Friday, March 11, 2011

A Biblical View of Competition

I love to compete. Whether it is a friendly game of Trivial Pursuit, a fierce battle of ping pong, or a barbershop singing contest, I love the rush of adrenalin that comes from matching wits and skill with someone else. But I also love the Lord, and His word is clear that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Taking delight in crushing someone else hardly seems consistent with the selflessness to which Christ calls His people. So how should Christians view competition? Is it possible to reconcile the competitive spirit with the Holy Spirit?

The Bible frequently uses athletic imagery to describe the discipline and determination we need to serve the Lord. The ancient city of Corinth hosted a prominent athletic festival, which may explain why the apostle Paul used running and boxing to illustrate the self-control demanded by Christianity:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
“Run that you may obtain it.” Run to win! This kind of language only makes sense to me if the apostle believed there was a way to reconcile competition with consecration. But how?
Here is the key. Competition can be God-honoring, as long as we understand that competition is not an end. It is a means to an end, and that end is to glorify God and not ourselves.
The objective of competition is to glorify God – that is the purpose of everything we do. The Bible says, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). My mission as a human being is to magnify the God who made me, using the blessings He has given me. Competition is a vehicle for the exaltation of God. But it can be easily distorted into an avenue for arrogance, and once that happens, the true honor of competition is lost.
The way that I glorify God is by making the very most of the gifts He has entrusted to me, such as my talents and opportunities. In a different context, the Bible exhorts Christians, “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). While this text had specific application to servants in ancient households, the fundamental premise is broadly applicable. Give everything you can – “heartily” – for the Lord. And here is where competition serves its unique role. Competing with someone else brings out the best in us, and our best is precisely what we all should give the Lord!
From this point of view, the real measure of victory is not necessarily a score or a medal. Michael Jordan would beat me a million straight games of one-on-one – but what would be the point? He could beat me without breaking a sweat. I break into a sweat typing! The real issue is not what a scoreboard or a judging panel says. The real issue is, have I used what God has given me the very best that I can to glorify Him.
Jesus told a story about three men who were given various sums of money (Matthew 25:14-30). The first man was given five shares, the second man two shares, and the third man one share. When their master called them to account, the first man reported that he had increased his account to ten shares, pleasing the master. The second man’s account had also doubled, once more to the delight of his master. But the third man did nothing with his money, and his master was furious. He wasn’t angry because the man only had one share, but because he didn’t do anything with what he had been given.
The “scoreboard” read 10-4-1. But the spiritual reality was winner-winner-loser. I have been in contests in which I have outscored others, but in reality, I lost – because I did not maximize my potential. This understanding of competition dramatically readjusts the way I define victory.
This also transforms my attitude toward other competitors, particularly if they outscore me. If competition is God-centered, then I can rejoice in the success of others as long as I know I have given all I can to glorify God. If I make the most of the two shares of talent God has given me, and someone else does the same with the five shares of talent bestowed to them, praise the Lord! A person who resents the success of others is self-centered, and destined to a lifetime of misery.
So if you are a barbershopper preparing for spring prelims, my admonition to you is (paraphrasing Paul), “Sing to win!” Just remember what winning really is. It is not competing against someone else, but with someone else, in order to extract the very best you have, to the glory of God.
"Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine,
Let every game's end find you still upon the battling line;
For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game."
From Alumnus Football, by Grantland Rice

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