What place does competition have in the life of a Christian?
“Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.” 2 Timothy 2:5
Growing up intimately involved in the football and sports world, it can be difficult, when describing to non-sporty friends what about competition matters. What drives or attracts someone, without a specific physical prize insight to press in with all of their might? Isn’t the very concept of the contest, in a sense, bad or wrong? To which I’ve had to ask in response: If there were a pickup game of soccer in a field with kids, would our Jesus in the flesh go and join?
Would Jesus hold back and let someone beat him, would he be unafraid to express a skill? He spent his time with a ragtag group of apostles – rough men – fishermen and carpenters of the ancient world. Certainly, competitive men, at that, considering they at one point were caught arguing which was the better among them before God!
When we ask these questions, sometimes, it seems, we treat ‘variations’ in our gifts as an evil thing, rather than, a beautiful thing. We sometimes make it sound like a small failure says something about us overall, rather than, where we are now and where we are able to go.
Competition and the Spiritual Man
Is there a place for competition in the development and life of the spiritual man?
According to the Timothy verse at the top, there is indeed a spiritual concept, to finish the race of this life faithfully unto the Lord. He is the one who has finished and completed this work as evidenced by Hebrews 12:2 referring to Jesus as the “author and perfecter” or as some versions put it, “finisher” of our faith. His death finished the race for us and is living it out through us by the power of His Spirit.
It’s nice to have a guarantee! Isn’t it?! We have that when we see the Spirit moving, breathing, living in us, as Romans 8 says, he is our guarantee – and those who are putting to death the deeds of their flesh, reveal this reality existing in them. But, we still do indeed run in this life, as Hebrews 10:36 says,
“for you have need for endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise…”
It is true that the race is in a very real sense already completed, my life is hidden in His, and true eternal life only exists in Him, “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Romans 9:16 NASB). Yet, this faith, if true, will be under the stadium lights of this life, and will be tested and proven like that of fire upon dross or gold. The first burns away, the second, shows itself, even more, to be metallic and pure.
Peter talks about the testing of our faith through the stadium lights of this life in this way, 1 Peter 1:5-7 ESV:
“…who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
This competition we face in this life is one where we are guaranteed to be carried through, for those on the winning team. So the question remains, is there a place for Christians to compete in this life? And when does it go too far?
A place for Christians to compete in this life?
I think the how far should this go tends to be more obvious and plain when looking at Jesus. I can’t imagine the depth of the sigh Jesus would have if he were to watch proclaimed Christians mistreating their kids due to an Alabama football loss. Imagine him watching someone throwing up their fist during a Flyers hockey game and banging the plastic walls in excitement — but in church silent as a fruit fly! Which competition consumes us? Where do our thoughts dwell most? There is your treasure!
A good indicator for us should be when we are not in the fruits of the Spirit as spelled out in Galatians 5, if competition drives me to hate my brother then it is evil and not from God. If competition causes a restlessness that drives out an ability to be comforted from above, perhaps, we are being distracted spiritually? Yea? If competition causes me to put aside from running the race from above and I “can’t find the time” to get away with God – like ever – or with community, perhaps, the law degree I’m competing for is getting to the point of unhealthy.
It’s important to face this in ourselves, and not look away so quickly. It’s important to be willing to follow the Spirit and see it situation to situation, there are seasons in life, the season just shouldn’t encapsulate your life. And we can certainly overestimate our own abilities, can’t we? How easy it is to forget that we have need. And how easy to forget an eternal perspective! We need daily reminders.
The whole of our faith is to press against self-reliance and to leap off the cliff face into God-reliance. Community, the team, therefore, can help us in discerning these moments, always rooting our thoughts in verses.
When is competition godly and good?
When is competition — godly and good, or, to put it in Pauline language – helpful or beneficial? Or an ability within us to foster?
As I write and have discussed the topic with various individuals, the common denominator that tends to come up is the concept of facing challenges, and a willingness to jump into the arena of challenge. It is incentivizing oneself; to see one’s own shortcomings and to face them – to see the man in the mirror – and to have reference points for doing so.
Show me a man strong in the things of the Lord and I will show you someone who has been broken through suffering and caused to stand back up again time and time again.
The old-time University of Michigan football legend Fielding H. Yost, who had first brought the great winning tradition to the university boasted a 165-29-10 record. Famous for bringing the phrase “football builds character” into the public realm, Yost believed competitive drive or the virtue of “spirit” had everything to do with life and character.
He famously said it this way,
“… no man can be a football player who does not love the game. Half-heartedness or lack of earnestness will eliminate any man from a football team. The love of the game must be genuine. It is not devotion to a fad that makes men play football; it is because they enjoy their struggle.”
Enjoying one’s struggle.
No greater skill have I learned in weight training, soccer, dive team, or school debates — learning to embrace the process, the trial, and to look at the man in the mirror. To develop a love for discipline and training – pushing oneself beyond what they believe is possible within themselves.
Perhaps competition is not always about competing against anyone else, but about ourselves, ultimately. If we can foster that love – and see with the eyes of Christ – then, something is truly gained. We learn to run the long-distance run, to fight beyond what we could imagine, and to press in and press in – when our body wrongly says ‘no.’ To ‘enjoy’ your ‘struggle’ with the end [crown] always in mind.
“Champions are built on a 1,000 invisible mornings.”