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Should Christians Compete?
Posted by Clare
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“Do you think Jesus would have played hockey?”

That’s one of the questions I posed to a young money manager as we were driving to another state.  Tom had played hockey at a Christian college and is one of the kindest men I know.  But, he had been telling me about his son’s team and his coach, who didn’t discourage the boys from “getting physical”.  So that began a long discussion on the nature of competition and the true source of our competitive spirit.

So, I asked another question, “Do you think angels compete with one another?”

Do angels compete?

“I doubt it,” said Tom.  “Why is that?” I asked.  “I can’t imagine angels jockeying for positions to get noticed more by God or to get ahead of each other just to see who’s best.”  “Why can’t you imagine that,” I asked.  “Because there’s no sin in heaven.”  Bingo!

Now before all you red meat loving sports fans, decide to egg my house or post a comment immediately about the benefits of competitive sports or competition in general, please hear me out.  There are plenty of wonderful examples like Tebow, sports evangelists and successful business executives who have used their achievements to great advantage for the kingdom.  And competition does make companies and economies grow and prosper.  My concern is not for the macro good, but for the potential for sin that I believe is at the heart of our drive as individuals to compete with others.

Observation #1 – If there was no sin, there would be no competition to be better than others.

Because we are sinners, we are constantly, consciously and unconsciously evaluating ourselves against others.  Tell me this isn’t true in your life:  We feel superior to others when we do well and we feel less good about ourselves when others do better than us. True?  I’m not talking about simply admiring someone for their skill, which isn’t a sin.  But, it becomes sin when admiration crosses over to the dark side and becomes envy and we want that admiration for ourselves and end up working or playing hard to get it.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” Philippians 2:3

Observation #2 – Our motives for excellence are rarely for the glory of God.

Why did you practice anything hard when you were a child – piano, gymnastics, basketball, math, anything?  Of course it’s possible that you simply wanted to be good at that skill, whether anyone else noticed or not and that – excellence is a worthy and laudable goal.

However, if you’re really honest, that’s probably not what really motivated you.  You hoped others would notice and secretly you really wanted to be better than others at that skill.  That drove you, or your parents to spend hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours pursuing your skill as well as thousands of dollars spent on lessons.  Was all that time and money spent to glorify God or glorify you?  Even if your motives were pure, were your parent’s?

“For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world.” I John 2:16

Observation #3 – The need to do better or be better than others tempts us to do things we would not otherwise do.

For instance, to get an edge on the other person in business, do you find yourself working way more hours than is good for your family to provide a standard of living you really don’t need, but you’ve always dreamed of having?  Do you find yourself occasionally cutting corners ethically to get ahead?  Do you find yourself presenting your company’s products or services as better than they really are, or bad mouthing the competition to make your product or service more attractive?

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Matthew 5:8

Observation #4 – The culture of competition is often antithetical to a Christian worldview.

Does the sports team your child is on, celebrate team work and playing to do their best?  Does their coach make the team feel like winners, even if they lose?  (I know of a sports program at a local Christian high school where every player knows, winning is everything!)  Does their coach openly exhibit the character qualities you want in your child?  Is your child being encouraged to violent or rough behavior, by teammates and coaches?

What effect does losing have on your child after the game?  When you’re not able to attend a game and call or text your child, is one of your first questions, “What was the score?”  What does that question tell them about what’s important to you?

Think of your own experiences growing up.  How much damage has been done to men and women who spent their childhoods driven by parents or constantly being compared to other kids, by their parents?

Please don’t get me wrong.  There are many great reasons for our children to participate in sports – teamwork, exercise, the love of the game and the discipline of practice.  But, the question we always have to ask is this, “Is this activity helping my child (or me) to be more loving, thoughtful, kind – more like Jesus.  That is the goal!

I just can’t think of a single teaching of Jesus urging us to compete with anyone for anything, but the glory of God or for the good of others.  On the other hand, I can think of many teachings of Jesus calling us a revolutionary and completely counter-intuitive way of living, such as: “the first shall be last” and “serve one another”.

Observation #5 – We are influenced more negatively by culture than we realize.

I’ve made a decision to never watch the TV show Survivor.  Why?  Because I’m told that the driving characteristic for the winning participant is that they will do whatever it takes to weed out weaker ones and put together coalitions that ultimately will leave them on top.  I don’t watch these kinds of shows because they don’t encourage any of the characteristics of a true follower of Jesus.  I can’t image watching these shows and not being subtly affected by them and I don’t want my children and grandchildren to think that I value that kind of competition.

“Look not to your own interests but each of you ought to look out for the interests of the others.” Philippians 2:4

Observation #6 – Improving one’s self isn’t a sin.

I have friends who run in races for health reasons and all they care about is improving their own time.  Other friends lift weights and their only measure is their own personal strengthening.  If you can play a sport and when you’re done, win or lose you’ve had a good time, you probably don’t have a problem, so relax and enjoy yourself.

My Conclusion: A Christian’s goal should be excellence – not competition. Excellence says that I want to use all the gifts given by me to make God look good and life better for others.  Competition tempts us to make ourselves look better, often at the expense of others.

In one sense, a Christian does compete against selfishness, greed, evil, injustice, laziness and mediocrity.  And it’s true; we’re to wrestle against Satan, his demons and all forms of evil.  To that kind of battle, we’ve been called.  Eric Liddell, in Chariots of Fire said it well, “When I run I feel God’s pleasure”.  If the primary reason you or your children compete is the pleasure of God, bless you.  But, then you’re a better man than I am.  If I’m totally honest, it’s rare that my competitive spirit is that selfless.  That’s why I have to remind myself constantly of this:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Colossians 3:1-2

Questions:  So do you believe Jesus would play competitive sports?  If he did, how would he do it differently than most of us do, and do you think that would hurt his “win” record?

