Over the last week the topic of competitiveness and Christian living has come up at a weekly men's group that I am a part of. I was surprised that almost the entire group had a different opinion than I did, so I did some research and wrote a brief paper that summarized my thoughts. I thought I'd share it here now. So enjoy!!
Can a Christian be competitive?
Dealing with the question of competitiveness and Christianity: are the two mutually exclusive. The actual question that started it all is as follows: Is there ever a time that having a competitive nature is a good thing? It then evolved through discussion to “Is competitiveness compatible with the Christian life?” and “Was Jesus competitive?” While this response is not exhaustive or technically “scholarly” in nature (I borrow heavily from Bill Luganbill and do not use MLA citations or anything), I will put forward the idea that competitiveness is compatible with the Christian life if a person 1) Understands what is meant by Christian competitiveness and 2) Utilizes their skills, as in all things, to glorify God.
Lets first start with a definition. In a strict sense, the definition of the word “competition” is the act of competing for supremacy or a prize. In sociological terms, competition is rivalry between two or more persons or groups for an object desired in common, usually resulting in a victor and a loser but not necessarily involving the destruction of the latter. This can easily go down the road of God vs. Satan (aka 1 Peter 5:8 where the devil is described as an “adversary”). Realistically, from Gen 3:15 through the entire drama of Scripture you see an adversarial relationship between the flesh and the Spirit; or Jacob who wrestled with God; or the Elijah example we discussed; or the genealogy of the 12 tribes of Israel, etc. But I will keep this more focused on the day to day topics we were discussing on Tuesday and leave the deeper theological topics for another day.
We would all agree that as Christians we should all strive to do our best. Whether you look at Eph 6, Colossians 3, or this passage from 1 Peter 2:
18 Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.
The problem is our understanding of the word. "Competition" in the sense we mean it today is a concept for which it is difficult to find exact parallels for in Biblical times. Here is an example from Bob Luganbill of how we can draw an analogous example for the sake of understanding:
“…in the US we often say something is "a challenge" when we are really trying to put a positive spin on a negative development - the task at hand is more daunting than usual, but in our optimistic approach to things we try to look at the enjoyment and satisfaction that may be involved in solving a particularly difficult problem rather than at the mess we may be in. As far as I am aware, there is no comparable concept to "challenge" in this sense in other languages/cultures (not even in French, for example, where the root word for "challenge" comes from). That is not to say that other languages/cultures wouldn't understand what we are talking about once it is explained, but it does mean that we often take for granted that certain ideas or ways of looking at the world which are second-nature to us will of course be familiar to others as well. That is not the case in the modern world, and it is even a less reliable guide when looking at the ancient world.”
So just because something exists in our language, but does not exactly exist in another does not mean it does not exist. It also does not mean that it is wrong. In like manner, there is no direct equivalent vocabulary item in either ancient Greek or Hebrew, and no exact conceptual equivalent either for what is meant by "competition". A more closely related equivalent (and where my mind directly went on the topic) is the clear cultural predisposition toward excellence (the Greek arete is a very close match). But even though the structure of Greek and Roman athletics, as a point of comparison, allows for one "winner", the idea is still more focused upon the bestowing of excellence (or the proving of excellence already there) through the process of the games. (This for the record goes far beyond simple cooperation, or Christian helping which was proposed in class.) When I speak of the notion of competition, I speak of a “do your best”, “give it all you got” approach to your life. This is a noble view of competition as a process whereby it is the one or ones with true heart who work the hardest and persevere when the going gets tough who win out (or should win out) in the end. This aspect or notion of competition is one that is not unparalleled or lacking in scripture:
Don't you know that all the runners in the stadium run the race, but that only one receives the prize? Run in such a way so as to achieve what you are after. And again, everyone involved in competition (agonizomenos, i.e., participating in the agon or contest) exercises self-control in all respects. Those athletes go through such things so that they may receive a perishable crown of victory, but we do it to receive an imperishable one. So as I run this race of ours, I'm heading straight for the finish line; and as I box this bout of ours, I'm making every punch count. I'm "pummeling my body", one might say, bringing myself under strict control so that, after having preached [the gospel] to others, I might not myself be disqualified [from receiving the prize we all seek]. 1st Corinthians 9:24-27
There is a huge difference between a Biblical competitive nature and that which is found in secular society today (which is true of several other items as well). In the example given by Paul above, the athletes are all striving for a single prize which only one of them can possibly receive (so that the efforts of the many are futile). Furthermore, the thing they are striving for is ultimately pointless as well, because like all things in this world of emptiness, it will soon turn to dust. In the Christian life, on the other hand, the prizes we win by running for Christ are eternal and will ever be wonderful, and, since there is no shortage of heavenly treasure, we are not excluding others by our positive achievements. Quite to the contrary, our rewards are achieved in large part after personal spiritual growth by assisting in the process of the spiritual growth of our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that far from "winning away" rewards from them, we win our rewards by helping them win theirs:
Now therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast and immovable, abounding in the work of the Lord at all times, for you know that our labor is not in vain in the Lord. 1st Corinthians 15:58
So you see, the fact that there is a “reward “awaiting a Christian is a motivating factor, much like a competition. It is this "strive for excellence" element that is meant by Biblical competition, it is not at all competitive in the sense of succeeding at the expense of other believers (or of an opposing Church soccer team!). Both sides of this equation are important. Again to quote Luganbill:
Just as it would be a horrendous mistake to assume, for example, that it is the relative "success of my church/ministry/etc." which is the measure by which God will judge my work (i.e., pulling in more bodies than other churches/ministries), so it is likewise incorrect to assume that since there is no believer to believer competition for something tangible here on earth that we are therefore supposed to relax and not be motivated to strive for excellence. Each of these misapplications of scripture has its own pitfalls. We should ever be lending our fellow believers a hand up, but not allow anyone "to pull us down" into a lukewarm approach to our service to the Lord (1Cor.15:33). We should set a zealous example, and we should be stirred by the godly zeal and good example of others (Heb.12:1).
