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Should Christians Compete?

“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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