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Comments (9)
  1. Duane said...

    Thanks for uncovering another blind spot. Competition/sports are such a part of our culture, I rarley give thought to what it does to me or what I am teaching my kids. As you pointed out so well, its not that they are bad in and of themselves but as with so many other things, its our hearts and motives that can pollute. It only took until Genesis 4 to see what competition (envy) did to Cain. And even Jesus disciples jockeyed for position and they lived with the Master.

    To answer you question, I think if Jesus did participate in Sports it would look like the following story I heard a few years ago. Always interesting how God uses the”least” among us to teach us. Sorry, a couple paragraphs but good story:

    Crossing the Finish Line Together

    Based on a true story which happened at the 1976 Special Olympics in Seattle, Washington.

    Years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants lined up at the starting line for the 100 yard dash. At the sound of the starting gun, they all started off in their own way, making their best effort to run down the track toward the finish line. That is, except for the one young boy who stumbled soon after his start, tumbled to the ground and began to cry. Two of the other racers, hearing the cries of the boy who fell, slowed down and looked back at him. Then without hesitation, they turned around and began running in the other direction—toward the injured boy.

    While the other contestants struggled to make it to the finish line, the two who had turned around to run in the other direction reached for the boy and helped him to his feet. All three of them then linked arms and together they walked to the finish line. By the time the trio reached the end, everyone in the stands was standing and cheering, some with tears rushing down their faces. Even though by turning back and helping the boy who fell, they lost their own chance to win the race, they all had smiles on their faces because they knew they had done the right thing.

    • admin said...

      Your story caught the spirit of true Christian “competition”. Thanks.

  2. Mike said...

    Clare, great insight as always…

    I believe it is often difficult to separate competitiveness from doing one’s best. And yet we are specifically called to do our best. But as you point out, the real issue is “who” are you doing it for.

    As I tell my children, there are only two things within your control — Your decisions (before something happens)and your reactions (after something happens). This is especially true in “competitive situations”. As such, in our home we often quote Colossians 3:23-24 — “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

    Thanks for your work, Clare!

    • Clare said...

      Mike, I love the “two things” lesson you’ve taught your kids. I plan on plagiarizing that in the future.

  3. Mike Holton said...

    Find myself wishing after I read these that we were sitting over a cup of coffee so we could discuss. I think there is some level of self consciousness in having responses reviewed by others….hate that kind of self conscious behavior…so I am going to try and respond as if we were having a cup of coffee together. I appreciate you sharing your time and “laying yourself out there,” to do this and creating some healthy spiritual and personal reflection. I had some different thoughts that came quickly to mind. First, the “upside down,” (or right side up) world of Christ where surrender is the way to victory…try that speech in a locker room at half-time. Reminded me also of last weeks discussion on being Christ – led at work and “leading.” I got lost in self-advancement vs. advancing the organization. I was competing for the next something. Unfortunately, this is what many organizations promote and who they promote. I also had the thought or impression that churches compete…who can be the biggest. some of this is good but I think some of it is also driven by some of the same behavior that creates the sin in competition, selfish ambition, ego-centered needs for power, control and recognition, etc. I’m thinking that Jesus would jump right into a game and try and show us how to play if it might open someones eyes and heart. Thank God he never gave up and competed with Satan for my soul and so many others. Do you think he has a victory dance all rehearsed for the “end zone?”

  4. Dwight said...


    Your post this week hits a nerve that many of us men, in particular, wrestle with- Significance. Or wait, is it Success? Best explanation I read one time contrasting the difference: success is doing things that benefit self. Significance is doing things that benefit others.

    Our culture encourages success based on that definition. The key for us then, as Christians, is Where do we derive our significance from? If we can answer that, it will answer how we conduct ourselves on the playing field of life. Matt 6:21~ Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.

    Motivation is everything. That’s why we as men need to give permission to other men in an accountability setting to question our motives. Left unchecked, we all eventually spiral downward into self-gratification and unhealthy relationships that steer people away from Christ. We just get creative in hiding it under the veneer of pride.

    By the way, I wanted to clear something up you asked at the beginning. Jesus would definitely play hockey! I didn’t know there were other sports!

    • Clare said...

      Anyone who thinks Jesus would have played hockey should’ve worn his helmet more. (I hope you have a good sense of humor!)

  5. Dwight said...

    Yeah, I grew up in the era where helmets were optional. I’m paying the price for it today as well as my wife and kids 🙂 Now my twin boys on the other hand, I’m trying to teach them to avoid the stupid things dad did growing up. I’ll keep you posted on that one.
    One more thing, as I think you reside in Michigan, Jesus would never play for the Red Wings. The Blackhawks? Now that’s a different story.

  6. Nick said...

    “But, then you’re a better man than I am. If I’m totally honest, it’s rare that my competitive spirit is that selfless.” I don’t think this is a good argument because your competitive spirit is like any sinful thing that you have to change from I want to beat my opponent to I want to play with them. I also don’t think this works because a competitive spirit could and does come out of people in Church, in business, at school, and pretty much anything. But we will not stop going to church, school, and work. I believe you can play a sport without the kind of competitive spirit that is sinful. Just like us Christians sometimes have to suppress our anger to avoid sin, I believe the same can be done with competitiveness to enjoy a ball game with friends. Just remember it’s a game. Thank you.

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