What’s your take on competition and competitiveness? Did you have occasion to consider the nature and foundational principles of competition during the recent Olympic Games? Would you classify yourself as being competitive by nature or are you not given to such ways?
Even a basic and cursory consideration of “competitiveness” is sure to raise opinions both for and against it. Our recent experience at POWER Camp is a case in point. After observing various sizes and shapes of people involving themselves in team sports and activities at the camp, one noticed that what is natural for one individual is not necessarily true for those around him. Consider the athletic young guy who has the physical prowess and inner drive to race through the obstacle course and spend all his energy to earn some points for his team or medals for his country. In contrast, consider the introverted, studious bookish guy who is completely unfazed by the fact that, by the time his team finished the obstacle course, the other teams had showered, eaten and were enjoying their third helping of pudding. Which one is right? Are either of them, neither of them or both of them on the right track?
Supporters and promoters of fierce competition usually direct sceptics to the athletic metaphors and comparisons in Scripture, and thanks to the apostle Paul they have a number of these to lean on. In particular, we learn of athletes pursuing the prize, striving for the goal, competing by the rules to receive the crown. We are encouraged by competitive people to see that, since Paul uses such examples so naturally, competition is simply part and parcel of everyone’s life. There is no doubt that competition is indeed useful and mutually beneficial. It pushes us beyond what we think we are capable of; it extends the perceived limitations of the physical world and often results in great benefit to society; it fosters community and collective pride, a synergy that produces much good.
But the problem of competition is evident in this too, as the non-competitive among us as want to point out. In the pursuit of perfection and the prize, competitive folk often neglect the non-competitive folk and in some cases even trample on them. The favourite verses of the non-competitors also come from Paul, where he instructs the Philippians in the opening verses of chapter 2 to be overtly humble and to think more about the needs and progress of others than of themselves—and he does so by pointing to Jesus.
So what’s a Christian to do? Do you compete fiercely, making sure you strive hard for the prize and when you get there just make sure that you “give glory to God”? Or do you take the back seat and defer your desires and aspirations to those of other people? There is no right or wrong answer. But there are certainly some principles that we could seek to build into our practice that will put competition into perspective.
The most obvious of these is that, as believers, we do not compete primarily for rewards here on earth but for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. This should inform our competitiveness more than anything else. Do you as a competitive person apply as much rigour and force to the matters of eternal significance as you do to the temporary, corruptible prizes of this world? Do you get as excited by the glory of God in Christ Jesus as you do by your victory in a game of ping pong donkey? This, of course, does not imply that, if you have a measure of talent in some area, you should deliberately underperform to display that you have a robust eternal perspective. You are to pursue excellence and show the glory of God in your ability, but do so recognising where that ability comes from and with gratitude to the one who gave it. The words of Eric Liddell’s character in Chariots of Fire are very helpful and instructive in this regard: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
Another principle to remember is that, whenever someone wins (a race, a job contract, a Bible drill) someone else loses. The manner in which both the winner and the loser handles this situation speaks volumes of the heart attitude of the competitor. If you lose and then sulk and complain, it is either because you value the score line too much (and you shouldn’t because it really doesn’t matter) or because you think too much of yourself. If you win and then do multiple victory laps while beating your chest and encouraging applause from the maddening crowd, you have your reward. Losers need to learn how to lose well and winners need to get themselves out of the way before their heads swell to the point that they can only walk through doors sideways.
It is logical then that Christians desiring to serve God should be careful in the choice of activity that they compete in. By all means compete, strive and work hard, but avoid setting yourself up as a functional idol; avoid the temptation to make it all about the competition and not about eternity, as it really is. Stick to activities where the lives of those around you are enriched and where Christ is magnified by your participation.
One aim of this article is to get you thinking and talking around the not-so-obvious issues of life. At YP we have enjoyed debating this topic and have hopefully gained a better understanding and a deeper and more comprehensive worldview. Are there any issues or considerations on this topic that you’d like to discuss further? Why not bring them along and let’s work through them together? I challenge you!