Ultimately, (in my opinion) there is nothing wrong with goodhearted competition in the pursuit of excellence. Competition becomes a problem; however, when our wins determine our worth.
As for the aspect of “winning at all costs”, which in business terms is sometimes described as social Darwinism, lets take again from Luganbill:
This notion of the active striving and triumphing of the superior person is most closely mirrored in scripture by the Greek word eritheia and its cognates, a word group expressing the idea of "striving", "rivalry", "ambition" and "contentiousness". This is forbidden Christians both directly (2Cor.12:20; Gal.5:20; Jas.3:14-16) and indirectly (Rom.2:8; Phil.1:17): Let nothing be done through strife (eritheia) or vainglory, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Philippians 2:3
While I believe this is the perception of competition that the group first jumped too, it is not the view of competition that first came to my mind.
Paul also says that he is pressing "toward the mark (i.e., the finish line on the race course; Gk. skopos) for the prize of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ" (Phil.3:14). These two passages make it clear that it is not the effort in what we consider competition that is the problem - the effort should be there for believers who are aflame for Jesus Christ rather than lukewarm - but rather the problem is pride:
any selfishness which seeks advantage, attention, glory for oneself, and is not first and foremost concerned with the welfare and spiritual advance of one's fellow Christians. Since, as I say, it is precisely by helping one another that we achieve the rewards we seek, seeking gain of any kind for ourselves and to the detriment of our brothers and sisters while in this world is a fundamentally flawed and wrong-headed approach which will yield only "wood, hay and stubble" at the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ (1Cor.3:10-15). It is in fact legitimate to "provoke" one another to love (Heb.12:3-4) and to acts of love (2Cor.9:2). What is wrong is to seek advantage for self (Phil.2:4). What is wrong is selfishness (1Cor.13:5). And that is the essence of the matter.
The way that I see is that the "spirit" of competition is a good thing when properly directed…which is true of most things when viewed through the lens of Jesus Christ. If we are truly striving to do our best for the glory of Jesus Christ, then that will turn out for the benefit of our fellow Christians who are aided by our efforts for His Church. And if we are truly striving to be the best we can be for Jesus Christ, then we give a positive example for our brothers and sisters to follow and does not disadvantage them in any way.
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works.
Seeing the strong race that others are running, is spiritually beneficial in every way. It is a true competitive Spirit in a Biblical sense. Inordinate secular competition in economic, political or sports terms is pointless in every way if that is all that one is consumed with, as not a few of the scriptures proclaim :
And I saw that all labor and achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Ecclesiastes 4:4
“The scriptures declare that "as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Prov.27:17). When we run with the best, we become better runners. Only let our running not be in vain. Let us run on the right course, with the right fellow runners, toward the right goal, and for the right prize. As Christians, we must learn to turn that innate spirit of competitiveness toward good uses, looking forward to a good report of our running from our Lord on that day to come. May it not be said that we ran for ourselves, but for Him and His Church, and that we ran as hard and as well as we could.” At the end of the day, as with everything else, if competition consumes you or draws you away from your walk, then it’s a bad thing. However, striving for excellence using the gifts Our Father has given us, and ultimately recognizing Him in all we do, I do not believe is incompatible with the Christian life or Christian worldview. To answer the initial question: Yes, there are times that having a competitive nature can be a good thing.