — “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm” (p. 15); “We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out” (p. 41); and certainly many of the familiar ones: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” (p. 87); “We shall go to the end, we shall fight on the seas, . . .we shall fight on the beaches. . .we shall never surrender” (p. 91). Few people have used the English language so effectively for both private and public purposes!
One quote, in particular, caught my attention. “It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required” (p. 135). I realized immediately how often in our culture we expect “our best” to be good enough. As a longtime classroom professor, I got used to hearing students complain about their test grades by citing how hard they had worked. Sighing about “being overworked” is guaranteed to elicit at least perfunctory sympathy in any workplace of our country. This may be especially true in these tough economic times when everyone is “rightsizing” and looking for greater efficiencies. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone complain of being underworked. And, in 23 years in the classroom, I had only one student who admitted to getting a better grade than he thought he had earned.
As I reflected further, I also realized that our culture is two-faced about when “our best” is considered good enough. We don’t let a surgeon off the hook who claims to have done “his best” if he amputates the wrong leg. We would not go back to an auto mechanic who claimed to have done his best on our car when it is still not working properly. We are not at all impressed with an athletic team who has only done “its best.” Sometimes the only thing that counts is getting it right. Sometimes it is only winning that matters.
Churchill’s quote captures a hard truth about our world. Sometimes life asks more of us than we think we have. “Our best” is clearly not good enough. When we don’t get into a graduate program we wanted, or when we don’t get a job we fully expected — or when we lose a job where we have given our best — or when we are asked to continue our journey without someone we loved — or when someone we love is diagnosed with an incurable disease — or when there are no obvious solutions to challenges in our work or in our relationships, we know that our only option is to do what’s required. Maybe, at the moment, “doing what’s required” means simply walking with the disappointment or “making friends with the sorrow,” as my husband, Paul, says about dealing with life’s deep sadnesses.
While we may not like the hard truth of Churchill’s quote, it should come as no surprise to those of us familiar with the call to Christian discipleship. I can’t find much support in Scripture for the cultural notion that our best is good enough. Yes, there are times when living up to our capacity is praised (e.g., the story of the widow’s mite), but mostly, Scripture is the story of God enabling people to do “what was required” when they knew full well that “their best” was not good enough.
These are not easy times. Actually, I am not sure there have ever been easy times. This is, after all, a fallen world. But it is also a world that God loves. It is a world where we are promised that the very painful circumstances of our lives can be redeemed for our good. It is a world where, much to our surprise, God can take five loaves and two fishes — the best that the little boy could bring — and multiply that “best” to be what was “required” to feed five thousand!
May we find His grace sufficient today to enable us to do “what is required.”
Shirley Mullen, Class of 1976
(Quotes come from Churchill in “Quotes” compiled by Ammonite Press, Lewes, East Sussex, UK.)