Christians and Competition
Pursue winning, but Christianly.
but only one receives the prize?
So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24, ESV).
The short-list had Bob, Sam and Kenny’s name on it. All were tight friends; one would get the job. They had spent months getting to this point in the application process. All that remained was to wait for the inevitable decision. Would their friendship survive?
Have you ever known that you failed to be selected for an important opportunity — because they picked a friend of yours instead? Perhaps it was the chance to be the starting point guard. Or a lead role in a play or college musical. Maybe it was an interview for your dream job. You had pictured yourself in the role for so long. It seemed so right. You had worked hard for it. You deserved it. And now it was gone — because of someone you (used to?) call a friend. What went through your head? Jealousy? Anger? Despair?
Those who know me well can tell you that I am a highly competitive person. I can barely play a casual board game. If we play ping-pong, I know what’ll happen: I’ll beat you. And if not, it will be two-out-of-three. However, over the last few years, I have had some not-so-pleasant losses, and two-out-of-three was out of the question.
Those experiences got me reevaluating competition altogether. It can seem so cold — so rude. Someone always loses. Wasn’t there a better way? Couldn’t we just not send out résumés or try out for teams or musicals and just wait until someone called us? I mean, after all, God is in control, right? If He wants something to happen, well then He’ll make it happen, won’t He?
Competition is Unavoidable
Some Christians today consider competition as inherently sinful. Others pursue it unreservedly, as if it had no connection to their walk with God. Sundays are for showing Christ-like regard for others; the rest of the week is for claw-scratching to the top.
The reality is that competition is unavoidable — for all of us — regardless of our personalities and dispositions. In school, our professors compared us with one another, either for grades or for scholarships. Those involved in sports regularly competed against other teams, as well as against teammates for lead positions. Musicians competed for top chair positions in the orchestra; actors and actresses competed for lead roles.
We then interview “against” our friends in going for summer jobs. I can remember an interview in which eight of us, all friends, were interviewing with a company we knew would only hire two of us. To make matters worse, it doesn’t end on graduation day. Most employers “rank” employees, at least within their level, and we compete for promotions and our share of the finite pool of money allotted for raises. Think you can get around it by working for a nonprofit? Then you haven’t seen the battle over the annual budget.
What are we to think in these situations? On what should we focus? Should we intentionally not do our best in order to “lovingly” give others a better chance? Clearly, competition has the potential to tempt us to prideful jealousy, self-sufficiency and anxiety, to name a few dangers. What’s so insidious about jealousy is that we’re tempted to envy those who are most like us — those with whom we share the most in common — those whom we should most admire and like. So it is that law students envy other law students, athletes other athletes, med students other med students, and (yes) writers other writers, and even pastors other pastors.
Should we conclude that competition is fundamentally sinful? After all, strife and jealousy are works of the flesh (Galatians 5:20). We’re to count others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). But we need to also weigh:
1. Competition encourages excellence. We assume this every day when we choose to buy gas where it’s cheapest (assuming it won’t kill our car), or clothes from the store having a sale, or the better-rated stereo, car or washing machine. When we’re the consumer, we want the most for our money. Shouldn’t others want the same, when we produce (or are) the product?
2. Competition directs us into certain areas of work or passion. When we buy one stereo and not another, we are, in a small way, encouraging a particular manufacturer to stay in business. Just as failure in an endeavor can stimulate us to a more focused effort, it can also cause us to redirect our energy, like when I got cut from the school choir. While I was disappointed at the rejection, I was able to put more time and effort into activities I preferred, like tennis and a full academic load. Likewise, assigning merit-based grades and letting the best team or player win encourages excellence and helps individuals discern their strengths. Whether we redouble our efforts in an area of weakness, or re-channel them into an area of greater personal aptitude, recognizing excellence leads to improved performance — and not just for the winning party. In fact:
3. Competition enhances the performance of all participants, not just the winners. If you are a better tennis player than I am, I can become better just by playing (and losing) to you. You too can become better by becoming more mindful of your technique, by concentrating on fundamental skills as you help me with mine, or just by the additional court time. Intentional under-performance represents laziness (if not dishonesty or deceitfulness), ultimately cheating both your opponent and yourself.
How to Regard Others
So competition can serve some valuable purposes. But what should our attitude be toward others as we compete with them? On the one hand, it is imperative that we keep our eyes on the Audience of One. Colossians 3:23-24 tells us, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (emphasis mine). Our desire should be to do as much as we possibly can with the gifts and skills that God gives us — as faithful stewards. Excellence in work, sports, music, etc. is fundamentally good because it imitates God, as it involves harnessing the faculties He’s given us to accomplish something that is useful or beautiful for others. So we ought to perform with excellence for His glory and never with the express purpose of hurting others or to in any way injure their efforts.
On the other hand, noticing the performance of others relative to our own is usually unavoidable. This brings a pair of temptations: jealousy toward those whose accomplishments or stature may (in God’s wisdom) exceed ours, and (its twin) pride toward those whom (by God’s grace) we can serve as examples. The answer is not to pretend everyone is the same. That would be a failure to acknowledge and steward the gifts God has chosen to give you (which may exceed mine).
Instead, we ought to admire, respect and imitate those who are more skilled, experienced or accomplished. By humbly acknowledging their abilities and accomplishments, we can learn from them and, by following their example, become better stewards of our talents (note 1 Corinthians 11:1). Likewise, we should be gracious and humble to those presently less accomplished. In other words, we should recognize that our talents and successes come from God and look for ways to serve others. We should also remember that to whom much is given, much is required, and that — no matter what we’ve done — others out there have achieved even more. So it’s pointless to measure our worth by our accomplishments.
We are all bent to erring on one side or the other: some in laziness or misplaced humility fail to give their best, punching out of work early and not being strategic in the development of skills. Joash struck the ground only three times and was rebuked for stopping so soon (2 Kings 13:18-19). On the other hand, others toil out of pride and greed — motivated by excelling over others for the sake of excelling over others rather than to glorify God, or by the small goals of extra money or time for fruitless entertainment. Selfish competitors can also be tempted to gossip about co-workers or seek to jeopardize their productivity.
Those who are passive, misapplying the truth that “unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain,” fail to exert faith-fueled effort in a skill-based pursuit. The self-reliant, on the other hand, believes the distortion that “God helps those who help themselves.” They are driven by anxiety and self-promotion rather than God-given strength (1 Peter 4:11), the fear of man rather than the love of God, and are characterized by envy and pride, rather than admiration and love for others. The biblical balance is this: God normally works when we work. In humble dependence upon Him who gives life and breath and every good thing, we should exert ourselves with vigor in whatever our hands or minds find to do.
Though man looks on the outward appearance, God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Ultimately, it is our faithfulness that pleases God and puts Him on display. So we should wisely steward our God-given talents for His glory and the good of others. A competitive “marketplace,” under God’s sovereignty, drives us toward greater effectiveness in loving our neighbors by providing better goods and services with which to bless them. And when we love our neighbors in the name of Christ, we love God (Mark 12:29-31). Winning and losing become occasions for sanctifying and strengthening us, making us both more conscious of our sinfulness (jealousy, pride) and more effective in the deployment of our talents in all of our vocational and avocational callings.
Copyright 2007 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College, a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).